• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3

Chipping away at Berlin Wall souvenir myths

Ben Knight · 19 Oct 2009, 18:18

Published: 19 Oct 2009 18:18 GMT+02:00

With so little of the actual Berlin Wall still standing in the German capital, shopping for a true piece of the Cold War relic is enough to trigger anyone's kneejerk cynicism.

This is a scam too obvious to miss, surely. Who's to say where these grey crumbs come from? The spray paint is not real, for a start. It's an open secret in Berlin souvenir shops that the colour on most chunks of the Wall is added in Volker Pawlowski's workshop. Located in the city’s northern district of Reinickendorf, this small firm supplies around 90 percent of the Wall pieces sold in Berlin.

Yet it does not bother him that the authenticity of his concrete fails to extend to the colourful graffiti on the souvenirs he hawks.

"The East Side Gallery isn't real either, is it?" He says, referring to the kilometre-long stretch of Wall that has been preserved as an open-air art gallery. "That's being re-painted too. It's important that the concrete is from the Wall."

Dubious though this comparison might be, in Pawlowski's mind there is a clear line between history and aesthetics, and the success of his little painted Wall pieces relies on conferring both with equal value. People are more likely to buy pieces of the Berlin Wall if they've been coloured. For the discerning Wall-buyer, some of the pieces come with a small certificate of authenticity, rather misleadingly embossed with the seal of the communist German Democratic Republic.

Pawlowski, a West Berlin construction worker, had the idea of selling the Wall sometime in 1991. His entrepreneurial vigour was awakened by the hundreds of Wall-peddlers that populated the city in the early 1990's.

"I'm the last fossil of those times," Pawlowski mutters.

But instead of contenting himself with a street-corner stall, he toured various recycling plants, where most of the Wall had ended up after its removal. Eventually he bought around a hundred individual segments of the barrier, weighing 2.75 tonnes and rising 3.6 metres each. Though he now refuses to mention the price he paid for them, the going rate at the time ranged from between 1,000 and 2,000 German marks, (€500 and €1,000) per segment. Pawlowski will now let you have one of his for €3,900.

Not that his hunk of Wall is likely to run out soon – he still has around 40 segments left, easily enough to chip away and sell for the rest of his life. As holy relics go, the Berlin Wall offers a lot more raw material than, say, Christ's cross. There were 184 kilometres (114 miles) of concrete, or 45,000 individual segments, and its commercial value was recognised early. Showing a notable capitalist instinct, ministers of the provisional GDR government passed a resolution to take commercial advantage of the Berlin Wall on December 29, 1989, before official demolition even began.

An East German foreign trade company, Limex-Bau, received the job of marketing the individual segments, which it apparently did with some success. Three-hundred-sixty segments were taken for their artistic value and sold all over the world for prices as high as 40,000 marks. There are segments in Las Vegas casinos, South Korean parks and on Caribbean islands. The city of Berlin has also kept a few dozen segments to give away as ceremonial state gifts.

Cashing in on the Iron Curtain

Until the official reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990, the profits from the Limex-Bau sales went into East Germany's state treasury. This caused much anger in the East German population, and the funds were then distributed to public health services and historical preservation funds.

Official demolition of the Wall began in the first months of 1990, and was carried out by the Pioneers of the NVA (National People's Army) and border troops of the GDR, with the help of various construction firms. Some of these firms, many of which worked for free, received segments of the Wall in gratitude, each with authentication certificates from Limex-Bau.

These certificates, issued by a defunct trading company, are the only official authentication for Wall pieces ever produced, and the little souvenir certificates embossed with an East German hammer that Pawlowski attaches to his tiny chips, meaningless though they are, are their only descendents.

For anyone seeking to find assurance that their lump of concrete is the real thing, the best authority is Pawlowski. "If you put twenty rocks in front of me, I think I could pick out the two or three real ones. The concrete has a unique structure," he boasts.

"With complete segments it's really easy. They have characteristic marks on them. For example, they have iron in them, with two holes drilled into the top, usually plastered over. Those holes have a certain arrangement that was unique to the Wall."

Story continues below…

Though he opens up when describing the structure of reinforced ferroconcrete, Pawlowski is tight-lipped when it comes to how much of the Wall is left, and where it is. He admits that there is a lot of it around the city and he has his sources. After the fall, many Wall parts were simply used to construct livestock sheds or makeshift containers. These individual segments are still visible, without being recognisable to the layman.

Another Wall expert, historian Ronny Heidenreich, who has traced parts of it around the world, says that the city is filled with traces of the Cold War barrier. It was used in road construction and it is buried in cellars.

"Last week, I saw around a hundred segments used to make various rough containers in an inner-city construction site in Neukölln,” he said referring to a district in western Berlin. “I've no idea if anyone knows what it is."

For the rest of us, our only resource is the souvenir shop, and we have a 90 percent chance of getting one of Pawlowski's painted pieces. In the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse, there are also some pieces for sale with original paint on them.

But maybe for the ultimate Berlin Wall authenticity, you can spend a night at a certain five-star hotel in the German capital that has offers guests the opportunity to chip away their very own piece from segment of the Wall. Certainly if you can afford it, perhaps the best souvenir is the interactive kind.

Ben Knight (ben.knight@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Germany says 'won't let anyone take Europe from us'
Steinmeier called the European Union “a successful project of peace and stability”. Photo: DPA

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Saturday that the EU would weather the shock of the British vote to leave the union as he convened crisis talks.

Brexit vote
Brexit will turn Berlin into 'Europe’s startup capital'
A sign in Berlin's tech giant and startup-building company Rocket Internet. Photo: DPA.

London is currently thought of as the main hub for startups in Europe, but that will all turn around when the UK leaves the EU, tech industry experts say.

Brexit vote - Analysis
'Germany needs to make UK come to its senses'
British Leave campaigners celebrate Brexit result. Photo: DPA

Britain leaving the EU means trouble ahead for Germany - and its hardest task will be convincing the Brits to drop a self-defeating ideology, a leading foreign policy expert told The Local.

How to get German citizenship (or just stay forever)
Photo: DPA.

Considering a change of passport after the UK's vote to ditch the EU? Here’s how to do it.

Germany makes fracking verboten
A sign in North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: DPA.

German lawmakers approved a law that essentially bans fracking, ending years of dispute over the controversial technology to release oil and gas locked deep underground.

Brexit vote
German far right 'cries for joy' after UK votes to leave EU
Left to right: AfD's Beatrix von Storch and Frauke Petry. Photo: DPA

The far-right AfD party called for a "new Europe" and the resignation of the EU's top two politicians in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Brexit vote
Merkel: Brexit has cut into European unity
Angela Merkel at a press conference after the Brexit vote on Friday. Photo: DPA.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday that the UK's decision to leave the EU has created a "cut in Europe" and the project of European unity.

Couple copulating on bridge shut down Autobahn
Kaiserlei Bridge in Frankfurt. Photo: Dontworry / Wikimedia Commons.

It was a highly unusual choice of location for a romantic rendezvous, police in Frankfurt point out.

Brexit vote
Germany: Brexit vote is a 'sad day for Europe'
A British flag along with other flags of European Union member countries flies in front of the European Council building in Strasbourg, France. Photo: EPA.

Top German leaders declared that it was a "sad day for Europe" after British voters opted to leave the European Union.

Viernheim hostage-taker wasn't carrying lethal weapon
A police officer stands guard in front of the cinema in Viernheim. Photo: DPA

The 19-year-old German man who took over a dozen people hostage in a cinema in western Germany on Thursday was carrying replica weapons, prosecutors have confirmed.

Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Features
How two gay dads cut through German red tape to start a family
Sponsored Article
Education abroad: How to find an international school
Features
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
Sponsored Article
US expats: Taxes are due June 15th
National
Five things to know about guns in Germany
Sponsored Article
Avoid hidden fees when sending money overseas
Gallery
7 photos which show the aftermath of Bavaria's Autobahn bridge collapse
Culture
10 things you need to know before attending a German wedding
National
Eight weird habits you'll pick up living in Germany
Sponsored Article
Health insurance for expats in Germany: a quick guide
Lifestyle
Six reasons 'super-cool' Berlin isn't all it's cracked up to be
Society
Only one country likes getting naked on the beach more than Germany
Lifestyle
23 ridiculously fascinating things you never knew about Berlin
Culture
8 German words that perfectly sum up your 20s
Sport
How to sound like an expert on German football this summer
Lifestyle
Can't make it past the door at Berlin's most famous club? Help is at hand
Business & Money
Why Frankfurt could steal London's crown as Europe's finance capital
Features
6 surprising things I learned about Germany while editing The Local
Culture
Five sure-fire ways to impress Germans with your manners
Features
6 reasons Germany's summer is unbeatable for thrill-seekers
National
The future belongs to these 10 German regions
Society
How pictures of footballers on chocolates made Pegida really mad
Health
New father's tragic herpes warning touches 1000s online
National
Bayer's Monsanto takeover would be 'diabolical': environmentalists
7,910
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd