Die Mauern: The Berlin Wall (East Side Gallery)

by Chris on October 27, 2010

Berlin’s don’t-miss historic site has to be the East Side Gallery, a series of murals and graffiti painted on a remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Germany during the Cold War, has fallen. Which means that there’s a whole generation out there that doesn’t remember the city split into two by the dreaded Mauern, or the Wall.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

But the Wall is so integral to the images that I formed of Berlin growing up that I’m splitting up my photos and info on visiting the Berlin Wall into two posts. This one will show the largest section of the Wall that’s still standing, the graffitied East Side Gallery in the former German Democratic Republic. The second will deal with two Berlin museums, the Topography of Terror and the Checkpoint Charlie museums, that focus on the indignities that Berlin’s residents endured as the Soviet Union and NATO perpetuated the Cold War throughout Europe.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

I studied German in junior high and high school, so I remember reading about the 1948 Berlin Blockade, where the Soviets tried to cut off West Berlin from food and supplies, and the mass exodus from East Berlin into the West that spurred the building of the Wall in 1961. I remember seeing images of people being shot trying to cross the no-man’s land between East and West Berlin.  I remember Ronald Reagan entreating Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”  in 1987. And I remember watching the revelers dancing on top of the fallen Wall in November 1989, swarming through the Brandenberg Gate to reclaim their city.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

At the time, the Fall of the Wall was a stunning event, one that glued us all to our television sets.  While it didn’t hit home as much as the Twin Towers falling on 9/11 for obvious reasons, it still marked the end of a significant era – something that can be hard to understand today.

Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

Berlin has marked where the wall stood with a brick path that runs through the city. There are also a few segments of the Wall standing in Potzdammer Platz, as well as along  Niederkirchnerstrasse, where the open air Topography of Terror exhibit is located.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

But by far the best place to get up close and personal to the Wall is the East Side Gallery,  a mile-long stretch of the Wall on Mühlenstraße, between Oberbaum Bridge and the Ostbahnhof close to the Spree River (technically, the river itself provided the barrier; the wall segments that are still standing are from the interior barricade). Your visit to Berlin is truly incomplete without seeing these former barriers refashioned into canvases featuring remarkable paintings of hope and freedom.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

The Wall has a history of attracting artists, even when it was still in use. Keith Haring and Thierry Noir were among the name artists who used the western side of the Wall as a canvas for murals during the Cold War. Eventually, the constantly changing Wall graffitiin West Berlin became a tourist attraction in its own right, whereas the east side of the Wall stayed grimly clean.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

Of course that prime real estate for graffiti artists didn’t stay blank for long, once the Wall fell. By 1990, a group of international artists were invited to create murals of their reaction to the November 1989 fall of the Wall on the surviving pieces in former East Berlin.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

The site hasn’t always been revered. Over the years, the original paintings were tagged by other graffiti artists and thrill-seekers who marred the pictures with random scribblings. Pollution and decay continued to crumble the artwork. So in 2008, a massive restoration project took place to fix the deteriorating landmark.  (Although it seems idiots are still prone to writing inane “I was here” messages, despite the anti-graffiti signs posted everywhere).

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

As you walk along the East Side Gallery, you can’t help but be moved by some of the pieces. The end of Germany’s division has often been called The Peaceful Revolution, as it started with small political protests in Leipzig (which I also visited on this trip, so more to come on that city). The original protests centered upon the Chinese government’s violent crackdown on protesters in Tienanmen Square, but soon became a reflection on East Germany’s own repressive government. Although the country’s Communist leader Erich Honecker called for the military to surround the protesters, the movement grew to the point where it couldn’t be contained. Similar protests arose in other East German cities, such as Dresden, and Honecker was forced to resign on October 18, 1989 – just six weeks after the original Leipzig demonstrations began.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

My husband and I were both struck by how low the Wall actually seemed in person (of course, it looked quite a bit more sinister when surrounded by guard towers, barbed wire and armed guards). We spent several hours walking up and down the length of the Wall, taking in the paintings and talking about their emotional effect.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

Like the Ampelmann, the Trabant has become an affectionate symbol of the former East Germany. You can take guided Trabi tours around Berlin, as well as Leipzig (I wanted to do this but my 6’5 husband begged out). But if you look past modern-day kitsch, you realize that the Trabant represented a last-ditch escape mechanism for many East Germans, who often tried to get smuggled out in the bare-bones cars.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

Some of the Wall paintings were evocative and downright scary in their starkness.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

While others took a more obvious approach to their subject.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

As the celebration of the Trabant proves, Communism now has a kitsch factor, visible through the souvenirs of Russian fur hats and military caps sold at former East German sites. The photo to get at the Wall? An image of yourself trying to push it over, as these tourists show.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

True to their graffiti roots, many of the paintings incorporated poetry and prose into the artwork. Some of the statements leaned toward naivety.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

But I really liked this one, which summed up the Peaceful Revolution, in my eyes. “Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.” That’s a message worth considering, no matter what era you live in.

I’m sure others out there have visited historic sites that have moved them. What is your favorite and where was it?

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathan Kraft (in New Zealand) October 28, 2010 at 7:52 pm

The Berlin wall was one of my favorite and moving sites. Another was Tikal in Guatemala. It is amazing to sit in amongst the ruins of civilizations from a thousand years ago, civilizations we think of as “primitive” and see that they were neither primitive nor ancient. They knew things that we’re still trying to figure out today.

Shame they didn’t all have the Internet… glad I live in an era that makes instant global communication possible.

It’s scary the power we all hold in our hands, and truly wonderful too.

Thank-you for your incredible write-up about the wall. Truly an amazing statement about humanity’s depths, and heights, and what it takes for us to reach our potential.

Warmest,

Jonathan

Reply

Kelsi November 11, 2010 at 10:56 am

great post. the wall and the art on it have a powerful ability to evoke reflection.

Reply

Marianne Schwab November 14, 2010 at 2:10 am

I recently saw the Berlin Wall — in Malibu California! The Rosenthal Estate Wines property has two graffiti covered “slabs” of the Berlin Wall erected and presented as artistic sculpture. It’s a moving piece of history no matter where you see it. Your photo essay is compelling and quite moving and makes me want to see it for myself.

Reply

Ric Garrido March 10, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Lovely to see you wall photos Chris. The images are pristine compared to their current state.

I photographed every mural yesterday and I found the entire East Side Gallery a travesty to see the massive amounts of graffiti covering the same murals in your photos.

Most of the murals look like crap now with all the random graffiti covering the main pieces of art. I guess that is freedom for you. Anyone and everyone has a statement of expression on the wall and most of them are quite unattractive.

What amazed me is in 2000 when I photographed the murals, they were in much better condition (in terms of being relatively free of graffiti) after far more years than the new murals are now after just four years since being repainted.

There are far prettier murals on the buildings across the Spree River bridge from the East Side Gallery.

Reply

Leave a Comment


{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: