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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Some of the Wall paintings were evocative and downright scary in their starkness.
While others took a more obvious approach to their subject.
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.
True to their graffiti roots, many of the paintings incorporated poetry and prose into the artwork. Some of the statements leaned toward naivety.
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?