Border walls and fortified frontiers count among the most visible and painful reminders of the limits of globalization. They reify national divisions, impede migration and the flow of goods, and have become symbols of populist, exclusionary politics. At the beginning of the 21st century, border walls are more frequently erected than at any other time in modern history. Yet, as participants of the conference demonstrated, such walls have a long and multi-faceted history, which can enrich our contemporary analysis of walls as both physical and symbolic constructs. The online workshop hosted by Göttingen University was both international and interdisciplinary, bringing together scholars from archeology and history as well as international relations and political sciences. Going beyond recent scholarship on borderlands and cross-border exchanges, the contributions here shared a close attention to the walls themselves, to border practices and to the political and cultural implications of frontier divisions.
The first day of the conference was devoted to long-term perspectives on border walls, analyzing their contemporary functions as well as their historical legacies. From the Roman Limes to the Great Wall of China, ancient walls have served as reference points for later fortification projects, even if their complex history was rarely appreciated. In his introduction, JOHANNES BERGEMANN (Göttingen) stressed the multiplicity of functions of such walls which were typically erected for strategic and defensive purposes, but also helped to create identities and often left lasting legacies. In ancient Greece, he pointed out, even city walls were relatively rare, and prominent examples of walls, such as the long wall connecting Athens with its port, were usually the consequence of warfare. Migration control, by contrast, was never a rationale behind Greek walls, and Bergemann stressed the complementary function of law rather than physical frontiers in regulating migration in Greek societies.
It was large empires rather than city states that produced the most enduring examples of border walls in the ancient world, which often served to define the frontiers of civilization in the minds of contemporaries. SEBASTIAN SOMMER (Munich) discussed Roman border fortifications from Hadrian’s wall in Northern England to the Dacian Limes in Southeastern Europe. The function of these fortifications varied and at least for portions of the Limes symbolic purpose appears to have outweighed strategic considerations. In these cases, building a wall was motivated by interior politics, allowing emperors to signal their commitment to protecting Rome and its people.
While there was relatively little evidence of heavy trading along the German Limes, early Chinese walls were built around trade and exchange, as NICOLA DI COSMO (Princeton) argued. New archaeological evidence suggests that the Chinese wall to the North initially did not represent a clear boundary between Chinese and Steppe populations. Rather, these early walls appear to have served as a conduit for commerce and communication built by rival Chinese states interested in protecting their trade and economic interests from each other. Only with the unification of the Chinese empire after 221 BCE did the walls begin to serve as frontiers in a narrower sense.
Frontiers, of course, did not always manifest themselves as physical walls, which in medieval and early modern Europe were more likely associated with city limits rather than territorial boundaries. Even seemingly “civilizational” divides could become grounds for cultural hybridization and exchange, as CARMEN CABALLERO NAVAS (Granada) showed with regard to the shifting and porous borders between Christian and Islamic lands in medieval Iberia. The advancing Christian frontier was more permeable to migration and trade than often assumed, she argued, highlighting in particular the example of travelling medical professionals.
Looking at Europe’s eastern border during the early modern era, by contrast, EGIDIO IVETIC (Padua) stressed the symbolic construction of various states (from Venice to Austria, Hungary and Naples) as “bulwarks” protecting European Christianity against the perceived threat of the Ottoman Empire and Muslim invaders. Heavily militarized borders in the Balkans took on a meaning that far transcended the local in building European identities. His talk not only underscored the long-lasting symbolism of Europe’s Southeastern border which once again occupied the news during the recent migration crisis. It also highlighted the often contradictory evaluations of borders: what appears as a bulwark from one perspective can seem like an existential threat from another vantage point.
ILARIA POGGILIONI (Pavia) introduced the second day of the conference, which focused on walls in the 20th and 21st centuries. She pointed to the idea of a “cordon sanitaire” as discussed at Versailles after World War I as a suitable starting point for theorizing border walls in the 20th century. The notion reflected both the modern concept of the nation state and the emergence of stark ideological divides as factors in border construction which ultimately gave rise to the image of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
The Berlin Wall, the most iconic example of a border wall in this context, was built to prevent outmigration rather than immigration, as HOPE HARRISON (Washington, D.C.) emphasized. While she focused on the actors and practices necessary to maintain the border regime, she also underlined the wall’s power as a political site for numerous state visits and speeches. Walls can be functional and stabilize a volatile situation (as Harrison pointed out with regard to the 1960s Cold War), but they can also turn into a symbolic liability, threatening to undermine the legitimacy of the regimes that construct them.
