Activists rally to protect remains of hated Berlin Wall

Locals want icon kept as a reminder of divided past

The Washington Post

The workers used the early morning darkness to obscure their secretive task: removing pieces of the longest-remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall.

When the wall fell in 1989, Berlin’s residents were eager to clear away the hated divider as quickly as they could. Now many of the people who fought to scrub it from the map are scrambling to preserve what remains. Recently, they came up against a developer determined to build on his property, situated in the former no-man’s land between East and West Berlin.

The conflict comes as Germany re-evaluates its relationship to a communist era it once could not wait to forget. Berlin’s streets are scattered with memorials to Nazi-era atrocities.

But until very recently, many there were happy to rid themselves of reminders of the post-World War II period when they were separated by political systems and a 137-km-long reinforced concrete barrier that ringed the western half of the city.

At this 1.6-km-long stretch along the Spree River known as the East Side Gallery, artists painted exuberant murals on the wall in the months after East and West Berlin were reunited. Tourists have long flocked to the area to see a cheerful monument to peaceful revolution in a once out-of-the-way place.

But as the city has boomed in recent years, developers have targeted many of the empty spaces that were left by World War II bombings and communist neglect.

Last week, workers removed an 8-meter concrete span of the landmark wall to make an access road for a planned 13-story luxury apartment building directly along the river. The move sparked immediate protests.

“There is a wider consciousness for the wall and its cultural significance,” said Axel Klausmeier, director of the Berlin Wall Foundation. At the time of reunification “it was impossible to imagine thousands of people standing in front of the wall demonstrating to keep it. Now there is a completely different attitude.”

The construction, which started at the beginning of March but was temporarily halted after public protest, has galvanized opposition among a broad range of Berlin residents who fret that their city is forgetting its history and also losing what made it unique after 1989.

Once upon a time, artists squatted in crumbling apartment buildings and were left alone to be creative. Musicians turned sprawling former industrial spaces into clubs.

But rent has skyrocketed in recent years. The old squatter houses have almost all been renovated. Many residents say Berlin feels more normal — and not in a good way.

“This wall being torn down is a symbol of what’s happening all over now,” said Hannes Kutza, 26, a doctoral candidate. “There are huge amounts of people who are interested in preserving this place.”

The concrete wall, first erected in 1961, was once the most visible international symbol of the Iron Curtain division between the capitalist West and the communist East.

East German authorities erected it overnight to halt a steady stream of defections. At least 136 people perished, most of them shot, as they tried to scale it to escape to the West.

Images of jubilant Berliners chipping away at the wall with chisels and pickaxes that were broadcast around the world in November 1989 helped accelerate the downfall of the Soviet Union.

After reunification, many Berliners had mixed feelings about preserving reminders of division. Some communist-era monuments, such as the gargantuan, bronze-colored Palace of the Republic, the former seat of the East German Parliament, were torn down altogether. Others, such as Checkpoint Charlie, a famous border crossing between East and West Berlin, have been swamped with touristy food stands. In 2007, another portion of the East Side Gallery was removed with little protest to create a riverside park.

Now, though, a recent poll by the Forsa Institute found that 75 percent of Berliners want to preserve the wall. Many of those opposed to the developer’s plans fear that there will be little left to tell future generations what it meant to be divided.

“Ask a 12-year-old about East Germany today. They don’t know anything,” said Lothar Menkel, 55, an engineer who went to the wall this week to watch backhoes move piles of dirt.

The fight to keep the wall has some Berliners admitting that their 1989 selves would have been astonished.

“We were confronted with the wall everywhere” before it fell, said Gunter Ebeling, 65, a retired railway worker who has lived in the eastern half of Berlin since 1974 and still remembers the precise minute, 11:11 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1989, that he crossed freely into West Berlin for the first time. Now, he said, the wall “should remain.”

Construction will bring money to Berlin’s cash-strapped city government, leaving some top city officials with mixed feelings about fighting too hard against it.

The planned apartment building will go up in a largely barren area between the former East and West Berlin that was restituted to pre-Nazi-era owners in the 1990s. Although temporary clubs have popped up along the banks of the Spree, large swaths of land have remained empty, as developers long deemed the area too unprofitable to build up.

The Berlin Wall is a landmark monument, meaning that it is usually protected against demolition and modification, but a loophole in building law gives the developer permission to remove up to 20 meters to build the access road.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit held last-minute meetings with the developer, Maik Uwe Hinkel, hours after Hinkel’s workers moved the portion of the wall, but no final compromise was announced.

The controversy has even attracted the attention of David Hasselhoff, the American actor and musician, whose 1989 New Year’s Eve performance atop the Berlin Wall left him with an unusual and enduring cultural influence in Germany. He visited Berlin again last month to campaign to save the wall, and thousands turned out to see him.

“It’s a sad day as the bulldozers came and ripped out the memories of those imprisoned by the Wall and those who died,” Hasselhoff said on Twitter last week.

  • Nancy Jahn

    I think the author mixed up some main facts about this discourse, especially in the first part of the article. I for myself (I am German) and the people I know who stand up and demonstrated for the remnants of the Berlin Wall, this has nothing to do with our relationship to the former communist government. Nor does this have any connection with Nazi-Germany. So first of all the paragraph “The conflict comes as Germany re-evaluates its relationship to a
    communist era it once could not wait to forget. Berlin’s streets are
    scattered with memorials to Nazi-era atrocities” is totally off-topic. And it’s offending and highly disturbing to see the Berlin Wall connected to Germanys pre-war history. The Nazi-era in Germany is still discussed about much even nowadays, but in the right CONTEXT! It’s a shame such fundamental facts are so carelessly mixed up here.

    Now to the relationship to former eastern Germany. That people try to preserve the remnants of the wall is not because they started to miss these “old days” over time. It’s because the wall is the most important symbol for how Germany became one again. That’s why it’s such an important piece of history for many and that’s why they don’t want to loose it. It shows the strong feeling of unity people shared in 1989, so strong that they even overpowered the communist government. This was a revolution and the sole existance of the wall, as well as all the drawings and the messages they carry are symbols for these strong feelings that brought Germany back together.

    You’re lucky that this article was not published in a German newspaper magazine. This might have caused quite an uproar.

    • gnirol

      Agree with all your points. I lived in West Berlin, very close to the Wall in Zehlendorf in 1965-1966, and by walking a couple of blocks from where I was staying, could easily see the guard towers and their occupants and all the other accoutrements that had been added to prevent escapes on the other side. The division of the city and the country was on our minds every day. As an American teenager I could cross the border at a few places, albeit with some difficulty, but I could and see, for example, the cemeteries divided in two, with families on either side of the border unable to visit graves of loved ones on the other side. I don’t know how much of the Wall should be preserved, but it must not be completely torn down, so no one ever forgets the freedom they have now to move anywhere they want. I have my little chunks I removed in October 1990, when I returned to Berlin for Unification Day, an act I thought would not be possible in my lifetime, but there should be something on site to remind people how impregnable it was and how open things are now, as well as the joy of the people the first night it was broken through in 1989.