Berlin Wall, 1961-1989, R.I.P

August 13, 2011

There is something a bit bizarre, yet fascinating, about the way Berlin and the local media mark the anniversaries of the Berlin Wall’s construction on Aug. 13, 1961 and the anniversaries of its collapse on Nov. 9, 1989.

There are many of the same things each time: sombre speeches, fancy ceremonies, countless thousands of stories in the print and TV media and a general consensus that A) the Wall was a horrible thing B) the Communists who built it were loathsome liars C) its collapse was a  glorious moment in German history and D) its memory should serve as a global symbol of  the yearning for freedom.
Yet like Berlin itself, which has gone through what are probably the most dynamic changes of any big city in Europe in the last two decades, elements of the commemorations have been shifting over the years and the city’s view of the wall has also been transformed.  Incredibly enough, some Germans now miss the Wall – a few diehards both east and west who feel their standing of living has gone down since 1989 want it back the most (about 10 percent, according to a recent poll) . But many others, especially those too young to remember it, lament that there is so little left of it to see and feel.
Indeed, almost all of the Wall is gone. Yet 10 million tourists still come to Berlin each year looking for it. “Where’s the Wall?” is probably one of the most commonly asked questions by visitors. The answer – unfortunate or fortunate, depending on your point of view – is that there’s almost nothing left.
It was all torn down in a rush to obliterate the hated barrier in late 1989 and early 1990.  Only a few small segments were saved – one 80 metre-long section, for instance, behind the Finance Ministry that was saved thanks to one Greens politician who declared it to under “Denkmalschutz” – a listed monument. That enraged many Berliners at the time.
Despite the lack of Berlin Wall to look at and touch, a thriving cottage industry has grown up at some of the places where it once stood. You can get a “DDR” stamp in your passport if you want from a menacing looking soldier in an authentic East German border guard uniform (who appreciates tips) at Checkpoint Charlie or have your picture taken with others wearing Russian army uniforms. You can buy Wall souvenirs at many of the points where the Wall once stood.
Some leaders such as Mayor Klaus Wowereit now admit it might have been a mistake, from today’s point of view, to so hastily tear  down all but a few tiny bits of the Wall in 1989. “There’s a general complaint that the demolition of the Wall was a bit too extensive,” he told me recently. “That’s understandable from today’s point of view and it would probably have been better for tourists if more of it could have been preserved. But at the time we were all just so happy to see the Wall gone.”

Wowereit added, interestingly enough, the biggest divisions in Berlin today are in the media and in the political parties: Easterners still read east Berlin newspapers and west Berliners stick to west Berliner dailies while the Left party is often the strongest in the east and the conservative Christian Democrats are stronger in the west while his Social Democrats do fairly well in both halves of the city. “The typical Kurier reader is from the east and won’t set a foot in the west and the B.Z. reader won’t set foot in the east. The Berliner Zeitung is more in the east and the Tagesspiegel is more in the west. To keep sales up, they obviously have different focusses. It’s rare that they have the same topics on their front pages and I think that’s a bad thing. They play up the east-west differences. What’s typical Berlin and what unites this city is, however, that everyone gets worked up about everything that in the end isn’t anything very important. If there’s talk about tearing down the ICC (conference centre in west Berlin), then they applaud in the east and say ‘Our Palace of the Republic’ (an East Berlin government building) was torn down — it’s sort of like eye for eye. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s Berlin. It’s only a problem when people try to whip up those differences.”

Berlin has taken some steps in the last few years to restore some of the Wall for posterity and the all-important tourists, who bring a lot of badly revenue into the fiscally strapped city.  A whole cottage industry of books about the bits of the Wall that are still left has also emerged — inlcuding “The Berlin Wall Today, Ruins, Remnants, Remembrances.”  One of my favourite ways to see at least where the Wall was and small bits of it is the Berlin Wall Trail,  a 160-km bike path that follows the route of the Wall and offers a fascinating glimpse into the city’s Cold War history.

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R.I.P.? The loss of the Berlin Wall is not something to mourn. The people who died trying to cross it, and those who suffered behind it, those are the people we should be remembering. The Berlin Wall can rest in hell.

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