Conflicting Paths A Trail Blocked by History

In the leafy Berlin suburb of Potsdam, residents are caught in the middle of a long-simmering feud between city officials and owners of upscale villas. In the most recent salvo, the homeowners have blocked a shoreline path that traces the former route of the Berlin Wall.
Von Stephanie Siek

When Berlin and surrounding communities opened up the Mauerweg, or Wall Trail, in 2007, the idea was to create a path that traced the former borders of West Berlin, divided from East Germany by a death strip and the Berlin Wall. With most of the Wall now torn down -- save for a few isolated stretches, occasional guard posts and barbed-wire fences -- the historical site was to be transformed into an scenic location for cycling and walks as well as a living memorial to the deadly barricade that divided the East and the West for 27 years.

The entire Mauerweg is saturated with historical significance, but the stretch that skirts the Griebnitzsee Lake in upscale Potsdam is especially rich. The palatial villas that line the lake in the neighborhood of Babelsberg -- also home to the world famous film studio -- were once the retreats of Berlin's elite: intellectuals, businessmen and movie stars. Later, the Nazi regime seized the homes of Jewish residents and used them for its officials. Some of the homes were also temporary domiciles for world leaders like Harry Truman who had gathered for the 1945 Potsdam Conference. After World War II, the shoreline mansions became part of East Germany and were used as day care centers, schools and government offices.

Twenty years after the fall of the Wall, however, some of the divisions created by World War II and three decades of Cold War are continuing to mar the view. From almost the very beginning, the trail has been divisive -- at least with wealthy homeowners at Griebnitzsee, who would prefer not to have history in their backyards. The owners say they have a right to enjoy their lakeside views and all of the property that they, or their ancestors, paid for -- without having strangers traipse across it.

Within two weeks of a regional court ruling in April confirming that the villas' property extended all the way to the waterline, owner-erected barriers -- a mix of aluminum construction fencing and potted shrubs -- began sprouting up on parts of the trail. And now, an uninterrupted stroll along the lake requires a boat. It has also resulted in the closure of key stretch of the 160-kilometer Mauerweg, which was constructed between 2002 and 2006.

"The New Berlin Wall"

Christiane Raffauf, who lives on a street above the lake and is a member of the group Griebnitzsee für Alle (Griebnitzsee for Everyone), argues the path should remain open as a site of historical significance. "The Wall and the border to West Berlin once stood here," says Raffauf, "and for the past 20 years, people in Potsdam and Berlin and tourists from all over the world have been using it. It must be reopened."

Other critics have called the barriers "the new Berlin Wall" and have accused the property owners -- some of whom are wealthy former West Germans who snapped up property in the east after reunification -- of everything from avaricious capitalism to discrimination against former East Germans in Potsdam. The suburb was formerly part of the German Democratic Republic.

But Christoph Partsch, the attorney who represented six of the owners in the recent court case, has accused officials in Potsdam of trying to create the impression that West Germans who bought property in the city were elbowing aside the interests of a formerly East German public. "I refuse to separate these clients by the laws of Nuremburg or by categories that express prejudice between East and West," says Partsch. "It's very mean political manuevering by the city and its attorneys to depict this as being between the rich and poor or East vs. West. This is simply not true."

The path, he says, which the city has long sought to transform into a park, has never been public property. It was private property appropriated first by the Nazis, and later by the East German state as they cordoned off West Berlin. It was still state property when the Wall came down in 1990 and people began taking strolls along the paved path that only East German border patrols had been able to access before. Since then, though, much of the property has been returned to its rightful owners -- and Partsch says the city has shown blatant disregard to owners along the path.

"They created a kind of interregnum system whereby people kind of took over private property and thought it was public property, which it never was," says Partsch. "The city of Potsdam did everything it could to delay the restitution of these properties."

Each side accuses the other of rejecting previous compromise proposals. Partsch says that in 2004, owners offered to permit the use of the path as long as it was closed at night and as long as certain restrictions were placed on bicycles. The city's spokeswoman, Sigrid Sommer, says Potsdam rejected the deal because it would have violated a decision by the city council that shoreline paths should be open to both bikes and pedestrians. The city has offered to buy the land and has threatened to build a wooden pathway over the water around the villas or to expropriate the land constituting the path if it can't get owners to cooperate. Local politicians calling for owners to be stripped of their property have been unpleasantly accused of resorting to the same tactics used by the Nazis and communists to secure land.

A Bridge instead of a Rift?

Officials in Potsdam, though, say they want to continue negotiating. "We want to find solutions to save the path for the public," says Potsdam city spokeswoman Sigrid Sommer. "This is not just the idea of politicians and City Hall. People use this trail because it is part of the special landscape we have here in Potsdam."

Potsdam's immediate position has been weakened by the recent court ruling, but city officials aren't giving up their push to come up with a new compromise. This week, the two sides agreed to enter into a mediation process in the hope that the ribbon of land will come to symbolize a bridge, instead of a rift.

However, the fact that the dispute has come to a head in the same year in which the region is celebrating the destruction of the barrier between east and west is especially galling to those who want the path to be free.

Activist Raffauf says owners knew about the path when they bought the houses.

"They own the house and an obligation, and that obligation is to allow people to use the public way near their property," said Raffauf.

Not all the villa owners in the neighborhood are blocking the trail, she said. Some -- including filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, who won an Academy Award for "The Tin Drum" in 1980 -- have allowed people to use the path below his house. A number of homes have signs like, "We don't barricade!" And some homes across the road from ones with barriers feature banners reading "Free the shore path!"

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