Berliners search for ways to remember the Wall

"I will not allow them to create a Disneyland reconstruction of horror here."

berlin wall remains  (photo credit: )
berlin wall remains
(photo credit: )
Half an hour before midnight November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, toppled by the pressure of thousands of citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR - East Germany) and the collapse of the Communist Bloc. Boisterously, joyfully, East and West Berliners hugged each other, celebrating personal reunions and the reunification of Berlin and Germany. They partied for days, and within months they had torn down almost all of the Wall's more than 93 miles of concrete. The heavy L-shaped concrete slabs were bulldozed and pulverized into street paving. Tourists armed with picks and hammers chipped away at the Wall, carrying off pieces as souvenirs. With typical droll humor, Berliners' called them "Mauerspechte" (wall peckers). Berlin's cityscape was irrevocably changed almost overnight, and in the years that followed no one seemed to even want to remember, let alone preserve, the Berlin Wall. But the political, social and economic unification of East and West Berlin remains elusive and conflicted even now, 17 years later. Over the past few years, Berliners have begun to search for a way to commemorate and remember the Wall that they so quickly and thoroughly dismantled. Says Thomas Flierl, Berlin's cultural minister, "We need remembrance. But remembrance can happen only after we have a distance from the events. And then, because of the distance, we need traces of reality to support our failing memories." Last June, to a great extent thanks to Flierl's efforts, Berlin officials approved the first comprehensive proposal to protect and expand the Wall remnants and create a memorial. The plan is expected to be completed by 2011, the 50th anniversary of the Wall's construction. But the plan remains controversial, underfunded and caught in tensions between the German municipal, regional and federal governments. The commemoration project also faces troubling political and ideological questions. What, exactly, are the Berliners trying to remember? What exactly did the Berlin Wall symbolize, to whom and when? What memories and which events should be preserved and how should they be interpreted? What should be preserved? And how? And as with all memory in Berlin, Berliners must find the way to interpret the connection between the Wall that divided them and the Nazi past that unites them. The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years. Initially, it was merely a crossing, and even though Berlin had been divided among the Allied powers after World War II, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled East Berlin and the communist GDR every month, seeking freedom and economic prosperity in the West. On August 13, 1961, with Soviet approval, communist leader Walter Ulbricht ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall. At first, the troops merely put up barriers of barbed wire on the demarcation line and blocked the streets and houses facing West Berlin. Subsequently, the barrier was built with pieces of concrete prefabricated in East Germany's state factories. On the eastern side, the wall surface was painted a stark white, so that fugitives stood out clearly against it. And if someone actually managed to cross the Wall on the east and the death strip in the middle, avoid the sensors and armed patrols and mount the four meter-high Wall, their hands would slide off the round concrete tube that capped it or be lacerated by the sharp glass shards embedded on top. According to the Berlin Working Group, an activist group that is researching escape attempts, nearly 1,100 people died trying to cross the Wall into freedom between August 1961 and November 1989. Today, throughout Berlin, the course of the Wall is marked by a double row of paving stones, but only a few sections remain standing. The most controversial memorial - and the most popular among tourists - is a museum located at the former Checkpoint Charley, the crossing point between the American and Russian zones. But the Checkpoint Charley memorial is operated as a private, profit-making museum and the parts of the "wall" that are visible to visitors are mostly rebuilt and reconstructed. And the museum presents a distinct message: the inevitable demise of the GDR, the victory of the West over the East and the ultimate defeat of communism by the free world. Flierl insists that a museum such as the Checkpoint Charley site should be maintained by the public for the public and should present complex messages consistent with the complexity of the issues. He promises that in the near future, Berlin authorities will establish a documentation center there, as part of the overall commemoration plan. THE LARGEST section of the Wall and the most comprehensive memorial are located at the Memorial of German Separation, located on Bernauerstrasse and established in 1998. Once a mundane city street, Bernauerstrasse was cut in half by the Wall in 1961. Houses in the East backed onto the pavement in the West. For the first few years, East Berliners tried jumping to the Western side. But soon the windows were boarded up and the occupants were forced to leave. Years later, the houses were torn down. An inscription on the sidewalk reminds visitors of