Berlin Wall as a Piece of History: Too-Good Riddance?

Part of the Berlin Wall is at the Newseum in Washington. Visitors to Berlin have trouble finding any trace of it now.
Part of the Berlin Wall is at the Newseum in Washington. Visitors to Berlin have trouble finding any trace of it now. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

BERLIN -- Two decades after they triumphantly tore down the infamous wall that divided their city, Berliners are having some regrets.

The Germans did such a thorough job of demolishing the hated barrier that visitors to the capital have a hard time finding any trace of it. For years, residents were eager to move beyond a painful chapter in Berlin's history and focused on building a new metropolis for a new century.

But as Germany prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the wall's collapse on Nov. 9, many Berliners wish they had left more of the structure intact as a memorial.

"In Berlin, there is history under every stone out there. The most deadly mistake we could make is to get rid of it all or cover it up," said Burkhard Kieker, director of Berlin's tourism bureau, which has tried for years to persuade the city to do more to commemorate the wall. "One mistake was to take away too much of the wall. We did the job in a very German way -- very organized -- and we finished it off, almost completely."

After years of resistance, city officials are starting to embrace memories of the Cold War instead of repressing them. They are sprucing up two decrepit sections of the wall that escaped demolition, adding a visitors center and other exhibits. They also plan a new Cold War museum near Checkpoint Charlie, the border crossing where U.S. and Soviet tanks engaged in a tense standoff in 1961, shortly after the wall was built by communist East Germany to keep its citizens from fleeing to the West.

"Memorials and memorial sites in a democracy need to grow, need to ripen and need a public understanding to evolve over time and gain acceptance," said Rainer Klemke, the chief overseer of Berlin's numerous historical sites. "The problem that we have, and what makes it very difficult in contrast to, say, the Mall in Washington, is that we're not commemorating our victories. We're commemorating our acts of shame."

In the meantime, crowds flock to the Berlin Wall Trail, a hiking and biking path that was completed in 2006 and follows the contours of the 96-mile-long barrier encircling West Berlin. Restoration has begun on the longest remaining section of the wall, a mural-splashed segment known as the East Side Gallery, which stretches for a mile along the Spree River.

Wall in the Head

Under the surface, however, a raw civic debate continues to fester over how the Berlin Wall should be remembered.

Many former citizens of East Germany resent what they see as a cultural and political takeover of their country by West Germany. Westerners say they are fed up with the tendency of their eastern counterparts to wax nostalgic about communist times.

Despite the erasure of most of the wall, many Berliners are still affected by a malady commonly known as Mauer im Kopf, or wall in the head. According to a survey last year by the Free University of Berlin, 12 percent of residents in the East and 11 percent in the West said the city would be better off if the wall had never been torn down.

Leaders of the push to commemorate the wall have encountered stiff opposition. Alexandra Hildebrandt, owner of the House at Checkpoint Charlie, a private museum that drew 850,000 visitors last year, said the exhibits grate on the nerves of former East German politicians who don't like the way the wall is portrayed as an evil force.

"Some people have always tried to shut down our museum, using any means possible," she said. "I don't know why. Actually, I do know why. We show the truth, and they don't like the truth."

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