The conflict comes as Germany reevaluates its relationship to a communist era it once couldn’t wait to forget. Berlin’s streets are scattered with memorials to Nazi-era atrocities. But until very recently, many here were happy to rid themselves of reminders of the post-World War II period when they were separated by political systems and an 86-mile reinforced-concrete barrier that ringed the western half of the city.
At this mile-long stretch along the Spree River known as the East Side Gallery, artists painted exuberant murals on the wall in the months after East and West Berlin were reunited. Tourists have long flocked here to see a cheerful monument to peaceful revolution in a once out-of-the-way area.
But as the city has boomed in recent years, developers have targeted many of the empty spaces left by World War II bombings and communist neglect. Last week, workers removed a 25-foot concrete span of the landmark wall to make an access road for a planned 13-story luxury apartment building along the river. The move sparked immediate protest.
“There is a wider consciousness for the wall and its cultural significance,” said Axel Klausmeier, the director of the Berlin Wall Foundation. At the time of reunification “it was impossible to imagine thousands of people standing in front of the wall demonstrating to keep it. Now there is a completely different attitude.”
The construction, which started at the beginning of March but was temporarily halted after public protest, has galvanized opposition among a broad range of Berlin residents who fret that their city is forgetting its history and also losing what made it unique after 1989. Once upon a time, artists squatted in crumbling apartment buildings and were left alone to be creative. Musicians turned sprawling former industrial spaces into clubs.
But rent has skyrocketed in recent years. The old squatter houses have almost all been renovated. Many residents say Berlin feels more normal — and not in a good way.
“This wall being torn down is a symbol of what’s happening all over now,” said Hannes Kutza, 26, a doctoral candidate. “There are huge amounts of people who are interested in preserving this place.”
Changes over time
The concrete wall, constructed in 1961, was once the most visible international symbol of the Iron Curtain division between the capitalist West and the communist East.
East German authorities erected it overnight to halt a steady stream of defections. At least 136 people perished, most of them shot, as they tried to scale it to escape to the West.