Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Berlin Wall

At least 136 people, including 42 children, died at the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989. Some were shot or fatally injured while trying to escape. Others took their own lives when they realised their escape had failed.  The exact number of deaths caused by the GDR border regime has yet to be determined.

Given that large parts of the East German population did not agree with the political and economic system of the GDR and given that by August 1961 the GDR had lost a sixth of its population, the SED, the ruling party, began erecting barbed wire and walls to seal off the border all around West Berlin, hoping that this would end the growing mass migration to the West once and for all. But the barbed wire and walls were unable to completely stop the escape attempts. Consequently the border barriers in Berlin were continually expanded and reinforced.

The Gedenkstaette Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial)  north of Nordhof S-Bahn is the most moving of the city's Wall memorials and the only one where it's still possible to gain a true sense of how it divided the city.

Steel poles mark out the original route of the west-facing Wall. A short section of the Wall as it once was - both walls and death strip between - remain.

An impressive collection of information boards and large-scale photographs relating the stories of the years of division, focusing specifically on those who met their end here as well as those who survived are to be found around the site.

By 1989, fugitives trying to escape had to get over the inner wall that sealed off the border strip on the GDR side. Then they had to climb a signal fence that when touched activated an alarm in the watch towers where the border soldiers were stationed. Having passed the patrol road and a strip created to secure tracks, fugitives had to get over the final barrier - the nearly 12 foot border wall - before reaching the West.


The Window of Remembrance memorial, which pays tribute to the 136 individuals who lost their lives to the Wall with individual photos and personal data.

In 1997 the Sophien parish broke off two sections of the Wall that stood on what were believed to be graves from WWII. The Wall segments that were removed have been stored on the cemetery grounds ever since.

Approximately a thousand graves had to be moved when the border strip was developed. It is, however, possible that the graves of WWII bomb victims were not exhumed and that the border grounds were built over the graves. This cross commemorates them.

Across the road, the Wall Documentation Centre with a viewing tower that you can climb to contemplate the barrier and the way in which it once divided the city.

The Chapel of Reconciliation

In front of the chapel, a rye field, maintained under the metaphor 'where it is possible to sow, there is peace'.

The SED leadership had the Reconciliation Church blown up in 1985. During the demolition of the church tower this cross broke off the spire. Cemetery workers preserved it secretly and on the Day of Repentance in 1995, they returned it to the parish.

A modern, circular church built to replace the original that the GDR blew up in 1985, as it was deemed an 'obstruction'

The Reconciliation sculpture, created by Josefina de Vasconcellos. Copies exist at sites that were deeply affected by the war: in Coventry cathedral (which you can see here ), in the Hiroshima peace museum, and here, at the former border strip at the Berlin Wall.

Before the Wall was built, the residents of the border houses, which were situated directly behind the border, enjoyed a certain freedom: they had immediate and uncontrolled access to the West. When the border was closed on August 13, 1961, the residents lost this privilege. The Wall also separated friends and families living on Bernauer Strasse. Residents on the east side were faced with the decision of whether to go or to stay. Many decided to flee.

The buildings on Bernauer Strasse, whose front doors opened directly to the West, provided one way out. Although the buildings were guarded by the police, a number of people tried to enter them through the back doors on the east side. Some were successful.

The SED reacted to the large numbers of escapees by forcing all the residents of the border houses to leave their homes.

The ruins of the building in the photograph above stand for all the border houses that once stood here, on Bernauer Strasse.

A less dangerous route to the West appeared to be beneath Berlin's surface: several tunnels were dug between 1961 and 1989. Some of them were built from the East to the West, but most ran in the other direction. During the first decade after the Wall was built, escape helpers dug tunnels to bring over their wives, relatives and friends. Almost 90 people were able to reach West Berlin through tunnels at Bernauer Strasse. The sewage system was another route to the West until the secret police and East German police built barriers into it.

Mass escape from Potsdamer Platz, probably on August 13, 1961

Representation of Watch Tower B 9

Two days later we visited the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km stretch of surviving Berlin Wall painted with political and satirical murals that is now one of the city's best known landmarks.

Trailing the banks of the river Spree, this was the political boundary to West Berlin. The entire water surface belonged to East Berlin.

This was extremely disappointing and I would strongly recommend visiting the section of the Wall by the Nordhof S-Bahn instead, which gives a much better picture of what it was like.

The East Side Gallery is just a tourist circus with stalls selling GDR memorabilia, pieces of the Wall, or offers to stamp your passport with a GDR stamp

and loads of tourists

In 1990, 188 artists from 21 countries painted the Wall here. This, gave expression to the joy widely felt at the falling of the Berlin Wall.

One of the most telling mural, and often imitated, shows Brezhnev and Honecker locked in a passionate kiss, with the inscription 'God, help me survive this deadly love'.

We also visited Checkpoint Charlie, the Allied military post and the main gateway between the two Berlins for most non-Germans. In the Cold War years it was the scene of repeated border incidents, including a standoff between American and Soviet forces in October 1961, which culminated in tanks from both sides growling at each other for a few days.

It is barely recognisable now and is another tourist circus, as seen here with a tourist standing between two 'guards',  saluting, having her photograph taken by a friend.

Very different to the late 1960s when Ken, my partner, crossed to the East. It was the most frightening experience of his life, and he still remembers it vividly.

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