Darth Vader vs. Death Strip: Berlin Wall Sinks into Cold War Disneyland

By Frank Hornig

Politicians in Berlin are searching for a suitable way to commemorate the construction of the Berlin Wall. But the most prominent scenes around the former partition are increasingly being exploited by creative entrepreneurs.

André Prager has sold many things in his life. First he tried his hand at fruit and vegetables, later switching to hawk sweets as a salesman for an Italian chocolate company. Then he discovered the Berlin Wall and its business potential.

Sitting in his sales office, Prager, 39, is beaming from ear to ear. His company's "Trabi Safaris" are a huge hit, with tourists from around the world touring the route of the former Berlin Wall in Trabants, East German-made cars with rattling two-stroke engines. "Discover the last relics of real-life socialism," he promises his customers.

With their unwieldy gearshifts and smelly exhaust fumes, the 120 Trabants in Prager's fleet provoke loud outbursts of laughter from his international guests already at the beginning of the tour. Guides try their best to recreate the odd world behind the Wall. "Safari" guests are subjected to traffic checks by men dressed as officers of the former East German police force. A now they are also forced to exchange their euros for East German marks, which they can spend on such classic Socialist fare such as "Solyanka," a Russian soup, or an Eastern European version of ragoût fin.

But are businesses like this trivializing East German history?

Gazing out from under a baseball cap emblazoned with the image of a skull, the businessman looks surprised when he hears the question. "The Trabi isn't a symbol of oppression," Prager, who was an East German citizen before he became an entrepreneur, says. Instead, it represents "deceleration" and the yearning for a simpler world, he adds. "Anyone who can make money with it should give it a go."

Kitsch and Memorials, Side-by-Side

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, a date the city is commemorating in extremes. Creative entrepreneurs and senior government officials are addressing the Wall and its consequences in very different ways, with kitsch and serious remembrances often featured side-by-side.

On Aug. 13, the president, the chancellor and other top politicians will attend a ceremony at the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse. There will be serious speeches, and once again there will be much talk of how, where and from which perspective the state and German society should commemorate the 136 Berlin residents who died at the Wall, along with German partition in general and the injustices of the East German dictatorship.

Meanwhile business is booming for entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on the anniversary. East Germany is being reborn as a tourist attraction. In a number of central locations, its former capital has the feel of a big amusement park, like some tongue-in-cheek Haunted Mansion in which the ghosts of the past entertain the tourist audience -- with the friendly support of people who dress up as Mickey Mouse, Indian chiefs and Darth Vader from the "Star Wars" saga and routinely pose for photographs in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

Business is so brisk that politicians and conservators are seriously discussing whether Berlin is turning into a Cold War Disneyland. Some are even calling it a "Venice effect." They worry that a Berlin that succumbs to hordes of tourists could ossify into scenery of the country's East German and Nazi past -- a museum of the 20th century.

The developments are creating a competition in the German capital between business and commemoration of sensitive events, tourist entertainment and a public culture of remembrance. At issue is who gets to tell the story of Germany's division -- and which original locations in the city are used to convey it.

Fragments of History

For years, most Berliners wanted nothing more than to see the Wall disappear. They objected to what they saw as a badge of shame, and they wanted the city to grow together. They were more interested in starting the reconstruction of an imperial palace that was destroyed long ago than in preserving anything more than just a few fragments of a still extant monument to world history.

The Germans, in keeping with their reputation for thoroughness, removed 99 percent of the border facilities. In doing so, they also dismantled a concrete memory of the horrors of German division and discarded what could have been a memorial for future generations.

What remained were remnants for historic preservationists, including half-destroyed concrete sections of the wall that recently underwent a so-called "stress test" to assess their risk of collapse.

Thus the Wall, which the East Germans had officially dubbed an anti-fascist protective barrier, finally became a wall in people's minds, an imaginary place that various players from the federal and state governments now seek to occupy. Some prefer to emphasize the victory of freedom and the market economy, while others would rather draw attention to the policy of détente and the East German civil rights movement.

These differing visions have led to years of intensive debate over suitable forms of commemoration. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and private citizens have already co-opted the most prominent sites of German partition, imposing their own concept and business ideas.

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