Disagreement and controversy: How to ensure the crimes of the Berlin Wall are not forgotten?

There was heavy security at the official Berlin Wall Memorial at the weekend as Angela Merkel and other European leaders paid their respects to the 140 killed trying to cross the border from East to West Berlin. “No wall that keeps people out and restricts freedom is so high… that it cannot be broken down,” she said, drawing parallels between 30 years ago when the Berlin Wall was opened for people to cross and today.

Members of the public also came to visit the memorial and museum, which explains the Wall’s history and to climb an observation tower overlooking the only place where the complete multi-layered system of border fortifications can still be seen. Between the inner and outer walls (examples of both remain here), visitors can walk on what was once a heavily guarded area, known as the ‘death strip’. There’s also a surviving watchtower that was used by the authorities for additional extra surveillance.

Until 1989 some 300 streets in Berlin were cut in half by the Wall. Bergstasse, at the edge of the Berlin Wall Memorial, is the only one where the border still runs through it – all other examples have been removed.

But as I wrote in my last post, overall not much remains of the Wall as a whole. The area around the Berlin Wall Memorial – which stretches for a mile along Bernauer Strasse – is therefore one of the best places to come and try to understand what happened here.

The GDR regime decided as early as December 1989, the month after the border was opened, that it should be torn down instead of creating new crossing points. Work began on removing the Berlin Wall between the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie the following March. By November 1990 most of the inner-city sections of the border had been removed. In total less than two miles of the former Wall have been left in place.

Sections of the Wall were soon sold to countries all over the world, providing a welcome financial boost for the crippled finances of the GDR regime. Sections with graffiti attracted the highest prices, so there are cases of them being sprayed after the Wall fell to increase their value. The first offer came in the day after the border was opened and parts of the Wall can be found in more than 50 different countries (I saw a section in Montreal, Canada, recently). There is today more on display outside Berlin than within the city itself. Chunks of the Wall were also bought by tourists from the world over.

Preserving the Wall

Hope M. Harrison was a student in 1989, who happened to be booked on a flight to Frankfurt and an onward connection to West Berlin the day after the wall fell. “We are flying into history,” the pilot told passengers on her plane over the loud speaker. Harrison was writing her PHD on the Berlin Wall and for the next 10 days she watched history unfold as different parts of the Wall came down.

Now an Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University, Harrison wrote her first book (Soviet up the Wall) about the Wall itself. Her recently published second book (After the Berlin Wall: Memory and the Making of the New Germany, 1989 to the present) covers the past 30 years and considers different interpretations of how it is remembered.

I attended a recent talk in London where Harrison talked about some of the people she met in the course of researching her book. One of her interviewees was Manfred Fischer, the former pastor of the parish Reconciliation, whose church (built 1892) found it was located in the death strip when the border was erected in 1961. Services were moved the parish hall, from where Fischer could see the isolated building until it was blown up by the GDR in 1985. Strapped for cash, the GDR even sold TV rights of the event to the ABC network.

When the Berlin Wall came down, Fischer campaigned for memorial surrounding the parish centre on Bernauer Strasse because he wanted “future generations to see… what happened here, the human misery that occurred when from one night to the next people were separated from their families on the other side of the street”. He added: “We will show people who come here: where there are walls, where there are divisions, in a world where there are more walls as the world gets smaller, these must fail.”

Fischer – who died of a heart attack in 2013 just months after his retirement – became particularly incensed by ’Wall Peckers’ who began removing sections of the wall. “It was a death machine, not a souvenir,” he told Harrison in an interview. “It was dangerous. We must retain part of it so people will have some idea of what it was like.”

But not all supported his plans, not least two neighbouring churches. The pastor of Sophien parish had seen some one thousand graves exhumed from their cemetery by guards as it fell within the border zone of the Berlin Wall. It hoped to one day restore that burial ground and thought preserving the piece of wall would jeopardise plans. Furthermore, the Sophien pastor claimed that some Second World War graves still remained and so shouldn’t be disturbed, although it was later proved through scientific tests that the skeletons were no longer there.

