Where's the border?

For thousands of years, as history shows, humanity has always seen boundaries as a challenge. As something to be overcome.

Deep ditches, huge ramparts and high wooden palisades form a circle around 3000 legionnaires, each armed with a sword, a shield and a spear. It’s 15 BC in the garrison camp of Augusta Vindelicorum, soon to become the most important settlement and fortification in the Raetia province of the Roman Empire. It was Claudius Drusus, the stepson of Augustus, who marched his army through the Reschen pass to push the borders of the Roman Empire beyond the Lech, Wertach and Singold rivers and venture deeper into Germania.

A century later, the once defiant encampment developed into a peaceful residence brimming with civil servants, now an administrative city for the province of Raetia. The might of the Roman rulers now stretched northwards to the Rhine and Main rivers. And then the empire started to fizzle out. In 260 AD a Germanic tribe called the Juthungi advanced on the Romans and Augusta Vindelicorum was once again a border city. It was a huge effort for the Roman governor Marcus Simplicinius Genialis to beat back the Alemanni again, in a two-day battle on 24 and 25 May. His success was short-lived and within decades the tribes reconquered the entire province. Everything the Romans had owned and acquired in the city – everything they had meticulously recorded in the Empire’s land registry and separated off from their neighbours behind borderlines marked by walls and fences – would be lost.

But borders don’t just define the size of a state and the possessions of its citizens. Borders also sometimes protect the people who succeed in crossing them. By the 8th century, Augusta Vindelicorum had been renamed Augsburg. The Cathedral of St Maria was built in the city that same century and there – on the lunette still above its south entrance for all to see – is a picture-perfect reminder of how borders work. Small figures under the decorative stonework canopy depict scenes from the life of the Blessed Mother. Underneath, we see the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. It was only when Jesus crossed that border that he was safe from the persecution of King Herod.

The effects can last for centuries if people cross borders together. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg was signed, officially ending religious struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants. The occasion is still marked today by the citizens of Augsburg at the annual Peace Festival on the 8th of August, an event that is so important that Augsburg is the only city in Germany to have its very own Public Holiday.

If anything, this brief look back at the history of the Bavarian city of Augsburg shows that borders are not fixed. Borderlines that separate nations or religious groups today can become the lines of a big open market shared by everyone tomorrow. Many philosophers and writers have seen borders and boundaries as a temporary demarcation, as a challenge waiting to be overcome. The early Romantic Georg Philipp Friedrich Leopold Freiherr von Hardenberg, whose literary works were published under the pseudonym Novalis, once wrote that “all barriers are there to be overcome”.

Hardenberg was born in 1772 and lived in times when borders were shifting dramatically. The French Revolution was ending an era of absolute monarchical rule and when the king exclaimed “L’état c’est moi” to declare “Here, I am the state”, this was no longer the case in Paris. Only years earlier, the American Civil War had shown that the ideals of liberty can triumph over the will of a monarch. The Enlightenment and a humanistic outlook that entailed respecting human rights, religious tolerance and values of common good heralded an end to feudal states.

Reason became the universal judge and the new measure of determination. Borders and boundaries – once used by religion and politics to ringfence the people’s thirst for knowledge – simply evaporated. Science blossomed. Descartes’ early 17th century declaration cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am – had already laid the foundations for epistemology, but now the researchers and inventors were enjoying hitherto un-known freedom, experimenting with the power of machinery and medicine, and breaking down the barriers that had been making people’s lives too difficult and too short.

In 1793, the American Eli Whitney built the first cotton gin. His invention made it possible to quickly separate cotton fibres from sticky seeds. Overnight, natural fibre materials – goods previously considered a luxury – became the wares of the masses. Even simple workers and farmers could now afford trousers, shirts and jack-ets that were hard-wearing and lasted.

