Heated History Berlin Still Divided on How to Commemorate Wall

It has been nearly 20 years since Berliners hacked away at the Wall that once separated East Germany from the West. Two decades on, its crumbling remnants remain highly controversial. Many would like to see Berlin make more of its unique history, but old wounds are taking time to heal.

By Jess Smee

Bernauer Strasse used to be just another unassuming residential street -- that is until the Berlin Wall catapulted it to international fame overnight. The street, which was built into the city's Cold-War-era divide, saw east Berliners flee to the West by clambering out of upper-story windows towards the crowds on the street below.

The historic images were beamed around the world and the road which lined the east-west border became an icon of the human tragedy behind the Berlin Wall. Today, despite its less than central location, Bernauer Strasse, is the site of the capital's memorial to the Wall, attracting a steady stream of visitors.

Coaches with foreign number plates stand just meters away from the grey concrete slabs of the former wall. Tourists wander through the Berlin drizzle: But those who expect a taste of the city's dramatic history often leave somewhat bemused.

"Part of visiting Berlin is finding trails of its unique recent history -- but it has been hard to find this place," said Juanjo Gonzalo, a Spanish tourist who was visiting the city for 10 days. "All we found was was a tiny sign reading 'Wall' by the metro station".

Nearby a group of British students stood around a map trying to establish which side of the road used to be the east and which was on the west.

The tourists' bewilderment has been supported by the German press which, this week, fired some sharp words at the important site. "A virtually indecipherable wasteland," ran a headline in Die Tageszeitung, while the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote: "Here Berlin has gambled away an inheritance of international importance."

Indeed, the site is far from straight forward to negotiate. One of its more controversial features is a massive Wall memorial, built by the Stuttgart-based architects Kohlhoff&Kolhoff in 1998. By positioning two steel walls parallel to each other, they wanted the reflections to create the impression of a never-ending wall. Unfortunately the metal has lost its shine and most visitors leave soon after they arrive.

Bernauer Strasse's Revamp

But the Berlin Wall Foundation, the group which runs the memorial site, rebuffs the critics, saying the current confusion will soon be a thing of the past. Later this year, on Nov. 9 -- two decades after the wall was deemed obsolete -- a new information pavilion is to be opened. It is part of a broader revamp of the Bernauer Strasse memorial, due to be finished by 2011. Thomas Klein, of the Berlin Wall Foundation, admits there are still some "big deficits" but says the facelift will make the history accessible to more people, using media like animation to guide people through the story of the Wall. Ahead of the anniversary, the site will also host some 50 events including open-air cinema, readings, concerts and art projects.

Klein argues the foundation faces a delicate task. "This is not the site of one serious crime. We need to represent different aspects -- the purpose of the divide, the Wall's victims and also the more positive associations of the end of the Wall era, for example" he told SPIEGEL ONLINE in his office just meters away from the Wall's bulky remains. "This is a deeply complicated place."

That complexity is compounded by the emotive power of the Wall for Berliners. Ever since the legendary press conference on Nov. 9, 1989 when Günter Schabowski, a member of East Germany's Politbüro, surprised journalists with news that people could travel without restrictions, most Berliners wanted to rid their city of what Westerners had dubbed the "Wall of Shame."

In the immediate aftermath of the news, locals and visitors laid into the concrete divide with chisels and hammers. At Bernauer Strasse, the structure is only intact today because a local priest defended the wall as a warning for future generations, even guarding it at night to ward off hammer-wielding Berliners.

Although the initial anger has faded, the ongoing sensitivity of the issue slows any decision-making. Just this week, amid much debate, the Berlin Wall Foundation, the organization in charge of the official memorial site, unanimously rejected a government call to rebuild a 19-meter-long hole in the surviving stretch of the Wall on Bernauer Strasse. Opposition to the project was strong -- with officials rejecting any "Disneyland" style reconstruction. As Klein said: "Building a new artificial wall was simply not an option."

Historian Brian Ladd, author of the book "The Ghosts of Berlin" also warns that the forthcoming 20th anniversary is an awkward time for Germany, not least because of the slower-than-expected pace of reunification.

"At the time, nearly everyone in Germany greeted the fall of the Wall as the great triumph of German history, an occasion for unalloyed joy. But it soon became clear that division had left wounds that would be difficult to heal," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Ever since the 1990s, Germans have had to ask: Can we celebrate the event -- unlike so much else in German history -- or do we have to think of it as a little like May 8, 1945, a time of sober reflection?"

Tourist Traps

But while decision-makers stall, Berlin is luring an increasing number of foreign visitors, many of whom are keen for a glimpse of the city's divided past. But their options are sorely limited. Aside from Bernauer Strasse, many take a polluted trek alongside the 1,300 meters of the East-Side Gallery -- Berlin's longest segment of the Wall, which borders a six-lane road. There are other, less authentic, responses to the influx of "Wall tourists". German students dressed up as Cold War border guards, now stand at historic border points like the Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie, earning their euros by posing for photos or stamping passports. At Potsdammer Platz, where the no-man's land has now sprouted skyscrapers, visitors take turns to photograph each other standing in front of a few pieces of the Wall, which have been repositioned near the metro entrance.

Elsewhere, a central Berlin hotel, the Westin Grand, has responded to the gap in the market by acquiring a large chunk of the former Wall for its foyer. Its guests can hire helmets and hammers to chip away their own chunk of Berlin Wall as a souvenir.

As the capital seeks to attract more visitors to offset the slowing economy, Christian Tänzler from Berlin's Tourism Marketing GmbH told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that it was time to take a more balanced approach towards the Wall's history. But he also acknowledged the extent of opposition within the city: "The people who suffered under the Wall still have the need to radically from themselves from it."

But at the Bernauer Strasse memorial site, standing by the redundant Wall is still a poignant experience for many Germans. Some join services in a simple chapel on the former no-mans-land, built to remember the estimated 136 people who died trying to cross the death strip into West Berlin.

Among those moved by her visit to Bernauer Strasse is Jutta Marten, a former resident of West Berlin who recalled how she tried to visit her grandparents in East Berlin on August 13, 1961, the day the Wall was built.

"Suddenly we were turned away. No one knew what was going on. It all happened incredibly fast," she said, standing alongside the building site near the Wall. "It is very hard for anyone to imagine how it feels to have your family separated from one day to the next. This place is authentic. It should help people to imagine how it felt."


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