Rare East German Photographs: The Other Side of the Berlin Wall

Concerned about security problems, the East German communist regime ordered border guards to snap photos of the Berlin Wall in the 1960s. The images, which were top secret, were lost in an archive for decades. Now a new exhibition will reveal hundreds of the photographs, digitally spliced to create remarkable panoramic views of the infamous landmark.

In the years following the Aug. 13, 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall, the barrier was scattered with gaps and weak points, emboldening a number of East Berliners to attempt escape. The undesirable security situation prompted the communist regime to send border soldiers out on a mission in 1966 to do what was otherwise forbidden to ordinary citizens -- take photographs of the Wall. The detailed documentation of the "anti-fascist protection wall," as the East German regime called the barrier, was meant to help identify permeable sections for fortification.

The photos, discovered in the Potsdam military archive in 1995, have now been digitally combined by Berlin photographer Arwed Messmer to create some 340 panoramic images of what the Wall looked like in the 1960s. The reconstruction will be presented in a both a book and public exhibition entitled "The Other View: The Early Berlin Wall," which begins on Aug. 5 and is timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day Berliners awoke to a divided city.

The panoramic shots, found by both Messmer and Annett Gröschner, who co-authored the book, provide a unique perspective on the boundary through the Berlin city center. Unlike the tall concrete wall covered in graffiti that resides in collective memory, the structure that divided Berlin at that time was a ramshackle patchwork of wire fences, building walls and concrete sections.

Tragic Stories

Perhaps most surprisingly, the images revealed that the capitalist part of the city was not as shiny and new as East Berliners might have thought. According to the organizers, the photos show "a strangely disparate West Berlin that by no means seems to correspond to the myth of the 'Golden West.'"

To accompany the images, Gröschner researched events that took place near each location during the 1960s and chronicled them in captions that appear with the photos. In border control files, she found a number of stories detailing tragic and deadly escape attempts. Others tidbits are quite humorous, however.

"Why don't you come on over, we've got nice women. And you'll get a car too," reads one caption that references comments made by a West Berliner to someone on the other side near Potsdamer Platz. "Whether it's now or later, we'll get you anyways."

The exhibition "The Other View: The Early Berlin Wall" runs from Aug. 5 to Oct. 3, 2011 at Unter den Linden 40 (second floor, between Friedrichstrasse and Neustädtische Kirchstraße), 10117 Berlin.

-- kla

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