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The Berlin Wall as a Memorial

By Paul Sigel

The memorial site of the Berlin Wall has various levels of significance. On the one hand, there are many individual monuments in remembrance of the victims of the division of Germany. On the other, the dividing line marking the border is a unique monument of German history.

In view of the significance the Wall had, both with regard to its practical dividing function and as an all-too-evident symbol of the confrontation of antagonistic social systems, it is intriguing to see how few superficial traces of division can still be directly experienced today, 16 years after the border opened. In spite of the social and mental differences between East and West, the one-time wound of urban planning between the two sides now seems to have largely healed. Only rarely is there any visible reminder of the Wall.

berlin wall
The Berlin Wall

Removing traces of the Wall

Immediately after the opening of the Wall in November 1989, it began to be dismantled. At times, this involved ordinary people, who celebrated it as a political event. In the wake of German reunification, the political will was declared not only to create political and economic unity, but also to reunite the divided city of Berlin as quickly as possible. This was particularly important for such prominent places as Pariser Platz near the Brandenburg Gate, the curve in the River Spree near the Reichstag, and Potsdamer Platz. In constructing compact new building developments there, the idea was not only to establish a link with these places’ pre-war significance, but also and above all to give expression to the fact that division had been overcome. At first, only a few politicians and intellectuals thought that the course of the Berlin Wall was worth preserving. Apart from a few fragments, the border had completely disappeared from the face of the city after just a few years. Only three larger areas remained intact in the city center: fragments of the Wall along Bernauer Strasse, in the so-called “East Side Gallery” and near the “Topography of Terror” along Käthe Niederkirchner Strasse.

Wall memorials

Long before 1989, there were already a large number of memorials on the Western side of the Wall in remembrance of the fates of people who had been killed while attempting to cross it. A number of memorial crosses near the Reichstag building, for example, still recall the fate of many East German citizens who lost their lives in the attempt to escape to the West. Also before 1989, a privately run museum about the Wall was opened near the Allied crossing point Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse. After the peaceful revolution, a Berlin Wall Documentation Center was opened near Bernauer Strasse, which, as well as showing a historical exhibition, also enables visitors to look down on a stretch of the Wall from a watchtower. Here, the course of the demarcation line can still be imagined. Opposite this documentation site is the Berlin Wall Memorial site, designed by Stuttgart architects Kohlhoff and Kohlhoff and set up in 1998. A short stretch of the border has been reconstructed, including the Wall on the Western side, the posterior Wall, and the “death strip” in between. The government encouraged the construction of both these memorial sites. The Chapel of Reconciliation, built according to plans by the Berlin architects Reitermann/Sassenroth, was inaugurated nearby in 2000. The chapel, construction of which was started by the church community, stands on the historical site of the Church of Reconciliation, which was demolished in the 1980s in the course of extending the border area. The small oval building made of clay and wooden outer paneling recalls both the demolished church and the border. In 1998, an installation based on a design by Frank Thiel was set up at Checkpoint Charlie, showing photographs of a Soviet and an American soldier on the two sides of a large panel, thus recalling the superpowers’ confrontation during the Cold War.

Traces of the Wall

These artistic interventions are only to be found in certain places in the city, and for the most part, it is no longer possible to discern where the demarcation line was. An idea dating back to the early 1990s of making the entire borderline into one green zone has only been realized in a few places. They include the Mauerpark (Wall Park) between the Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding districts. Another prominent green zone has been set up along the border strip between Kreuzberg and Berlin-Mitte, where a historical garden has been constructed on the site of the former Luisenstädtische Kanal. The suggestion was made in 2003 to nominate the course of the Wall and its remaining fragments as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which many observers saw as an extremely provocative act. The markings set into the pavement of many Berlin streets are probably the most consistent attempt so far to keep alive the memory of where the Wall used to be. A copper plate or double row of cobblestones shows attentive pedestrians where the former border was—subtle signs of remembrance that prompt viewers to reflect upon a memorial site that has meanwhile become largely invisible.

The debate on how to deal with the Berlin Wall, and thus with the commemoration of the victims of German division, has meanwhile gained additional relevance through a series of initiatives. In 2004, Alexandra Hildebrandt, director of the private museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, had a section of the Wall rebuilt near the former demarcation line at Checkpoint Charlie, though not on the actual site, and supplemented it with memorial crosses to the victims of German division. Hildebrandt’s project was permitted by the Berlin Senate as a temporary art installation until the end of 2004, but it provoked extremely controversial comments. Many critics object to the project’s lack of authenticity and its highly emotional character. On the other hand, the installation (removed in the mean time) highlighted the lack of a clearly focused concept of remembrance of the country’s division. In 2005, this prompted the Berlin Senate to develop a basic program intended to dovetail the various traces of history with the already existing Wall memorials and to integrate both in an overall memorial concept.

Paul Sigel is a historian specializing in art and architecture.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
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