Flash mobs of noisy demonstrators have managed to stop a private developer from removing sections of the longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall, at least for now. But the ongoing dispute over whether to shift a 23-metre section of the longest remaining piece of the wall to make way for new condos and offices runs much deeper than the wall’s shallow foundations.
The wall was the symbol of a forcibly divided city and nation for nearly three decades, and much of it was eagerly torn down in 1990 and 1991. Its remnants have become focal points for contending visions of what Berlin’s present should look like, and how its past should be acknowledged.
The proposed development is the latest in a wave of structures built near and east of the wall since the city was unified, in what some have seen as a capitalist victory march. The developer, Living Bauhaus, says in a brochure that its new 63-metre tower will provide “the highest possible quality of life and comfort.”
The company says it will use part of the land freed up by shifting chunks of the wall to restore a bit of vanished Berlin: a pedestrian bridge destroyed during the Second World War. Living Bauhaus also claims allegiance to a 1919 manifesto that was central to an influential design school suppressed by the Nazis in 1933.
The wall’s defenders say that chipping away at the remaining segments compromises what the American entertainer David Hasselhoff, who performed on the wall in 1989, described in a tweet as a monument that “signifies freedom, perseverance and the sacrifice of human life.” The 1,280-metre stretch of wall that runs through the development site is also an open-air gallery for art works painted on the wall’s surface in 1990 by more than 100 artists, most of them German. More than 70,000 people have signed an online petition to preserve the East Side Gallery, as it’s known, and to stop luxury development on the former “death strip” near the wall’s eastern face.
The East Side Gallery is said to get an estimated 800,000 visitors annually, and was restored just four years ago at a cost of $3.35-million. The gallery as a whole was granted heritage protection in 1991, but Franz Schultz, mayor of the district, told The Guardian “the investor has a legal right” to take down the disputed section.
The conflict at the wall is part of a protracted tussle over development along the Spree River that has divided Berliners much as waterfront exploitation polarizes opinion in Toronto or Vancouver. Neither side of divided Berlin was economically well developed for its size during the Cold War, which has made the rush of activity after unification all the more traumatic.
But Germany also has a burden of commemoration that seems to grow heavier every year. According to a weekend report in The New York Times, for example, U.S. Holocaust researchers recently determined that the total number of ghettos, concentration camps and related sites maintained by the Nazis during the Third Reich is around 42,500 – a huge increase from the 7,000 previously tallied.
It’s unclear whether any of those will join the increasing numbers of what French historian Pierre Nora calls lieux de mémoire – sites of remembrance. Mr. Nora, writing a few years after most of the wall came down, says that part of the modern condition is the feeling that we are always breaking irretrievably from the past. Heritage sites and other physical repositories of memory provide “a residual sense of continuity.”
It’s that desire for continuity that leads Berliners to chant outside in the cold to save the wall they once hated. What was once a symbol of death is becoming a bulwark against the visible extinction of memory.
A history of the wall
The Berlin Wall was really a complex of barriers that ran through the divided city for 43 kilometres and around the perimeter of West Berlin, for a total length of 155 kilometres. In many places it was about 70 metres wide, but could swell to include alarm fences, death strips filled with sand or spiked mats, additional slab walls, watchtowers and tank traps; at sensitive spots like Potsdamer Platz, these fortifications could span 500 metres.
The East German government rebuilt and strengthened the wall three times, and a fourth, high-tech version was being planned when the state collapsed in 1989. Within two years, most of the fortifications were bulldozed or carried away in pieces by souvenir hunters.
A decade ago, the German Research Foundation financed an exhaustive study of all the remaining parts of an oppressive barrier that had morphed into “an architectural monument of international significance.” Parts of the found-<QL>ation’s interactive website (berlin-wall-map.com) read like an archeological study of ancient ruins.
Other sections describe fairly extensive remnants, such as the city’s last complete section of border control, at Bernauer Strasse. This was where Berliners were filmed in 1961 jumping from the windows of tenements jammed against the wall’s east side to the street below on the west.
Even there, the most telling memorial no longer exists. The neo-Gothic Church of Reconciliation stood in a death strip and was literally walled in, front and back. The East Germans tolerated this unwelcome symbol until 1985, then blew it up. A small chapel was built on the sanctuary foundations 10 years later.