Ida Siekmann. On August 22, 1961, she jumped from the third floor of her house at 48 Bernauerstrasse and died because she had not thrown enough feather beds out onto the sidewalk to break her fall. The eastern side of the street is still overgrown with weeds. Along Ackerstrasse, which ran perpendicular to the wall, most of the houses are still cemented closed. Along Bernauerstrasse, on the Western side, Berliners have built new, upscale apartment houses, with large parking lots and carefully tended gardens. The Wall was torn down quickly, but the lines of economic non-development and political repression will take much longer to erase. The Bernauer Memorial consists of three parts: a documentation center, the largest remaining section of the wall and the Chapel of Reconciliation. Flierl is particularly proud of this site, which was established largely thanks to his efforts, although he acknowledges that his own role is very complex. Flierl was a prominent official in the Communist Party before the Wall fell, complicit, at least indirectly, in the Wall's construction. Today he represents a left-wing party in Berlin's municipal council. "It is a particular challenge for me to face this issue," he admits. "Some regard my presence and involvement as a provocation. But I am proud of the changes I have made and the memorials we are creating." REV. MANFRED FISCHER, pastor of the Chapel of Reconciliation, is the on-site leader of the memorial. A diminutive yet powerfully articulate man, with sharp blue eyes and softly graying hair, he wears a clerical collar and a worn, hand-knit wool sweater. Local lore says that he personally stood in the path of bulldozers that came to demolish Wall segments. Fischer ministers to his parishioners and takes visitors on tours of the Wall Memorial. "Every day," he says angrily and sadly, "the political leaders on both sides declared that one day, this Wall would come down. But instead, every day, they built it bigger and more deadly. This Wall was not built as a document, but now it is a document that tells a terrible story." Fischer climbs up three stories in an open air tower, reminiscent of a watchtower, but with views to all sides. Along the walls and scaffolding, exhibits document the Wall's history. The top provides the overview of this last remnant of the Wall. Seen from above, the concrete Wall seems low, the death strip wide. The autumn sun reflects off the wire and metal, and the scene seems almost pastoral. "We look at this now," Fischer says. "It is a true remnant, but it is not reality. We are looking at a place of death. Now, it is peaceful, intriguing, but if we think carefully, this Wall can be made to talk, it can tell people what happened here." He crosses the street eastward, toward the Wall remnant. This is the only place where all segments of the Wall have been kept completely, with all its installations and barrier elements, the death strip, the patrol track, the street lamps and the Hinterland Wall, which is the part of the installation that the East Berliners got to see. This area used to belong to the graveyard of the Sophien Church. With the erection of the Wall in 1961, the graves in this border area were removed and the dead reburied. From the West, people could come close to the Wall, but from the East, even approaching it was dangerous. East Berliners built an unknown number of tunnels under this Wall installation, and some, especially tourists and local entrepreneurs, are demanding that the tunnels be rebuilt or built and opened to the public. "That would be obscene," says Fischer. "A person who dug those tunnels and fled through them was risking his life. He was creeping through a low, dark tunnel, leaving everything behind and not knowing what awaited him on the other side. We cannot pretend to know or understand that experience. I will not allow them to create a Disneyland reconstruction of horror here." He does want to create elements that would, he says, "force visitors to think, to confront their own morality. If we show a watchtower, then that will bring each person to ask himself, 'Would I have climbed up that tower? Would I have become a soldier? Would I have shot someone trying to escape? Would I have had a choice?'" A group of high-school students are touring the Wall. Most were born after it fell, and they seem more interested in each other and their "handies" (cellphones) and electronic gadgets than in the teacher who is trying to explain about the death strip. This is imposed memory, and, like most teens, they resist. A few of them peer through the outer Wall to "see what the West looked like from the East." They don't realize the irony - no East Berliner ever saw anything like this, since to get this close they would have had to cross the death strip. Fischer smiles indulgently and moves on, southward, to the Chapel of Reconciliation, completed in 2000 to replace the old original Church of Reconciliation that had stood there since 1895. While the GDR was hostile to religion, westerners continued to attend the church even after Berlin was divided into sections. But the construction of the Wall in August 1961 caught the church in the middle - literally. It stood to the south of Bernauerstrasse in the East, while most of its participating congregation lived to the north, in the West. As the Wall was widened and reinforced, the church was left, grotesquely, in the middle