Three years later, the English physician Edward Jenner pioneered the first smallpox vaccine. He extracted his materials from a cow. As a vet, he had noticed that milkmaids who became infected with cowpox never developed smallpox. To test his theory, Jenner vaccinated several children – including his own 11-month-old son –with cowpox. For six weeks they were injected with pus from human smallpox. None of the children fell ill.

In this day and age Jenner would be sent to jail and barred from practising medicine for life, but in those days his deeds were nothing out of the ordinary.

There was such a high birth rate that children were practically considered replaceable. The behaviour of parents and teachers knew no boundaries. Whipping a child’s behind was considered part of a good upbringing and a suitable preparation for the slings and arrows of life.

Of course these days, parents agonise over whether and when to set limits for the good of their little ones. What should we forbid? When would setting limits actually do harm? Should we put the hand of a child near the hob so it can discover heat for itself? The fact that such issues are hotly debated can be seen by googling: ‘Set limits for toddlers’ is a top search item suggested by Google.

Werner Stangl, an emeritus professor at the University of Linz and an acknowledged authority in modern pedagogy, does advise parents to establish boundaries when bringing up children, but they should also set boundaries for themselves. Mums and dads should not try to bring up children to become clones of themselves, they should be allowed to develop so that later they can live their own ‘independent’ lives. As Stangl writes in his papers on education theory, rules and values should be offered to a child so that it “can take these on, process them and adapt them”. And the boundaries that were still valid in the authoritarian education of the 1970s are no longer valid these days.

Burying things that applied in the past and replacing them with new things is a driving force that is intrinsic to human existence. Over the millennia, gumption and genius have led to innovations that have beaten down barriers that were previously considered impenetrable.

This process started 1.9 million years ago in East Africa. Early humans, Homo habilis, observed lightning setting fire to a tree. It certainly would have scared them, but some of them plucked up the courage to grab a burning branch, ran off with the fire and set fire to other pieces of wood. It was a hugely daring feat – with ground-breaking consequences. Fire could now be used to cook or smoke the meat of hunted animals. This put an end to problems with bacteria, parasites and viruses. Early humans could now nourish them-selves more healthily, raise more children and wander further and deeper into the jungle and savannah. Their descendants finally ventured beyond those borders and roamed into the Middle East, later reaching the colder climes of Europe, or they went farther east into Asia, the American continent and finally even Australia. When the ancestors of Homo sapiens discovered how to tame fire, they opened the door to a new world.

Around 5000 years ago, a creative inventor in Mesopotamia came up with the first wheel. This invention allowed humans to grow beyond the physical limitations of their arms and legs. Others could now start inventing pulleys and cranes and lift huge weights. Temples were erected to thank the gods. Cities evolved, filled with multi-storey buildings. Goods could now be transported over significant distances. The wheel had laid a foundation for global trade, within the borders of the world they knew then.

As early as 1000 years before the birth of Christ, a whole cobweb of carriageways had woven its way through the middle east and Europe. In the Dark Ages, the people who brought mathematics and medical knowledge back to Europe from Muslim countries were tradesmen, purveyors peddling silk and spices from distant lands on the back of wooden carts. In the middle of this cobweb in Europe stood the city of Augsburg, on a junction between two Roman roads, the Via Julia and the Via Imperii. It was destined to derive particular benefit from the growing exchange of goods and ideas. The powerful merchant families in the area, known as the patricians, eventually assumed authority in the city and in 1276 they accepted the privilege of Imperial Immediacy, bestowed upon the city by King Rudolf I. The borders of Augsburg now marked the boundaries of power for the ruling princes and bishops.

In the meantime, humans have overcome the limitations imposed on us by gravity. We have landed on the moon. We have manned space stations orbiting the Earth. We have sent space probes off into distant galaxies. The next big goal is to send humans to Mars and mine minerals on the Moon. This is something they are also working on at the German Aerospace Center in Augsburg, where they are researching lightweight polymers that are also strong enough to be used in future aircraft and space shuttles. More than 2000 years after the Romans founded Augusta Vindelicorum, its citizens are once again trying to overcome borders...