Another institution, Lazarus, was opposed to the scheme because it blocked a path that led to its burial grounds before it had been cut off. Its pastor thought that people had looked at the Berlin Wall for long enough and that the section should be removed.

The Berlin Senate approved the Berlin Wall Memorial scheme in August 1991, but continuing disputes between the different parties meant the competition for the memorial wasn’t launched until 1994. Construction was due to start in 1997, but this was disrupted by pastor Hildenbrandt removing two large sections of the wall.

And then there was a dispute about the wording on the memorial, which was simply to mention the “victims of the division.” Families of victims were annoyed that the blame for deaths was anonymous and made no reference to the deliberate policy of the regime to kill. But a compromise was reached and on August 13th 1998 it was finally dedicated “in memory of the division of the city from August 13th 1961 to November 9th 1989, an in remembrance of the victims of the communist tyranny.”

The design of the memorial, which was paid for from federal funds, was not to everyone’s tastes either. One group called the two steel sheet segments that were added as a piece of artwork to the preserved section of original Berlin Wall border fortifications as inappropriate. The owner of the private Checkpoint Charlie Wall Museum said he thought the Berlin Wall Memorial was “just art” and was “not at all clear what it means”.

Over the years the Berlin Wall Memorial has been expanded. In November 1999, on the 10th anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall, a documentation centre – which contains an exhibition charting the wall’s history – was opened in the Reconciliation church’s parish house. There is a big use of multimedia, interviews with many victims and others associated with the border crossing. Those behind the exhibition wanted to provide a number of perspectives on this history, allowing visitors to form their own conclusions.

Documentation Centre

The following year a Chapel of Reconciliation was dedicated on the site where, as already discussed, GDR border guards had blown up the previous church. Artefacts recovered from the old church, including three bells and wooden altarpiece, have been reused in the new one in the same position. The baptismal font, cross from the old tower and rose window from the entrance of the original church were also incorporated in the minimalist design of the new building. It heavily features sustainable natural materials, particularly loam (containing clay, sand and silt) and its funding including many private donors. Prayers are said here for victims of the Berlin Wall at noon from Tuesday to Friday every week. The outline of the original, larger church has been traced with markings on the ground outside.

Inside the Chapel of Reconciliation

Following the awarding of significant federal and city funds – and the agreement that this should be the main commemoration site for the Wall – the Berlin Wall Memorial was expanded to cover seven blocks and nearly a mile of the former death strip. The large open-air exhibition, which can be viewed from observation deck, includes the aforementioned watchtower. Its visitors’ centre was opened in 2009. You can see a number of other interesting features here, including remnants of the old border lights that lit up the patrol road here.

It 2010 came the Window of Remembrance, where the names and (most) photos of the 140 people known to have been killed at the Berlin Wall are displayed alongside biographical information, including their date of birth and where they were killed. There was a long debate about whether border guards who were killed in their line of duty should be commemorated here. In the end it was agreed that this should be separate and so an additional memorial was created nearby, where controversially in 2011 a group representing former border guards laid a wreath with the message: “Honorable Commemoration for the comrades who were killed while on border duty for the GDR. You are not forgotten.” It was soon removed.

Window of Remembrance

One of the more controversial elements of the Berlin Wall Memorial are rust-coloured steel columns which denote the position of where the Wall once stood. Critics believe they make the structure seem less oppressive than it actually was. But the fact there is space between the individual columns is significant; people can now walk through the gaps where once there was a barrier.

Surveys show that Berlin Wall is one of the main reasons visitors come to visit the city. This makes it even more important to preserve the Wall, to ensure that the barrier and its victims are not forgotten. The Berlin Wall Memorial means that story of the border and its fall can be told to future generations.

Berlin Wall Memorial