Berlin: 30 years since the Wall came down, it’s a city of memories

Since man has been capable of stacking one rock on top of another, we have been building walls to keep The Others out.

There is evidence to suggest the walls of Jericho were built for defensive purposes as well as flood protection, we’re pretty certain Hadrian’s Wall was constructed by the Romans to protect their northern frontier, and the 2,000-mile Great Wall of China was aimed at keeping the ‘barbarians’ to the north out.

Right up to the modern day – with Israel’s West Bank wall barricading Israelis from the Palestinians, and Donald Trump making good on one of his election pledges to build one between the United States and Mexico – we’re still building barriers between us and our fellow men and shutting ourselves off from our neighbours.

So it rather bucked the trend in November 1989, almost exactly 30 years ago, when one of the most notorious walls in modern history was celebrated all over the world – for being brought down.

There are remaining bits of the wall all along its length in Berlin, with one of the longest stretches at the East Side Gallery, where a series of murals painted on the 1,316-metre piece of wall is now a heritage-protected landmark.

The original Wall wasn’t just a wall – there were two built in parallel, between them a ‘Death Strip’ of raised metal spikes, designed to seriously hurt anyone trying to get across the boundary, and a yards-wide lane for military troops to patrol.

There were watchtowers dotted along its 91-mile length, and it passed through 23 miles of residential areas, sometimes dividing one side of a street from their neighbours on the other.

Buildings that were taller than the 12 feet of the wall had windows bricked up so the West could not be seen from the East.

The Wall stood from August 1961, when it began as barbed wire, before being demolished in November 1989, by which time it had been constructed entirely of concrete.

One remaining watchtower at Kieler Strasse is now a memorial named after the first person to be shot and killed by East German border guards while attempting to get to West Berlin. Young tailor Günter Litfin died on 24 June 1961 as he tried to swim across the River Spree to West Berlin.

The preserved watchtower, which also commemorates other victims, stands incongruously amid more modern buildings near where the wall cleaved the Invalidenfriedhof, a beautiful cemetery then split in two.

Walk north and east along the Wall from here and you’ll reach the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre, a museum that allows you to climb on the roof to look out over a reconstruction of the border as it was, with the wideness of the lane between the two parallel walls, and the strip that put paid to so many escapes.

The Centre has video footage, photographs and information, and more of this is on show at the better known museum by Checkpoint Charlie, to the south.

Both museums tell the story of how the Wall came down, almost by mistake.

“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!” – Ronald Reagan, 1987

Commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin on 12 June 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin, US President Ronald Reagan challenged USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalisation, come here to this gate,” said Reagan.

“Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!”

Celebrities joined in the cause, David Bowie playing a concert in West Berlin in 1987, and David Hasselhof, two years later, singing Looking for Freedom from a crane swinging above the Wall next to the Brandenburg Gate.

But it was Bruce Springsteen who actually played in East Berlin itself, saying to the crowd in German: “I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”

After a series of revolutions in eastern Europe, a meeting of East Berlin’s Communist Party was held in which a spokesman announced that the people of East Berlin would be permitted to go to the west to visit relatives.

The footage at Checkpoint Charlie shows a journalist asking the spokesman, “Do you mean immediately?” and replying in a rather bemused manner, the spokesman replies: “Well, yes.”

Incredible footage shows East Berliners flooding through the checkpoints, being hauled over the Wall by waiting West Germans and cheering and crying as they surge through the impenetrable in astonishment, border guards just standing by.

And that, spray-painted one Berliner, was when the war really ended.

Remembering the Holocaust and the rest of Berlin

No less haunting are the memorials to the Jewish victims of Nazi rule. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Holocaust Memorial, is next to the Brandenburg Gate, where thousands of concrete blocks are laid out in a grid pattern over 200,000 square feet.

It’s difficult to see what it represents, exactly – although the resemblance to a graveyard is strong.

Down on Lindenstrasse, south east of Checkpoint Charlie, is the Jewish Museum, which holds a similarly bizarre collection of concrete slabs, this time 49 pillars all leaning at a slight angle.

The museum tells the story of the Jews in Germany since the Roman era to today, and when I was there, an exhibition of photographs from Israel’s West Bank that will be on display until January.

East Berlin certainly got the cream of the buildings, with most of the outstanding architecture on that side.

Government buildings are ostentatious and grand, and Berlin Dom (the cathedral) is worth an hour or two. Photos are allowed inside and there’s a fairly strenuous climb to the top, affording marvellous views of the whole city, its rivers and canals, and vast range of architecture.

Berlin is a very green city, with parks a-plenty for those tired of city streets, and playgrounds for bored children in many of them

One thing that struck me about the city and all of its memories was its unashamed openness about its history. While the cynic in me appreciates that this brings in cash, the sentimental in me takes heed of the warning on Günter Litfin’s watchtower: ‘Wenn wir die Geschichte vergessen holt sie uns ein.’

If we forget history, it will catch up with us.

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