Berlin's Invisible Wall Little Is Left Today of the Cold War's Most Famous Monument

As the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall looms, some locals wonder if they could have taken better care of one of the world's best-known monuments. Less than a quarter of the Wall is under historical protection and you can find more pieces of it overseas than in Germany.
Von Cathrin Schaer

On their first visit to Berlin a group of young Irish tourists decide to check out the East Side Gallery. They travel to where tourist maps tell them the gallery is and spend the next hour wandering along what appears to be a busy highway flanked by a graffiti-covered wall. "Where's this so-called gallery?" they curse, before giving up and heading back into the center of Berlin for more productive sightseeing.

There's some embarrassment later on when they find out that the big concrete wall they were walking alongside is actually one of the most important monuments of the 20th century, symbol of the Cold War and global shorthand for, firstly, political oppression and then, peaceful revolution. Yes, the Berlin Wall.

This is not an uncommon tale. Simply put, there's not a lot of the Wall left to see. And much of what is left can be hard to identify. After 20 years of spy stories, Hollywood thrillers and newspaper photos of East Germans in positions -- aloft on the Wall, hammer in hand -- that would formerly have gotten them killed, your average visitor to the German capital expects a little more from their Berlin Wall experience.

Yet somehow, up until very recently, most Germans did not seem to regret the disappearance of the Wall. Nor have they been inclined to make a big deal out of what's left.

For example, even Berlin locals might be surprised to know that there are actually over 1,000 sites in and around Berlin where remnants of the Wall can be found. Yet less than a quarter of them are protected by any sort of conservation edict.

As you read this, remnants of the Wall are disappearing or being demolished. As late as 2004, a piece of the very first, temporary Berlin Wall of 1961, was found and photographed by researchers. It has since disappeared as the area was beautified.

Today there are also 300 large sections of the Wall on display around the world, everywhere from Los Angeles to Riga to Moscow; in fact researchers say there is more of the border Wall in the rest of the world than in Berlin.

Should the Wall Be Given World Heritage Status?

And, while 1920s modernist apartment blocks in various Berlin suburbs are -- deservedly -- on UNESCO's world heritage list, the Wall itself has never even been submitted for inclusion on that list.

As an architectural historian and professor of conservation at the Technical University of Cottbus in eastern Germany, Leo Schmidt has been assessing the remains of the Wall for the past decade. He's written a book on the subject and is on the advisory board of the Berlin Wall Foundation, a group founded late last year to consider what to do with the Wall. He is also a member of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a body that works with UNESCO. And, the professor says, whenever he has asked his international counterparts how they would feel if Germany were to submit the Berlin Wall as a potential world heritage site, they always reply, "If only you Germans would just go ahead and do it."

The information is there, the documentation is there, the cultural and historical significance is obviously there. What's been missing up until now, Schmidt says, is the will. "If I ask people in Germany the same question, the response is completely different," he says. "They think you're mad."

So why don't the Germans care about the Berlin Wall as much as the rest of the world?

Professor Schmidt has some theories. "When I started working on this project 10 years ago, nobody was willing to accept this (need for preservation). The general feeling seemed to be, 'Why should we deal with this just because the rest of the world expects us to?'"

Hope Harrison, an associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC, who is currently writing a book on the debate that's been going on in Germany since 1989 on what to do with the Wall, believes it has to do with coming to terms with one's own history. "I think it was the mood of the time," said the frequent visitor and sometime resident of Berlin, who arrived here for the first time on Nov. 10, 1989, the day after the Wall came down. "I don't think it was any desire to deny history. I think the point back then was to go back to regular life, the way it was before the Wall. It was more like a feeling of 'we're sick of this, let's just be a normal country again'."

And so from early 1990 onwards, the Wall was removed -- firstly, by the military and then later, by the so-called "cuckoos" who tapped away at the Wall for souvenirs. And although conservation was being discussed as early as 1990, demolition that year proceeded much faster than expected so that even the few stretches that were placed under protection were not necessarily complete.

Shifting Attitudes Towards the Wall

Schmidt believes prevailing political attitudes may have played a part. "I think the politicians in the 1990s felt that doing anything to preserve the Wall back then wouldn't get them votes," he says. "But I also think they underestimated their own population."

For example, at a recent conference organized by the Berlin Wall Foundation, an elderly lady in the audience, who had lived right next to the Wall on the eastern side, spoke about the joy of greeting her neighbors in the west for the first time. But she also talked about how, even back then, she and her neighbors didn't think the Wall should just disappear. They even wanted to keep the watch tower on their street. But nobody asked them, she adds.

It is only as recently as 2004 that serious thought began to conserve the remains of the Berlin Wall. "It has taken 15 years for the Germans to come to the conclusion that they should protect and preserve the Wall," notes Harrison. "The tide turned in 2004."

That sea change can be traced back to the day that Alexandra Hildebrandt, the owner of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, a commercial concern, erected 17 original cement blocks saved from the original Wall, in the middle of town.

"And in the wrong place too," Schmidt recalls, laughing. "I think it was then that the city government finally realized that this was getting out of hand," he says.

"A Reminder of an Uncomfortable Past"

But it's different for native Berliners, protests Petra Roland, a spokesperson for Berlin's Department for Urban Development as she explains why it's taken so long for the local government to take action. "It was a border, it was a reminder of an uncomfortable past and everyone actually just wanted to be rid of it," Roland says, "which I think can be hard for outsiders to understand."

Today around 26 sites with Wall remnants in Berlin are protected. Early this coming November, on the anniversary of the Wall's fall, the results of the work of Schmidt and his colleagues have done in tracing all the remnants will go online in the form of a Google map.

Although academics would like to see every remnant protected because it is hard to know what will matter most to future generations, there are other practical considerations. No one wants to navigate a pillar in the middle of the road on the way to work, just because it was once part of the Wall. Outside of Berlin, the Wall comes under the jurisdiction of several different German state governments, making cooperation necessary. And some of the remnants are on private property, which makes conservation tricky. There's also that delicate balance between the desires of tourism and the needs of locals, commercial interests, education and memory, that must be maintained.

In sentiment reflected by one senior conservator who spoke on the condition of anonymity, some fear that if the Wall were to be classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, it would simply become a tourist attraction rather than a meaningful memorial to the Cold War.

Academic Harrison adds, "it's not just about finding a way to preserve the concrete, it's also about how to portray the Wall, the victims and the perpetrators."

"The process (of getting approved by UNESCO) is long and complicated. Just look at what happened with the bridge in Dresden," Roland says, seeking to explain the reason politicians in Berlin don't necessarily want every piece of the Wall to be classified as a world heritage site. Earlier this month, UNESCO stripped the Dresden Elbe Valley of its world heritage site status after the city moved ahead with controversial plans to construct a 635-meter (2,100-foot) bridge in the listed area. The Berlin government would instead prefer to get the Wall classified as a site of European cultural heritage, Roland says. After all, unlike other UNESCO listed areas -- such like Berlin's Museum Island, for example -- "the Wall isn't particularly beautiful, or architecturally worthwhile."

Although getting onto the UNESCO list of world heritage sites would be positive, Professor Schmidt admitted it was not the most important part of today's work to preserve the Wall. A world heritage listing, historian Schmidt concludes, "is an aim but not a priority. In this case, the journey is more important than the destination. I believe the Wall should be viewed as much more of a complex entity, both physically and psychologically. The Berlin Wall is a process that's has gone on from 1961 and that continues to go on today."

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