Border walls and fences: an interview with Antonio De Lauri

There seems to be a current international preoccupation with border walls as a form of security and protection – with people both advocating and protesting their construction. However, walls and barriers are not a new phenomenon. What is the continuing historical factor motivating the construction of border barriers?

Throughout global history border barriers have had at least four main functions: to manifest political power (be it imperial or state power); to seize lands; to protect a territorial domain, a population or a group; and to create categories of people on the basis of whether a person was located on “this side” or on the “other side” of the wall (“civilized-uncivilized”, “citizens-barbarians”, “legal-illegal migrants”, etc.).

In their declared political intentions and purposes, walls are the factual, material response to the quest for collective protection in situations that are perceived as destabilized and at risk. Through a chemical metaphor, we could argue that the wall is the solidification of the liquid idea of protection, which ranges from geopolitics to biopolitics. Indeed, spatial and territorial control is not the only task ascribed to border barriers, since they also prove functional to disciplining populations and to the application of biopolitical governance in the everyday lives of citizens.  The wall is thus a technique of power aimed at governing borders that are differently performed  by a plurality of social actors.

Are contemporary walls and fences a consequence of globalization and increased population movement, or rather a reaction to it?

In terms of contrasting criminal organizations, studies have shown that barriers do not affect illegal trafficking. Rather, there is an ambiguous relationship between illicit flows and the business of bordering. In fact, I don’t see walls as reactions to globalization. They are artifacts rooted in ancient times today fully integrated into a globalized world in which the affirmation of a privileged few who live the promise of globalization and free movement is defended through the erection of barriers to obstacolate the mobility of unpriviledged masses.

In a previous piece on the politics of fencing in the contemporary world, you wrote that the wall plays a role “as an agent of identification and exclusion”. Can you explain what you meant by this?

Walls and fences have a deep impact on people’s ordinary lives. The politics of protection can take different forms. In the 18th century, for example, after several cities in France were devasted by the plague coming from the Levant, the regial adminstration issued the construction of anti-plague walls and the closure of existing town walls. In South Africa, barriers were a crucial element of the apartheid segregation architecture. The fence along the border between Hungary and Serbia today responds to the current European propaganda in preventing refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan from trespassing Hungarian national borders and therefore represents a specific politics of citizenship in today’s Europe. In all its different forms, the physical barrier is not merely something that produces alterity and otherness (what remains outside of the wall), but it is also an instrument of governance, control and identification for what remains on “this side” of the wall.

The Berlin Wall has been a symbol of separation for decades. However, as you previously mentioned walls can be seen to symbolise separation, but also belonging and protection. Would you argue that today’s perception of walls and fences is perhaps more multifaceted in the West?

After the fall of the Berlin wall, efforts have been made in order to create a stable, peaceful European territory, which was built on the ashes of WWII. However, Europe is currently being walled up. Recent events like the financial crisis, the revivification of populist political and social movements, the humanitarian emergencies in the Middle East and the “refugee crisis”, resuscitated the use of walls and fences as securitarian devices in the political discourse of several European leaders. In today’s Europe, walls and fences respond to different political purposes. For instance, the Bulgaria-Turkey, Hungary-Serbia or the Norway-Russia barriers are representative of nation-states’ reaction to the current European migration crisis. The Ukraine-Russia example, on the other hand, responds to a quest for security and territorial control in a framework of nation-state tensions.

In your article Times of Walls you mention the historical example of Dannevirke as a a barrier that “shaped and limited territorial identity.” Dannevirke seems to have been used as an arena to shape and construct a historical narrative and identity over a long period of time, and by different groups. Can you briefly explain the relevance of this example?

An interesting reference here is the book “Murs. Une autre histoire des hommes” published by the French historian Claude Quétel. King Godfrid launched the construction of a series of fortifications in 808 in the Jutland peninsula, in today’s German Schleswig (Danish until 1864). This fortification was dug out by archeologists in the 1970’s and can be compared to the Offa’s Dyke in Wales. The Dannevirke ca be seen as a later manifestation and a reversed Roman limes. Danish tribes confederated in the VIII century, three centuries after the end of the Roman empire, and felt the urgency of defending their territory from the expansionist plans of the Francs. Danish articles titled: “Vikings’ entry door found!” because this defensive palisade included a door (next to Haithabu-Hedeby), a sign that commercial relations with the Francs were never interrupted. The Dannevirke was at the same time a proto-frontier and a bastion (like the Roman limes before). It shaped and limited Danish identity and territory, and acquired a growing importance in Danemark nationalist discourse: during the 19th century, with the second Schleswig war approaching, some Danish newspapers were renamed Dannevirke. Paradoxically, however, after being defeated in Dybbol, Danes lost Schleswig and their precious Dannevirke. During WWII, Germans feared an invasion of Jutland after the Normandy landings. A high-ranking Nazi official proposed to rebuilt the Dannevirke into a trench (turning it upside down). The archeological massacre was about to happen, when the Danish archeologist Soren Telling addressed Himmler resorting to an alleged shared Arian identity: such a symbol could therefore not be destroyed. Himmler interrupted the construction of trenches along the Dannevirke.

Finally, walls have been used historically to divide populations or protect a territory. In your opinion, are walls effective?

As an extension of nation-state ideologies and practices, walls have today a strong theatrical connotation. Despite the knowledge that the power of walls is limited by modern technology and the interdependencies of a global economy, the wall functions as a theatrical performance of state power and sovereignty in the face of a potential external national threat. Indeed, whether a border wall or fence is useful or not, its spectacle can (must) be seen by everybody. One of its main function, therefore, remains the power of creating categories of people. At the same time, however, the materiality of walls and its policing corollary have a deep impact on migrants and refugees mobility. Border barriers aggravate displacement and exacerbate the feelings of fear and insecurity perceived by both local populations and borders crossers.


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