Problems of legitimacy similarly framed the discussion of Israel’s “security barriers” in the Palestinian territory by SHAUL ARIELI (Tel Aviv), an expert on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. While the 2002 decision to construct the wall and fencing initially followed security considerations, the barrier and its adjacent “seam zone” soon took on political meaning as a potential border between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Despite challenges from both Israeli and international courts, Arieli argued, the barrier achieved some stability in the region, but primarily because of cooperative security practices between Israeli and West Bank authorities.
VASSILIS FOUSKAS (London) discussed another current case of border construction in the Eastern Mediterranean, looking at Turkey’s rise as a regional power. “Capital builds fences”, Fouskas argued, pointing to transnational economic factors in understanding regional border regimes, sparking a broader debate whether global capital flows promote a “borderless economy” or ultimately reinforce spatial division and border construction.
The final two speakers returned to recent border constructions around “the West”: the EU external frontiers and the U.S.-Mexico border. SIMONE PAOLI (Pisa) investigated the competing motives behind the creation of the Schengen area. While economic liberalization and the dismantling of borders were a prominent impetus behind the 1985 agreement, by the 1990s talk of a “fortress Europe” and increased external border security came to dominate the Schengen Zone. Both motives, internal liberalization and external migration control, Paoli argued however, were inextricably intertwined with the EU border project from its inception.
JOSIAH HEYMAN (El Paso), finally, turned the attention to the limits and shortcomings of the perhaps most elaborate modern border wall, between Mexico and the United States, which became heavily militarized after 1993. Heyman focused on border crossings to study practices of entry and policing, and he highlighted the continued permeability of this fortified border for illicit goods and undocumented immigrants. His talk underscored the importance of subversive practices, clandestine passageways and continued exchange that characterized virtually all border walls under consideration at this conference. Such walls, the presentations showed, were never impenetrable: at most they channeled or regulated cross-border flows of goods and people. Regardless of whether border fortifications were seen as good security policy or as an ineffective fool’s errand, their symbolic power ultimately often outweighed their physical utility.
With interdisciplinary inquiries into the interplay of concrete practices, cultural discourses and legal institutions, this conference provided fresh insights into the motives and dynamics of constructing border walls. Today we discuss such walls primarily in the context of migration control or national security, but across history they had diverse functions, including fiscal and military purposes. The concluding discussion suggested that border walls were especially prominent within the context of formal or informal empires and, more importantly, that their presence serves as a bellwether for the rise of significant economic, social, or cultural disparities (actual or perceived). The fact that the number of border fortifications has been increasing in recent years can therefore be read as a real sign for concern for the future of global relations. While many walls were designed to signify the mutability and permanence of borders, finally, this conference highlighted their historical mutability and changing geographies. Yet even where they eventually vanished, they still left long-lasting traces in the landscape and in cultural memory; the former Iron Curtain separating Europe demonstrates this as much as the walls of ancient Rome and China.
Metin Tolan (University of Göttingen) / Jürgen Barkhoff (Trinity College Dublin): Opening Remarks
Session 1 – Walls in History
Chair: Rebecca Klug (University of Göttingen)
Johannes Bergemann (University of Göttingen): Introduction / Unsecured Cities and Citizen Laws: Borders and Migration in Ancient Greece
C. Sebastian Sommer (Archaeological Service of Bavaria / German Limes Commission, Munich): Frontiers of the Roman Empire – The Great “Walls” in Ancient Europe
Nicola Di Cosmo (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton): The Early “Great Wall” in Ancient China. Borderlands, Exchange Zone, and Middle Ground
Carmen Caballero Navas (University of Granada): Porous Borders. Life Around and Across the Fluctuating Borders of Medieval Iberia
Egidio Ivetic (University of Padova): Limites and Walls between Europe and the Mediterranean 16th to 18th Centuries
Session 2 – Walls in the Post WWII Era
Chair: Annemarie Schantor (University of Göttingen)
Ilaria Poggiolini (University of Pavia): An Introduction. From the Iron Curtain to Cold War and Post-Cold War Walls
Hope M. Harrison (George Washington University): A Wall to Keep People in. The Berlin Wall, 1961–1989
Shaul Arieli (Tel Aviv): A Security Barrier on a Political Route Subject to Legal Constraints
Vassilis K. Fouskas (University of East London): Impenetrable Walls. Geopolitical and Hard Security Issues in the Eastern Mediterranean
Simone Paoli (University of Pisa): Area of Freedom or Closed Fortress? Schengen and the Historical Evolution of European Border and Migration Management
Josiah C. Heyman (University of Texas at El Paso): Walls and Gateways. Examples from the U.S.-Mexico Border