For nearly three decades, people in West Berlin were able to go right up to the Wall, write graffiti on it, even kiss by it as described by David Bowie in his ‘Heroes’ song. Yet from the east the Wall was a barrier which was almost hidden.
Soon after its construction on August 13, 1961, people in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) were barred from approaching the “anti-fascist protection wall” by a wide death strip. Houses and churches along the route were demolished.
Even after November 1989, when its function had been lost and people were allowed to travel freely, approaching the Wall from the east remained dangerous due to land mines.
Now the unseen face of the Berlin Wall has been revealed, in photos taken by the border patrol units between 1965 and 1966 to provide East German planners with an overview to fortify the barrier.
Hundreds and hundreds of photos were taken, developed and then stuck in a box which disappeared into the enormous official file system of the GDR and were forgotten.
They have been unearthed from federal archives by photographer Arwed Messmer. He digitalized them and knitted them together to create panoramas, sweeping views of the ‘inside’ of the Wall as it was originally built.
The pictures illustrate the provisional nature of the initial construction, sometimes made from the outer walls of demolished houses along the divide. A series of photos of the first watch towers also show the almost pathetic nature of their construction – at times it looks as if scavenged material was simply hammered together.
Messmer worked with author Annett Gröschner to marry the pictures with fascinating vignettes of cross-border communication – insults and jokes shouted over from west to east, incidents noted in obsessive detail by the eastern border guards, themselves unable to reply.
“When the soldiers were on duty they had to record what was shouted at them in their reports,” Gröschner told The Local.
“We found the reports from 1962 and 1963. They would categorize the remarks, so if someone threw something over, a present for someone, it was regarded as an attempt to make contact. If someone shouted ‘Ulbricht must die’ [referring to East German leader Walter Ulbricht], it would be categorized as an ‘ideological diversion’.”
One such incident involved a 35- to 40-year-old West Berliner who laid a letter and two cigarettes on the railings at the border crossing on Chausseestrasse and then called to the guards, “Take that to Walter Ulbricht”. The guards fired off two warning shots and the man pretended to have been hit, bending over and saying, “I die for Germany.”
Another note, taken at 4:30 am at the Liesenstrasse cemetery, recorded a man shouting over, “Shoot that dog back there, I can’t sleep.”
A record was also made of a distressing incident along Bernauer Strasse, when a soldier charged with the demolition of house number 48 called out “Mama” from the first floor of the ruined building to a woman standing in the western area. When his superior ordered him to immediately leave the site, he wept, saying, “Can’t you see that is my mother?”
At the corner of Clara-Zetkin Strasse and Ebertstrasse, a West Berlin policeman called over, “Is it as cold with you as it is here with us?”, while his colleagues on the banks of the Humboldthafen spent their time shooting at ducks.
More cheeky was the man who called across the wall at Potsdamer Platz, “Come over, we have beautiful women for you. And you’ll get a car too. Sooner or later we’ll get you anyhow.”
There was also detailed collection of information about escape attempts, which Messmer and Gröschner have also uncovered and show in their exhibition and book. These ‘crime scene’ photos and details were particularly revealing, said Gröschner.
The soldiers would have to record everything to do with the person they had caught, if the crossing attempt was unsuccessful – and gather up anything left behind by those who made it across.
“They noted the identity of the person concerned, the date of birth, address etc. It was mostly young men who tried to leave this way, young women seemed to try different methods, via marriage for example. It was all recorded, where they tried to get across and how, and a sketch was made of the scene as well as photographs, it was really like the analysis of a crime scene – one to one like that.”
The pictures are also on display at the exhibition running at a gallery in Berlin until October 3. “For us it is about showing the other side, it is something you do not expect,” said Gröschner.
“This other view shows a different side of things, that is our simple aim. We want to tell those stories.”
The exhibition is housed at Unter den Linden 40, 10117 Berlin and is open from 10 am until 8 pm until October 3.
The book, ‘Aus Anderer Sicht. Die frühe Berliner Mauer’ is published by Hatje Cantz.