• 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
Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
File photo: DPA

When a man swimming naked in a Bavarian lake felt a strange pain in his nether regions, he looked up to see a fisherman on the shore. "Don’t pull!" he shouted.

Study finds rival Rhineland beers 'actually taste the same'
Left: Altbier. Right: Kölsch. Or can you even tell? Photos: DPA.

Cologne and Düsseldorf have a long established rivalry, not least over who has the better home brew. So the results of a new study might be more than they can swallow.

Eastern Europe pushes Germany for joint EU army
Angela Merkel (l), Beata Szydlo and Victor Orban. Photo: DPA

Eastern EU countries on Friday pushed for the bloc to create a joint army as they met with Germany for talks on sketching Europe's post-Brexit future.

Merkel’s party mate wants to get rid of all Karl Marx streets
Karl Marx and one of the roadways in Berlin named for him. Photos: Wikimedia Commons, Nicor

Hundreds of streets are named after the founder of communism, but this conservative politician wants to give Marx the boot.

State elections
6 reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
Photo: DPA

With state elections around the corner, The Local looks at the poor side of Germany's "poor but sexy" capital city.

Upstarts RB Leipzig plan to go right to top of Bundesliga
RB Leipzig players celebrate scoring against Dynamo Dresden. Photo: DPA

RB Leipzig make their Bundesliga debut on Sunday, but the East German outfit, sponsored by energy drinks manufacturer Red Bull, are already far from popular in Germany's top-flight.

Poland criticizes Germany’s 'self-serving' foreign policy
Witold Waszczykowski. Photo: DPA

The Polish foreign minister has said that Germany all too often follows its own interests at the expense of its partners, as Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to visit Warsaw.

Vast majority of Germans in favour of burqa ban: poll
Women wearing niqab veils in Saudi Arabia. Photo: DPA.

A survey found that the vast majority of respondents were in favour of Germany passing a ban on the full-body veil sometimes worn by Muslim women.

Czech police detain driver for harassing Merkel's motorcade
Angela Merkel. File photo: DPA

Czech police arrested a man on Thursday for attempting to drive into the motorcade of visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Prague, they said.

Teacher convicted for holding kids back after class
Photo: DPA

A music teacher from North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) has been found guilty of "holding people against their will" after he made some naughty stay kids back after class.

Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Gallery
Germany's 17 Olympic gold medals in pictures
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Culture
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Rhineland
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Culture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
Lifestyle
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
14 facts you never knew about the Brandenburg Gate
Society
Ten times Germans proved they really, really love beer
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
Lifestyle
What's on in Germany: events for August 2016
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
National
Six things you need to know when moving to Germany
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
Sponsored Article
Jordan Pass: your ticket to the experience of a lifetime
International
German scientists prove birds can sleep while flying
Sponsored Article
Jordan: where history meets adventure
Technology
London v. Berlin: Which is better for startups?
Lifestyle
13 mortifying mistakes German learners always make
Sponsored Article
6 reasons expats use TransferWise to send money
Travel
Enter if you dare: Berlin's best abandoned haunts
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Lifestyle
10 rookie errors all Brits make when they arrive in Germany
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
National
How to get German citizenship (or just stay forever)
Sponsored Article
Jordan: where history meets adventure
Technology
Brexit will turn Berlin into 'Europe’s startup capital'
Sponsored Article
6 reasons expats use TransferWise to send money
Travel
Six soothing day trips to escape the bustle of Berlin
International
'Germany needs to make UK come to its senses'
Features
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Features
How two gay dads cut through German red tape to start a family
8,546
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd