Behind the Brandenburg Gate there is a strip of steel and granite blocks that runs along the ground. It is there that the Wall once stood. On October 3rd,2019 tourists and citizens walked over it without even noticing. People have just crossed a checkpoint just below the Gate, this time, however, simply to access the area in which celebrations are being held for the 29th Tag der Deutschen Einheit, the anniversary of German unification. A stage for musicians and festivities has been set up exactly where, on June 12th, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan exclaimed on worldwide television: “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall!” The most important anniversary of this year, however, is yet to come. November 9th in fact marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, which took place 11 months before German Reunification. Contemporary Germany comes to this date with many questions concerning its future, while the ruins of the Wall survive amidst historical memories and fetish tourism.
The Berlin Wall split the city in two and also crossed the entire border between the outskirts of West Berlin and the rest of the non-Berliner DDR. The Mauerweg, a long cycling and pedestrian path that follows the old division, indicates the route of most of the 160 km of the old Wall. But to see the concrete remains of the Berliner Mauer, one must visit one of the hyper-tourist hubs in the city centre. These are attractions where less attentive visitors sometimes only partially understand what was once a complex and lethal frontier that took the lives of at least 140 people.
The Wall was rebuilt by the DDR at least four times between 1961 and 1989, and the primary purpose was always only one: to stop citizens who wanted to escape to the West. Behind the best-known part of the wall seen from the west (3.60 metres high), there was usually the so-called “death strip”; an inaccessible area with barbed wire, special obstacles, spike strips, metal fences, electronic beacons, automatic weapons, spotlights, police dogs and an army of guards with orders to shoot from over 100 control towers. The “Strip of Death” was at times dozens and dozens of meters wide and was at the time enclosed to the east by a second wall, the Hinterlandmauer, a lower construction, which was the Wall one could actually see from East Berlin.
Today, thirty years later, the “death strip” has in some places been transformed into green areas, as in the case of the famous Mauerpark, or been quickly swallowed up by the rapid growth of a new cosmopolitan Berlin.
Hope and Guilt
I arrived at the so-called East Side Gallery on a rainy afternoon, typical of autumn in Berlin. With more than 3 million visitors a year, the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain is perhaps the best-known part of the Wall. The stretch in question starts from what was once the famous Oberbaumbrücke Bridge, a historic and picturesque pedestrian crossing between the Friedrichshain (ex-east) and Kreuzberg (ex-west) districts, and continues on the Mühlenstrasse towards the city centre for 1.3 km.
The wall that remained standing served as both the main wall and the Hinterlandmauer to the east, since in this area the final boundary to the west was marked by the River Spree. In 1990, the Mühlenstrasse Wall was almost spontaneously decorated with works of art by artists from all over the world, making it one of the most famous open-air galleries on the planet. In 2009 all of the more than 100 paintings were completely restored. The drawings of the East Side Gallery clearly express the enthusiasm and hope that arose from the changes of 1989, the Wende in German, which many mistook for concrete evidence of the end of history and the final disappearance of the most dangerous international conflicts.
An elegant young Chinese woman, who introduced herself as Ariana (what she calls her “English name”), carefully took photographs of all the colourful murals and then said, “I’m still not sure that what I have in front of me is the original of the Wall and not a copy. Do you know?” Two Italian men standing a little further along appeared to be experiencing similar doubts as they discussed the actual height of the Wall, where the watchtowers once stood and from where it had been possible to try to reach the river at that time.
Debates concerning the height of the Wall can often be heard in many different languages while walking among tourists. In front of the famous mural of the kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker there were two cheerful little groups, one Chinese and one Spanish, taking turns to photograph one another in front of the work of art. At one point in the East Side Gallery there stands a high rise building with luxury apartments and a view of the river.
It was built in 2013, despite tough and lively protests, and is now considered a symbol of the speedy gentrification of the German capital. In front of another mural, I met Nicolas, 30 years old, and Cécile, 28 years old. The French couple knew the Wall well and Nicolas explained that he found it just as he expected and that he considered especially interesting the portion of the Wall that he saw in Mitte, near the museum called Topographie des Terrors.
The part of the Wall indicated by Nicolas is located in Niederkirchnerstraße, a few yards away from Potsdamer Platz. Here, a 200-meter-long strip of the main wall has been left intact and unfinished, where one can still see all the holes made by the liberating hammering inflicted after November 9th, 1989.
This part of the Wall is significantly located opposite the Topographie des Terrors, a museum that narrates the crimes of the Third Reich (created in the former Nazi Gestapo headquarters). Within a few dozen meters, under the eyes of a continuous flow of visitors, is a collection of the traces of the greatest guilt in German history and the reinforced concrete wound that resulted. Few places in the city so clearly express the deep connection between the crimes of National Socialism and the subsequent occupation as well as the laceration of Berlin by the American, Russian, French and British armies.
