Fifty years after the Berlin Wall was literally built overnight on Aug. 13, 1961, very little of it is left to look at. So little in fact, that some – even those who nearly lost their life because of it – want to see portions of the much-hated structure rebuilt.
Two years after former President Ronald Reagan declared, “Tear down this wall!” the 1989 revolution not only led to Berlin’s reunification but brought legions of souvenir-hunters to the city, chipping away at the “anti-fascist protection rampart” with chisels and hammers.
Industrial-size machinery joined the effort and by 1991 the wall, which East German leader Erich Honecker had promised would last a century, had all but disappeared. Ever since, historians have complained, and tourists have been disappointed.
“It was wrong to take all those pieces of Berlin Wall, paint them and send them off into the world as souvenirs of a peaceful revolution,” says Berlin’s former Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who governed West Berlin from 1984-89 and a reunited Berlin for a decade beginning in 1991.
A few weeks ago Mr. Diepgen proposed to put parts of the wall back up, “as accurately as possible, with barbed wire, watch towers, and spring guns, so the brutality of the system is evident.” His article in a Berlin daily caused strong public reactions; readers called the idea “bizarre,” “ahistorical,” “the wrong signal for the city.”
The wall, reproduced
For the moment, the only place to find the wall as it once stood is away from the city center, on Bernauer Strasse, home of the Berlin Wall Documentation Center.
Bernauer Strasse wasn’t just divided down the middle like many other streets in Berlin. The border actually ran through houses – looking out of a window would mean your head was in the West while your body was still in the East.
In the first weeks after the wall was built, people rappelled from windows to escape, and a couple to be married in the West got its bridal bouquet thrown from a window by relatives stuck in the East. And the famous photograph of an East German border guard deserting and jumping the barbed wire was taken here.
Now the Berlin Wall Documentation Center gives an impression of what the border really looked like, including a 70-meter (230-foot) section of double wall, complete with death zone and watchtower.
“There were quite a few people who said, let’s keep a bit of the wall,” says Pastor Manfred Fischer of the Reconciliation Chapel, which is situated next to the documentation center. “The problem was, no one wanted to keep that very bit right in front of their door. So we said, let’s do it here, in Bernauer Strasse.”
Pastor Fischer fought hard to keep a part the wall intact. “It is the place where world history and people’s personal lives touched, were compressed into one,” he says, adding that divisions remain to be overcome even if the wall that cemented them is gone. “And even if most of it is gone, culturally, socially, politically Berlin has yet to reunite completely.”
A ‘Disney’ version of the wall
A few miles southeast on the northern banks of the Spree river, there is another part of the wall that was kept – a part that critics like Mr. Diepgen dismiss as a “Disney version” of history.
The East Side Gallery is a strip of wall adorned with paintings by international artists who came to Berlin in the heady days of 1989-90, celebrating the revolution by splashing an explosion of color onto the white canvas that was the eastern side of the wall (the western side had been covered by graffiti for a long time already).
But critics complain that the use of the wall as a canvas for post-revolution art does little to show the harsh reality that the wall once represented. Instead of a memorial, they say, it’s merely a tourist attraction, where sight-seeing buses crawl past slowly so people can take pictures, and fake Russian military outfits can be bought from a stall.
A victim of the wall regrets its disappearance
Not far from the East Side Gallery, across the river at Elsenstrasse, one of the most dramatic of many escape attempts took place – but no plaque, no sign speaks of it.
As a young conscript in the East German army, Wolfgang Engels had to help build the wall in 1961. His unit was driven to Berlin and ordered to put up barbed wire barriers to keep people away from the building site that would turn into the Iron Curtain.
“I was the only Berliner in my unit,” he says. “We hardly understood what was going on, but I felt terrible.”
Two years later, the pressure had become too much. Mr. Engels decided to leave – and he wasn’t going quietly.
On the eve of the May 1 celebrations in East Berlin, Engels stole a tank that was meant to be part of the military parade, drove it through the city, and crashed it right into the wall.
When the wall withstood the collision, Engels got out and climbed it, getting shot twice in the process. But he was rescued by West Berliners, who pulled him out of the barbed wire and carried him to a nearby bar.
“I came to on top of the counter,” he says. “When I turned my head and saw all the Western brands of liquor on the shelf, I knew that I had made it.”
But does he think that more of the wall, which almost cost him his life, should have been preserved? Definitely yes, he says.
‘No matter if there are monuments’
His opinion is not shared by some among the younger generation, however.
“I don’t care that so little of the wall is left,” says Anna, a 20-year-old student.
She sits with her friends on the grass at Mauerpark, or wall park, not far from Pastor Fischer’s chapel. Nothing here reminds of the border, it’s just an open space where on summer weekends thousands of young people hang out, make music, and play volleyball. It’s a party place, where people dance on the ground that once was no-man’s land. Many of them weren’t even born when the wall fell.
“No matter if there are monuments or not,” Anna says. “Berlin is the exciting, lively, fresh place that it is, because the wall was there – and because it came down.”