Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Berlin Wall - 44 Years Later

Last Remaining Tower of the Berlin Wall

 I last crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie in 1969 on a family vacation to Europe.  We flew from Hamburg to Berlin on a short 35 minutes Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight. Twenty four years after the end of WWII, West Berlin had been cleared of rubble.  The streets were clean but many blocks empty.  Cranes dominated that half of the city as new construction began to carry out instructions from international architects brought in to fill a world lost to bombing.


The Berlin Wall was eight years old and West Berlin a political hotspot, where the Cold War played out daily.  President Nixon had visited West Berlin in March of that year to huge crowds.  Miles Davis would play in November with equal numbers of fans.  Americans were loved for keeping supply lines open to the western half of the city.

I remember clearly the excitement of crossing into East Berlin.  We sat on the top level of a double decker tour bus, providing a nice view of the guards.  East German guards closely checked our passports pictures and ran mirrors under the bus.   Despite instructions not to photograph anything,  my oldest brother slipped out our movie camera, put it on his lap and filmed the gate and wall as we crossed the border.

Compared to West Berlin, its eastern counterpart was shut-down.  Rows of apartment buildings had been built but many old bombed out apartments stood silent, awaiting their turn to be torn down.  As the tallest building in Germany, the TV tower of  Berliner Fernsehturm had just been finished in 1969 but we weren’t allowed to ascend. Few people or cars were out.  Our guide followed a script as we rode through the quiet streets.  It just felt sad.

Tourists at Checkpoint Charlie
Forty four years later in 2013, one must search to find remnants of the Wall that fell in 1989.  A brick pattern inserted into streets and sidewalks marks its past presence. Checkpoint Charlie is now a tourist trap with fake American and Russian soldiers posing for pictures with young women.  Einstein’s Kaffee Checkpoint Charlie Shop sits on one corner with Ben and Jerry ice cream for sale on another.  Looking north across the “border” is an active business street filled with cars and pedestrians and the cranes are now in East Berlin.

Outer and Inner Wall
of Chapel of Reconciliation
Only three parts of the original 100 mile Wall still stand and we visited them all.  The Berlin Wall was actually two walls with a cleared space between for easier shooting of escapees.    Design of the Wall changed each time an escape was  successful,  ending with a curved top to prevent anyone from holding on.   At Bernard Strasse, the  original layout made clear the difficulty in getting out.  Even if one scaled the first barrier, a second awaited.  On a walk through the interior space between walls, we slowly viewed  names and photos of the 138 persons who died trying to flee. The only remaining guard tower that would have been feared in 1969 now seemed lonely and harmless.   Most moving was the new Chapel of Reconciliation, built of earth in the round, with an outer and inner wall symbolizing the actual Berlin Wall.


 East Side Gallery
East German Trabant Crashing though Wall
East Side Gallery
At the East Side Gallery, graffiti artists were commissioned to paint murals at a second Wall location.  This portion follows the Spree River which can be seen through chiseled out holes in the wall.  The crowd was younger and very international.   Paintings tugged at our hearts.  One showed  the leg and shoe of a young man trying to escape over the wall.  In another, an East German Trabant car crashes through the barrier.  Several had peace and love themes and many artists signed their names and websites.  Just before we arrived, protesters tried to stop a developer from tearing down a portion of this wall but heavy equipment was brought in at night to do the deed.
Berlin Wall near Topography of Terror
At the final location, a small section of the Wall borders the Topography of Terror display and museum where the story of the Nazi’s use of intimidation and ruthlessness to come and stay in power is detailed.  Anyone who spoke up was interned or killed and all were humiliated. Painful photos of the descent into hell are abundant.  By placing this museum next to the Berlin Wall, the two tragedies intertwine, revealing years of repression for East Berlin and Germany.

Walls never work or at least they don’t work for long.  From the Great Wall to the Security Wall in Israel to the talk of a border wall with Mexico, the idea always seems simple.  But it is really a break down in imagination.  A government can’t find a better solution than a concrete wall, which only gives resolve to those being penned in or kept out.  They do eventually fall.  Berlin had the foresight to preserve portions of this inconvenient and unintentional monument, reminding us all the human spirit will eventually prevail. 

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