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

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."

Hildebrandt riled many in 2004 when she installed a field of white crosses in two vacant lots on the eastern side of Checkpoint Charlie to memorialize people killed trying to cross from East to West. City officials removed the crosses eight months later, saying she had not applied for permits.

Easterners accused Hildebrandt of insensitivity. Other critics charged her with sloppy research, saying she exaggerated the number of dead. Hildebrandt accused the city of trying to sanitize the past.

In an interview, she scoffed at the city's plan to celebrate the 20th anniversary by toppling a 2-mile-long row of giant Styrofoam dominoes. "Young people will think, 'Okay, the wall was like dominoes,' " she said. "All you have to do is push, and it falls down."

Another long-running dispute in Berlin centers on a memorial for the 1990 unification of East and West Germany. The federal Parliament approved the memorial two years ago and allotted $20 million for construction. But a government-selected jury has rejected more than 500 proposed designs and can't decide where to put it.

Markus Meckel, a democracy activist who briefly served as East Germany's foreign minister after the fall of communism, said many East Berliners who fought for freedom are miffed that their role has been marginalized.

He said public histories of the collapse of the wall have been shaped by former West German politicians, who largely give themselves credit. He said they often ignore pro-democracy movements behind the Iron Curtain.

"There is much misunderstanding, much misperception about that time in Germany," said Meckel, who now serves in Parliament and is a key sponsor of the planned Cold War Museum. "In America, especially, people say, 'We won the Cold War.' But it was not a victory of the West against the East. It was the victory of freedom and democracy in the East."

Something to Touch

When Berliners joyously began knocking down the wall two decades ago, the Rev. Manfred Fischer was one of the few to argue that some of it should be preserved.

Fischer, a Lutheran pastor from the West Berlin neighborhood of Wedding, had no love for the wall. His congregation was forced to abandon its Church of the Reconciliation in 1961 when East German authorities built the wall around it, leaving the church in the middle of the death strip, the zone between the outer and inner perimeter. The East German government finally blew up the church in 1985.

Yet in 1990, Fischer led protests to prevent bulldozers from knocking down the wall along Bernauer Street. He reminded people that his postwar generation of Germans had often asked their parents to explain how the Nazis came to power, only to hear denials, half-truths or silence.

"Some of us realized that if everything was gone, we wouldn't have objective proof that the wall happened," he said. "To comprehend, people need to have something to touch."

Fischer's effort stirred anger on both sides of Bernauer Street. The director of a nursing home facing the wall from the West complained that it would depress his patients if they had to keep staring at it.

The sharpest resistance came from Sophie Memorial Church, a congregation on the eastern side of the dividing line. The wall had bisected its historic cemetery, including mass graves of people who died in the waning days of World War II.

The Rev. Johannes Hildebrandt, pastor of Sophie Memorial Church, lobbied hard to tear down the entire wall. More than 5,000 people signed a petition in support.

"In general, it was detested. It was divisive, it was pain, it was fear," said Axel Klausmeier, director of the Berlin Wall Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the history of the wall. "We had very many victims, not only physical casualties, but people imprisoned because of the wall and the system it represented. So for very good reasons, people wanted to get rid of it."

After years of bitter arguments, city officials decided to let the wall stand along two blocks of Bernauer Street, dedicating it as a public memorial. But angry feelings persisted. Members of Sophie Memorial Church saw the memorial as an eyesore. People from the West criticized the lack of educational exhibits. Meanwhile, tourists continued to hammer away at the wall, eager to take home a concrete souvenir.

A decade later, the city acknowledged a need to design a new memorial on Bernauer Street. Even then, however, it took three years of negotiations to come up with a design palatable to the neighborhood.

The new version will include a visitors center and outdoor exhibits, including photos of all 136 people who died while attempting to cross the wall between 1961 and 1989. Sophie Memorial Church will be allowed to keep control over its cemetery.

The new memorial, now under construction, is slated to open in stages throughout 2011. City officials expect it will draw more than a million visitors a year.

Fischer, the Lutheran pastor, said he is pleased. With the passage of time, he said, most people in the neighborhood are now proud to have one of Berlin's few remaining sections of the wall.

"People can't get enough of it back," he said. "They wish it was all the way down Bernauer Street."

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