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Berlin tries to preserve remaining traces of the Wall

The Local · 9 Aug 2011, 07:35

Published: 09 Aug 2011 07:35 GMT+02:00

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There is little more than three kilometres left of the 155-kilometre (96-mile) barrier that once made East Berliners prisoners of their own country. But authorities in the German capital are now keen to protect the hated part of their heritage.

This was not always the case in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 in the course of a peaceful revolution in communist East Germany.

"In the early 1990s, 90 percent of Berliners were desperate to get rid of the Wall," Rainer Klemke, a city government's cultural affairs officer, told news agency AFP ahead of the 50th anniversary of its construction on August 13, 1961.

He recalled that initial euphoria drove much of the destruction, as well as a fear that the border could be closed again if the Wall was still there to maintain it.

"Then in the 2000s, Berliners began asking what happened," he said.

This gave rise to the Berlin Wall Plan, adopted in 2006 by the city government comprised of a coalition of centre-left Social Democrats and the hard-line socialist Left party, which is the successor to the East German communist party.

"The idea was to divide up the Wall sites in a thematic way," Klemke, who piloted the project, told AFP.

These included Checkpoint Charlie, the famous Cold War border crossing that saw a stand-off of Soviet and American tanks in October 1961; the Brandenburg Gate, which now stands for German unity; and Bernauer Strasse, the site of several dramatic escapes from the communist state.

A "Parliament of Trees" by artist Ben Wagin is dedicated to the estimated more than 600 people killed trying to flee, and the longest stretch of Wall still standing, the 1.3-kilometre East Side Gallery, is decorated with murals that cover different aspects of the city's tumultuous history.

Meanwhile a government office has developed a Berlin Wall smartphone application to guide history enthusiasts.

Since 2006, pedestrians and cyclists have been able to trace the former border along a demarcated path called the Mauerweg, or Wall Path.

The main museum and open air memorial, on Bernauer Strasse, the site of Saturday's official commemorations, has seen the number of visitors jump to 500,000 last year from 300,000 in 2009, said Sarah Bornhorst of the memorial foundation.

Following a recent expansion of the site, stretches of the Wall still standing there that were in danger of collapse are being restored using funds seized from the East German ruling party after national reunification.

Yet the long list of scattered memorials has not stopped tourists, who numbered a record 20.8 million last year, from asking "Where was the Wall?"

Markus Klug, a 28-year-old German visiting the capital, lamented the lack of relics.

"It just disappeared, as if it never existed. I would have liked to see a bigger piece of it, to see how it was before, with the guard towers and everything," he said, viewing a small slab of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz in central Berlin.

"When you arrive in Berlin, you obviously won't bump up against the Wall," Klemke admited. "It is not a question of the length (of the remaining traces) but of visual aids to explain how the structure worked."

He said a little curiosity coupled with a willingness to zigzag among the various sites would pay off in helping understand a fascinating period of recent history.

Story continues below…

"If you can manage to interest people who have never immersed themselves in the subject, if only for a few minutes, that's a success," Klemke said.

He is upbeat about the prospects for keeping memories alive in Berlin, pointing to the still brisk sales of tiny pieces of the Wall - albeit of dubious origin.

"It remains a symbol of hope for all oppressed peoples that translates around the world and for the young," he said.

And what about the young people on Potsdamer Platz who stick their chewing gum to the slabs? Klemke is not bothered.

"After all the Wall is not the Mona Lisa," he said.


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Your comments about this article

09:06 August 9, 2011 by wood artist
For many tourists, I think one of the problems is that they envision the wall as running in straight lines...from point A to point B. In fact, as we know, the exact path was seldom very straight. On streets like Bernauer Strasse, other than the pieces that have been maintained, there is little to "see." The old death strip is mostly just undeveloped ground, which is fine but not very visual.

As I've visited that area over the years, I've sometimes thought that what would be "interesting" might be a section rebuilt as it was early on, with the "wall" consisting of the ground floor walls of the buildings that had been demolished, complete with bricked up windows and doorways. It would certainly present a dramatic view of that reality.

However, a part of the problem is that too many tourists arrive expecting to find something they've imagined, and when it isn't that way, they're somehow disappointed. That, I don't think, can be blamed on anyone in Germany. More than once I've gone to check out something historic and discovered it's not at all what I was led to believe. Some of that might have been marketing hype, but sometimes it's just faulty expectations.

All that said, I do hope the wall will never fade away. Like Topography of Terror, it happened there, and we need to learn from it. Berlin is too full of lost history already.

10:19 August 9, 2011 by Lachner
I agree with your comment wood artist. I think that most people that visit Berlin are disappointed because they imagine a straight wall going from North to South and this is not Germany's problem, but merely an issue of imagination. I think that the actual sites are fantastic! I recently visited Berlin and had the opportunity to visit the East Side Gallery, Topographie Des Terrors, the DDR Museum, the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie and the majestic Brandenburger Tor. The rich history of Berlin must be conserved for all the World to learn from it.

It would be awesome though, if they could rebuild a section of the wall with guard towers, barbed wire, DDR officers and the sand traps. This would be very educational and attractive for tourists.
15:25 August 9, 2011 by The-ex-pat
It also goes to show peoples complete lack of history and awareness to the Wall. As an cold war child, the news often showed the wall and it was clearly not a straight line. Not only that but a check of any period map will show this too.

It is all part of the quick fix society we live in. OK, Berlin on Tuesday, check the wall out and home for tea. Also most people think that wall was just that, a wall. However it was a lot more, guard towers, barbed wire and mine fields and death. But as long as they go home with a bit of concrete that they think is ex-wall they are happy, they have seen the wall, or what is left of it.
13:48 August 12, 2011 by wood artist

Earlier this year I stumbled across a couple of fellow Americans in the middle of the city. They noticed the double-row of cobbles crossing a sidewalk near Potsdammer Platz and said "You mean the wall was here too?" Since I was handy, I started talking to them, and they had no clue. They were both old enough to have remembered the time, albeit not actually in the city.

Sadly, as you have observed, most tourists come, look at the major sites, ride around in a bus, and then leave, thinking they've seen "it all." I keep going back, and find something new every time. This last trip, I headed down to see Gleis 13, and found another holocaust-related site that almost no one knows about. It's not hidden, just not "on the tour."

Like every other city, Berlin's history isn't easy to find on a ten-minute tour. Ah, if only those buildings could speak.

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