Reportage / 21 October 2019

Separate and Shut Out

On the Rapid Fortification of Walls Across the Globe

Three years ago, Neuperlach, a sleepy suburb of Munich, caught the media's attention. A refugee home had been built to provide shelter for young asylum seekers.A low, white modular houses and a townhouse as neighbours. It was autumn 2016 and the German notion of Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture), which has emerged during the great refugee immigration in the summer before, had turned into suspicion and fear. And not only in Germany. The funds for the EU border and coast guard agency, Frontex, increased. In several parts of the Schengen area, border controls were reintroduced at the so-called ‘internal borders’ between the member countries. And along vast distances, barbed wire was rolled out through European landscape.

Europe and its nations entrenched themselves.

In the townhouse area of Neuperlach, the residents had protested against the refugee home ever since it was only a draft on the government's drawing board back in 2014. Unaccompanied. 160 of them. If nothing else, it would threaten the peace of the leafy neighbourhoods, a handful of neighbours thought, and required noise protection.

The authorities complied and erected a four-metre-high wall against the white modular houses with their Mediterranean-blue shutters. Gabions for 200,000 Euro. Four metres in height, two in width. These stone-filled cages, which are staple commodity in road construction and landscaping, were originally designed for military fortification. In national and international media, these cages became the ‘refugee wall of Neuperlach’. A stump of 40 metres that cuts between us and them with such shameless clarity that it verges on the bizarre.

Even the residents of the townhouses were shaken by the brutal apparition.

When I visit the place in mid-July this year, the wall is covered with thick greenery. An aesthetic measure. Which also prevents the gabions from being used for ball games.

No noise is likely to reach the townhouses. Even without a wall. An area with shrubs and trees, an overgrown railway track, as well as a pedestrian and cycling path runs between the stacked stone baskets and the plots with their hedges and sheds. This buffer zone at an estimated 30 metres, a no man's land for secretly smoking teenagers, was obviously sufficient to wall off the workshops and small businesses that surround the new neighbours. 

These in turn have a recycling center just on their doorstep. No wall has been erected against it. An existing fence was enough to separate the refugee home against the rows of orange containers. Building scrap, home appliances and a variety of problem waste can be thrown here – from car batteries and spray bottles to asbestos and cyanide.


When the Berlin Wall fell exactly 30 years ago, there were twelve national walls left in the world. A world without borders was predicted, when liberal globalism would prevail over protectionist nationalism. That didn't happen. Today, the walls on the borders have raised to 70, according to Elisabeth Vallet, a Canadian professor of geopolitics, who first began to systematically calculate border fortifications of this kind around the world. Not even during the Cold War were walls erected as quickly as during the last 20 years, she notes in the foreword to the anthology Border, Fences and Walls from 2014.

India, Israel, China, Egypt, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Botswana and a number of other countries have, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, fortified their borders with more or less permeable bulwarks. Some of them were intended to be built in the 1990s already. But it is mainly after 11 September 2001, that the number of border walls has increased almost exponentially, according to Vallet's research. In the last decade with an explosive increase also in the liberal west.

‘My Europe does not build walls’, the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Löfven, said in a speech on 6 September 2015. Only a few months later, Sweden manifested its borders with a fence between the railway tracks at Copenhagen Airport to prevent immigrants from crossing the tracks to get to the train that goes to Sweden. Similar barriers soon followed on the train platform at the first stop on the Swedish side.

That same autumn I travelled several times by bus between Budapest and Belgrade. I could never get used to the sight of a shiny new barbed wire, rolled out along an earthy strip dug up at Hungary's border with Serbia. There was an abandoned duty-free shop between the two countries' passport checks. Its decay – a symbol of how the border crossing has shifted in importance and has become a threat instead of being a means of unification.

Similar barbed wire fences have been erected during the same period along Bulgaria's border with Turkey, Austria's border with Slovenia and Norway's border with Russia. In total, 13 border barriers were erected in Europe during the 2010s, ten of them during the last five years of the decade, according to the report ‘Building Walls’ by the Spanish peace research centre, Center Delàs.

At the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump launched as one of his main electoral pledge a reinforcement of the wall along the Mexican border, a border that the United States has been working to fortify since 1990.

Common to the new national walls is not that they are raised as a defence against other states, but as protection against, above all, non-state actors, such as various human groups, movements, goods and organisations. This is pointed out by the American political scientist Wendy Brown in her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Since it was released in 2010, it has become something of a pioneer work for the growing body of theory around the rapid emergence of the new walls.

Wendy Brown's thesis is that the new walls are a sign that the Westphalian order is under threat. The Westphalian order is the principle of each state's exclusive sovereignty over its own territory. This agreement, which political scientists usually trace back to the end of the Thirty Years' War and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, is being bypassed by an increasingly global order, where transnational flows of money, people, ideas, goods and even violence create a new, post-national logic.

In this context, a wall is a sign of the declining power of the nation-state, not only in a purely political context, but also socially and psychologically, Brown writes. It thus plays a far more complex role than its brutal and simple architecture. That the state is losing its exclusive right to the concept of sovereignty is something that the Cameroonian historian, Achille Mbembe, has described as an emasculation of the state, a process that is often compensated by phallic militarism and extensive fetishization of weapons. The wall appears to be a related fetish, promising restored state potency, Brown writes. At the same time, walls, fences or rather any form of marked boundary are purely a prerequisite for law and order in its most fundamental form, she continues, recalling how a number of political philosophers, from Rousseau to Carl Schmitt, have pointed at the act of fencing off a plot as a basic act of civilisation. A thought that directly challenges advocates of a global democracy without borders.

Walls cannot block out without shutting in. In 2008, German historian Greg Eghigian coined the concept ‘homo munitus’ to describe the conformist, passive, paranoid and predictable mentality that was cultivated by the people who lived behind the Berlin Wall on the East German side. Munitus refers to ‘munire’, Latin for ‘fortify’, ‘secure’, ‘defend’. A kind of ‘wall humans’ which, according to Wendy Brown, in turn, are reminiscent of exactly the type of de-individualised subjects that the walls of today are built to protect from. Vamik Volkan, a Turkish-Cypriot psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, reasoned in a similar way when he, last winter, said to The New Yorker that the new walls are ‘a psychological illusion’ that rather underscores and worsens the identity crisis that they are meant to resolve.

The wall thus takes on a reverse function. And instead of protecting open societies, it generates a crouching way of life – psychologically, socially and politically. 


White sheets are hung out to dry outside the refugee residence in Neuperlach. There were no unaccompanied youths, this politically charged group of vulnerable people, but women who had either moved on their own from their home countries or left their husbands in Germany.

Graffiti from past protests protruded under the greenery, large, red letters painted on the stones before vegetation took over.

An atmosphere of shame lies over the neighbourhood.

‘There were some who wanted noise protection, and so the city builds a wall’, says a woman who lives in the outer part of the townhouse area. She and her husband have made the decision not to talk about the green wall that can be seen between the trees beyond the cycle path. At least not with the press.

It became too much, they were painted as Nazis, she says. And with the people in the refugee home the other side, there are no problems anyway.

‘Walls create strangers’. When the leaves fall, the red text that extends along one side of the wall will become visible again.

The Berlin Wall has been called a manifestation of a manic-depressive psychosis. ‘Insanely sick’, former Swedish minister of international development, Carin Jämtin, once said about Israel's so-called security barrier on the West Bank.

The wall in Neuperlach? Nuts, maybe. A confused, yet dangerous caricature of the psychological and political processes that underlie a global and increasingly intense tendency: To separate, to raise walls and to shut out.


Arvid Jurjaks

Arvid Jurjaks is a Swedish journalist, since 2015 based in Berlin. He contributes regularly in the Swedish daily newspapers HD-Sydsvenskan and Dagens Nyheter, where he mainly writes about culture and politics.