of the death strip, completely inaccessible. It was a thorn in the side of the GDR, since its patrols had to detour around it, and it obstructed their line of fire into the death zone. In January 1985, the East Germans blew the church up, then razed the ruins. Fischer was assigned to the parish in 1975, long after the church was abandoned. "We could only look at the church and be frustrated," he remembers. "And after they destroyed it, we could only look at the ruins and be pained." Only four years after the church was razed, the Wall fell, leaving the parishioners with a strip of grassy earth as wide as the former death strip and an empty plot of land where the destroyed church had once stood. FISCHER REMEMBERS the day in November when he climbed through the first hole in the Wall and walked toward the East. "I had maps and aerial pictures, but that was knowing my city in my head. It was different to know it in my body. I walked for hours, feeling that I was coming to know myself again. And then I approached the empty space where our church had been. It was such a sad place. I had a sense that I needed to heal, that we needed to heal the land, the city, ourselves." The city returned the plot to the congregation, on condition they use it for sacred purposes, and the parishioners chose to build a new chapel on the foundations of the destroyed church. The church, a bold yet contemplative design, is made of massive stamped clay, in which the small stones from the blown up church, collected from the ground, have been embedded. The oval-shaped chapel is surrounded by translucent facades of wood louvers. Though covered, they are simultaneously in the open. Inside, the pews have been placed in an elliptical shape, in contrast to the traditional straight rows. The space has two axes, that of the old Church of Reconciliation, which is oriented toward the old altar, and a second that, in adherence with the wishes of the congregation, faces traditionally eastward, directed toward the incomparably simple altar of compacted clay. The parishioners have incorporated the communion vessels, baptismal font, altar Bible and church bells, all of which, they found, had been stored in East Berlin before the church was razed. "This church is a workshop of the future," Fischer says. "We have combined old materials and new, modern design - that is life, the mingle of the new and the old, as men and women come together and new life is created." But few of the parishioners come from the East, where the GDR had repressed religion. "The East had been more affected by this interruption of natural life," Fischer observes. "But the West was also affected. It is emotionally and economically expensive to live with a wall. You must divert energies that should be devoted to building and creating. The wall was a process, and so the rebuilding is a process." THE CONGREGATION has instituted prayers for the victims of the Wall and a book in which the names of those victims have been inscribed. "Fifteen years after the Wall fell," Fischer says, "people didn't even know who the victims were." The congregants have collected some 40 biographies so far and, on the day that each person died, they conduct a simple religious service, light a candle and place a single flower next to the book. On the land surrounding the church, parishioners have planted fields of rye. "This land was agricultural until only 150 years ago," Fischer says. "We'll turn it back to farmland - we can transform the death strip. When we planted here, we did not know what this soil would do and we found that it gives us harvest. What a wonderful metaphor. It is a transformation, a sign of life. "In many places left open by the Wall, Berliners have built the new Berlin - young, urban, future-looking, exciting. They have done that well, but they destroyed what came before. Our congregation chose to do something else. We do not want to pretend that the Wall was merely an episode in history, yet we want to also take the new opportunities that the space has created. We neither want to erase the wheel of history nor continue in the same direction. We must transform." Fischer's approach appeals to his parishioners and to Berlin officials. Yet as he himself acknowledges, some East Berliners think that it is absurd to preserve any parts of the Wall. He is in an ongoing struggle with many local residents who want life to be "normal" and do not want the memories - or the tourists - crowding their streets; he must also fight the developers, who recognize the real estate potential in the vacated empty lots. Fischer's theological and philosophical ideas and emphasis on personal and collective transformation avoid the political dilemmas that Wall commemoration poses. And furthermore, as he himself asks, does patronizing the East lead to a relative rehabilitation of Nazism, which can then be compared, sometimes favorably, to the later repressive regime and viewed as merely one more form of totalitarianism and fascism? The memories remain disjointed, not entirely coherent, perhaps emblematic of Germany's own confused attempts at remembrance, commemoration and forgetting. Fischer says that each generation will have to decide the meaning of the Wall, and of all of Germany's past, for itself. "We cannot freeze history. We must move all the time to get a firm grip on our past, and if you lose that grip, you will lose your memories."