Where is the wall?

“Here it was. Right here, where you are standing now. The spot where it happened…” Authentic places have a great attraction, tourists shiver when the tour guide reveals that this is the place where….

Berlin 2007 – Tourists stray the city in search for the Berlin wall, locals try to remember where the wall actually stood and the younger generations can hardly imagine a divided city like the one only 18 years ago. Going to visit the Berlin wall today is not that easy. Only little remains of this huge open-air cold war monument and those few places are not easy to find in the city. Considering that it was here, where the cold war became the most visible, it is surprising that so little is left of 155 km of wall.

The wall determined the fate of the city for 28 years. More then 120 people died on the borders around West Berlin trying to flee the GDR (the exact number of victims is still not known). After the German reunification most parts of the wall were removed quite quickly, already in 1990. Only now people are beginning to think that it might have been a mistake to destroy it to such a large extent. If visitors don’t want to rely only on photography and video material, there are merely one or two places in Berlin where they can actually grasp what this dividing structure really looked like.

Tear down this wall

“There hasn’t been a coherent wall memorial concept so far, just remains of the wall scattered over the city – a double row of cobblestones in some places to mark the former border and a few disparate signs and plaques about the wall victims” explains a spokesman of the culture bureau of the Berlin government.
During the nineties, an expected real estate boom, long lasting restitution trials for formerly confiscated land and a feeling of rejection from people who wanted to get rid of a symbol of a rather painful past left little room for the development of a thoughtful memorial concept.

With most of the wall gone, a research project was started in 2003 to catalogue what was left. The documented objects are predominantly traces of the wall, rarely the wall itself: coloured markings on streetlights and houses, rusty remains of the electric lighting of the border system or marks of barriers in the asphalt.

The wall around the bloc

The Berlin wall divided the street where I grew up into two parts. My part was the eastern side with our house about two hundred meters away from the border. After the wall was opened, I was quite astonished to find out that the street on the other side had the same name as mine did – the other part was missing half of the street numbers.

Surprisingly, even as I grew up quite close to the wall, I have almost no memories of how this part of the closed street looked like. As school children we strolled all the backyards in the area, climbed a lot of other walls and ruins and discovered abandoned houses…those are things I remember. But we never went the direction of the border. It was as if there was a blind spot caused by an unpleasant feeling – policemen in arms patrolling the grey and white painted wall did not help in making the place more inviting either.

From my eastern part of the street, one could see the houses of West Berlin. What still comes to my mind today is that in the past during Christmas times dwellers in the west always had colourful and blinking lights in their windows. In the east we did not have them, and blinking colourful lights in the window somehow became a symbol to me of how living in the west must be like.

Since 1989 my united street became a major arterial road. The authentic location of the wall became waste land that is mainly used for walking dogs. In my street, the former no man’s land hosts an Asian kiosk and from time to time a circus or fairground.

One of the few somewhat preserved parts of the border system is just around my bloc, on Bernauer Straße. In 1998, a remaining section of the old wall was included in the official national memorial to the victims of the German partition. The 80 meters strech has been for the most part kept in its authentic shape from the second half of the nineties, with the electric fences and other facilities damaged or taken away.

The memorial highlights two walls and the so called “death strip” by separating them from the environment by huge steels gates. Through observation slits on the east side the visitor can have a look at the former “death strip” in between the two walls. Accompanying it is an information centre and a look-out to the former border.

In spite of the potential of this one and only memorial spot that gives you a slight idea of what the Berlin wall actually looked like, it remains surprisingly ignored by the hordes of tourists coming to Berlin. Instead, they turn to Checkpoint Charlie, the major tourist hot spot for “wall watching” in Berlin. It is located in a commercially more successful area and is easily accessible in between shopping on Potsdamer Platz and taking photos of the Brandenburger Tor.

Vous sortez du secteur authentique

The famous border crossing between the American and Soviet sector in the city centre at Friedrichstraße already became a symbol of the cold war during partition. The checkpoint was eventually removed in 1990 and today only a copy of an American guard house reminds of the historical site. Next door is the famous Berlin wall museum which displays a quite colourful mixture of objects related to the history of the border.  

At Checkpoint Charlie authenticity reached its top, when in 2004 a Disney-like wall memorial was temporarily erected through a private initiative. A 120 meter section of the Berlin Wall and a field of more than a thousand wooden crosses in memory of the ones who died at the East German border system was erected.

However, the concept of this memorial raised doubts in many. The wall wasn’t put on the authentic place but a few meters to the side (it would have blocked traffic in the busy area otherwise) and some crosses were set up for people who are actually still alive. But with all its shortcomings the project finally triggered a wide debate on how to remember the city’s recent history.

Since then, a governmental commission has come up with a general memorial concept for the Berlin wall, only 18 years after the opening of the border. The blueprint foresees a decentralised structure of memorial spots, spread over the entire city.

The existing Bernauer Strasse memorial is at the heart of this plan. It will be enlarged to include one more km of remaining borderland along Bernauer Straße. The Berlin government is going to buy the plots, so that no further apartment blocks can be built in the memorial park, such as has already happened. Meanwhile, historians and urban planers are still discussing concrete plans on how to shape this authentic place for future generations: whether to create and rebuild replicas of walls and fences or to uncover and preserve the few traces and remains that can still be found on their original places has not yet been decided.

If the concept gets realised, visitors as well as inhabitants of the city will be able to learn about recent history at various documented places along the former border line.

In the meantime, tourists will have to try hard to read the traces while the site of the wall is disappearing more and more into the city. If you want to uncover layers of history and find authentic places without a guide, then a visit to Berlin might be appealing.

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