On August 13, 1961, Germany woke up to a terrifying truth: the world was physically split in two. 56 years have passed since the Berlin Wall was built. It is considered one of the biggest mistakes of the last century. Needless to say that the Berliners have been in everyone’s hearts for over thirty years. But as it often happens with history, we do not seem to be able to learn from it. Especially not today. And not America.
Let’s dive into the literary world around the Iron Curtain and land on a masterpiece of German literature: Der Geteilte Himmel, second novel by the famous DDR writer Christa Wolf first put out in 1963.
Finally published in English in 1976, Divided Heaven is first and foremost a love story, and yet so much more. As the rest of Wolf’s production, it is a mirror of human and social fears and commitments. And never ceases to be relevant. Rita and Manfred fall in love and at the end of the 50’s start a life together in East Berlin. While in the novel she is studying to be a teacher and he works as a chemist, allegorically they both represent an ideology. But not the same one. Manfred, with his desire to flee beyond the Wall to a better social and scientific community, represents the capitalism. Rita, on the other hand, believes the socialist model will work. She involuntarily becomes the devil’s advocate, trying to save herself from the materialistic and perfectly packaged American world. So after Manfred runs away, they both try to convince the other to step to the “right” side of the Iron Curtain.
The novel’s title comes from its most famous scene. During their last meeting in West Berlin, Manfred comments with bitter irony Germany’s situation. Split by a wall, just like the two of them. But at least no one could ever split heaven, not even socialism. Rita does not agree. Heaven is irremediably split in two. And it’s Manfred, with his western dreams, to have split it, not politics.
I believe that with Rita’s final line Wolf wants to underline the human and personal engagement into the Wall. Politics does not erect walls, people do. Just like the Wall did not magically appeared out of thin air. It was built. Again by men, not politics. Divided Heaven is only one drop in the ocean of novels settled around the Iron Curtain, but yet so different. Just like in Medea and Kassandra, Wolf makes historical awareness the main character and brings the reader’s focus on men’s guilt.
That same year also saw president J.F. Kennedy give his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech. On June 26, 1963, the thirty-fifth president of the United States stood up on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg to fight for freedom.
“Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.” […] Lass’ sic nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. […] Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”
Berlin, with its history of pain and suffering, touched us all. And still does. Just like Rita and Manfred and the sky over their heads split forever. If we could go back in time, I am sure nobody would build that wall again.
And yet today, 54 years later, Kennedy’s successor wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico. Not to keep people in. To keep them out. On January 28th, Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller pled Trump not to go ahead with his vicious plan:
“Berlin, the city of a divided Europe, the city of a free Europe, cannot stay silent when a country plans to erect a new wall. […] I appeal to the President of the United States not to go along this tortuous path of isolation and exclusion. […] And so I say: Dear Mr. President, don’t build this wall!”
Back in the 60’s we supported people like Rita and Manfred, our hearts beat as one. The whole world rejoiced with them when the Wall was torn down. So what if the main characters of Divided Heaven were in fact called Teresa and Manuel? Manuel, the chemist, would only dream of trespassing the wall. Move to America, the promised land with good jobs and plenty of food on the table, and raise their children in a free country full of opportunities. But Teresa is scared, she is not sure about this big step. There is nothing worse than being in a country where no one wants you, where you will always be shed aside. Does she really want to live among people who wanted that terrible wall? Is she ready to leave her family, friends and home for good?
Even if with a different setting, different languages and people, the core of the novel would always be the same. The human guilt, the shadow of the Wall. Because no Wall builds itself.