Checkpoint Charlie, located 3 metro stops from the Topographie des Terrors, remains the unforgotten place in the Berlin of the Cold War. For almost thirty years the checkpoint was the legendary international crossing point between west and east. Nowadays, apart from a couple of symbolic blocks, the Wall is not there. A few meters from the intersection between Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, however, one can see a replica of the famous passport checkpoint (the original is in a museum), around which tourists focus in search of an impressive photograph. The photos are even better when, sometimes, there are actors in front of the checkpoint dressed as U.S. or Soviet soldiers.
The museums around Checkpoint Charlie offer a lot of information about the history of divided Berlin. From the dense and slightly untidy narrative panels of the museum, one moves in a moment to souvenir shops, where the brand and icons of the most touristy Berlin are printed on hundreds of t-shirts, pens, pencils, mugs, hats, bags, cases, scarves and sweatshirts. Wearing the red raincoat of the tour company she works for, Kelly was standing between the entrance to the main souvenir shop and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Kelly is 23 years old and is Irish. Her job consists of attracting tourists in the area and inviting them to buy a ticket for a bus tour around the rest of the city. “Here there really are visitors from all over the world; Europe, Russia, India, Asia. My English is not enough to communicate with everyone,” said the young woman. “Some people really know every detail about the city and are already informed about everything, while others only discover that Berlin was divided in two by a wall halfway through the bus tour.”
The best place to really understand what the Berlin Wall was, is probably the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, the Bernauer Straße Memorial. It was on this route that, in the early years of the division, the most spectacular escapes took place, including the iconic escape of the DDR soldier Konrad Schumann. In the green area of the Memorial, the old Wall now has a long stretch marked with steel poles, while on the ground visitors can see where the most famous tunnels for escaping to the west were dug. The modern Chapel of Reconciliation is also very frequently visited. It was rebuilt just where the homonymous church that once stood there was literally imprisoned between the two walls between 1961 and 1989. The Chapel is now also a symbol of the role played by religious groups, mainly Protestants, in opposing the regime.
The most important part of the Memorial, however, remains a complete 70-meter piece of the old frontier. It is a closed section of the “death strip”, bordered to the west by a part of the Wall and to the east by the Hinterlandmauer, and also includes a watchtower (original, but moved from another location). Tourists can see inside the strip through the cracks in the eastern wall, or by climbing to the top of a special tower built near the documentation centre on the Berliner Mauer. I entered the documentation centre, which is open to visitors and offers a lot of information. In front of a showcase displaying one of the spike strips used in the “Death Strip”, I saw a group of young German students. Their professor asked them why they thought the Wall was first built. One boy answered immediately, “So as not to allow anyone in.” In a contemporary world in which walls are increasingly erected to deny access, perhaps one does not immediately understand a Wall whose purpose was instead to lock people up and prevent them from escaping. But many still tried to flee Berlin and that cost the lives of many people. As a monument with photographs in the Bernauer Memorial area reminds us, it is estimated that there were at least 140 victims of the Wall between 1961 and 1989. Most of these victims lost their lives in an attempt to climb over the Berlin border, either killed by soldiers or fatal injuries.
Hannah Berger, spokesperson for the Stiftung Berliner Mauer (the Berlin Wall Foundation, which is located in the Gedenkstätte documentation centre), explained to me how there is a great desire to keep the memory of victims alive, “It is important for us to discuss issues concerning democracy, freedom and human rights every day. We do not forget the victims. That is why, for example, every day of the week, from Tuesday to Friday, there are prayers said near the Wall and remembrance for those who died. At these prayer meetings, the biography of one of the victims is read.” People whose stories, added Berger, are integrally part of the history if the Friedliche Revolution, the Peaceful Revolution that led to the DDR regime’s fall in 1989.
The sky after the Wall
About twenty minutes away by public transport from Bernauer Straße is Bornholmer Straße’s Bösebrücke, the bridge connecting the districts of Prenzlauer Berg (east) and Wedding (west). It was here that on the evening of November 9th, 1989, Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jäger opened the first passage between the two divided Germanys. On the Mauerweg below the bridge, where the border guards once patrolled, there is now a path of Japanese cherry trees. In a cafeteria near the Bösebrücke, I met Simone, a training consultant who has always been a Berliner. When the Wall fell, Simone was a 19-year-old girl living in the former DDR. In the years following the Wende, Simone traveled a lot, but in the end, she never left her city. Today, when she walks through the neighbourhood, she still remembers how and where Berlin was cut in two. Her school was not far from the Wall and memories always come to mind. “When we were children we always saw only the first wall, the lower one, our world ended there and we thought that there was someone just beyond that first wall.” Simone is quite critical about how Berliner Mauer’s memory is handled today: “It’s not enough. Tourists do not understand the context. There is too little awareness. Above all, more should be done to explain that what the citizens of the DDR did was incredible.”
While some citizens of the German capital want to leave the past behind, many other Berliners share Simone’s feelings and do not want to give up their city’s exceptional history. “I always go to Falkplatz, which today is merged with Mauerpark, and I also bring my friends along in the evening,” explains Simone. “It always makes me happy to see how, from there, without the Wall, it is now possible to see the whole sunset in the sky.”
Cover Photo: T. Schwarz/ AFP
Inside Photos: L. Monfregola
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