Building and destroying
In mid December 1992, I was in the crowds trying to cross the Bridges at the junction with Princes St. Apart from the usual frenetic pre-Christmas activity, Edinburgh was hoaching because of a European Leaders’ Summit which was being held that week.
The east end of Princes St was particularly busy because many of the leaders and their retinues were staying at what I still like to refer to as the NB Hotel, and a variety of sleek black limos were parked out front.
As I waited to cross the street I was put momentarily off balance by a shove from behind. As I turned to offer an expletive, I realised that the perpetrator was a good bit taller than my own 6 feet. In the dark and rain, I took in a huge bulk, a long black overcoat and finally – the impatient face of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, as he barged past me with his minders.
One of those moments which you can’t quite believe, even as it is happening.
It’s not a moment likely to be repeated in these days of heightened security. I can only assume that either he or his security detail had got tired of queuing up to get in the hotel and were in search of a side entrance.
I thought of that moment – and of his imposing physical presence – when I saw the stunning photograph above – from Bild – of Kohl at the Brandenburg Gate on the 25th Anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall.
My focus on the Wall was increased by a great article in the Sunday Press from Dani Garavelli
on the complex aftermath of the Wall’s demise – and that, in turn, left me considering the Wall during my lifetime and its effect on my generation.
A few years ago, when I visited Berlin for the first time, I have to admit that virtually my whole attention was taken up by the city’s history – first the Third Reich, and then the era of the Wall. The eerie reminders of Hitler’s times, the car park over the site of his bunker, the air ministry building, and Gestapo torture headquarters were all chilling reminders of Nazism, as was the site of the Burning of the Books.
But it was The Wall which claimed my attention most fiercely.
In advance I had been most keen to see Checkpoint Charlie which had been the most visible face of the Wall during my childhood. When the Cuban Missile Crisis had emerged, I had been on a school trip to Lourdes in the Pyrenees. Imagine a group of ten year olds seriously discussing whether they would ever see their parents again.
The Checkpoint was invariably the “public face” of the Wall in the media. The sight of Russian and American tanks facing up to each other along the Friedrichstrasse was understandably terrifying, as were the frequent tales from other sectors of the Wall of would be escapers from the East being shot.
The reality was somewhat disappointing though perhaps inevitable. Today, Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist trap with actors dressed as border guards selling ‘selfie’ opportunities and all manner of souvenir tack in surrounding shops.
I was glad I had been to the iconic site, but disappointed that it had not given me a feeling for what the Wall and its tensions, had been like.
It does give a sense of the problems Berlin faces when it comes to the history of the city. The Third Reich and the Berlin Wall are hardly suitable topics for tourism in its most basic sense. On the other hand, we need to be aware of history and understand its mistakes and horrors.
Understandably, the physical destruction of most of the Wall was a natural reaction to its political demise. It was a hated division of the city and the instinctive reaction of all the citizens was to eradicate it. Additionally, it hindered travel around the reunified city – blocking off dual carriageways, leading to unused subway stations. It would have been neither desirable nor practicable to have left it in place – even without its political significance.
I suspect the city’s reaction to its historical sites has reflected contemporary issues and the differing views of its politicians and their parties. There is a fear of creating monuments to the Third Reich which might be colonized by present day fascists but also an awareness of the need to acknowledge the suffering and hate of the period.
Bebelplatz, the site of the “Burning of the Books”, in 1933, when the Nazis destroyed thousands of books brought from the university libraries around the square, is a good reflection of one approach to preserving history. A glass plate in the cobbles gives on to an underground view of empty bookshelves – enough to hold the 20,000 volumes which were burned here after a typically ranting speech from Goebbels. A quote from Heine is on a brass plate: “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn people.”
It is hugely affecting but even this attracts ambivalence. The rebuilt Opera House is on one side of the square and when an underground car park was constructed for its patrons, there was protest at the site being disturbed, albeit in support of the Arts.
The city cannot become a museum, but it has to acknowledge its history.
In a different approach, Hitler’s bunker, the site of his eventual demise, is covered by an unremarkable car park for a block of flats. A couple of noticeboards detail the history of the area but you would be hard put to identify the site without local knowledge. Fittingly, perhaps, the imposing memorial to the Jews who died in the Holocaust, slate grey stones casting haunting shadows, is in the same locality, and unmissable – in every sense.
The Reich Air Ministry on Wilhelmstrasse, with nearly 3000 rooms, 4 miles of corridors and 7 storeys, was Goering’s domain and is often cited as a good example of “Nazi intimidation architecture.” Its sheer bulk is overwhelming and though today it houses the State Finance ministry, it is difficult not to think of it in its original purpose.
It was along the side of this building, in Niederkirchnerstrasse, that I first saw a stretch of the Wall. In fact it is now one of the longest stretches of the structure still in place. On each side of it is a cobbled exclusion zone behind a high fence – now to preserve the structure, but redolent of the once serious defences. It is an awful moment when the Wall is first approached – its very ordinariness is chilling. In construction terms it is just slabs of concrete and it is a shock to realise that this icon of division and cause of grief and death is, after all, ‘just’ a wall.
This stretch is more menacing than most – behind you is the old Air Ministry and on the other side is the site of the Gestapo interrogation building, thankfully long demolished. There is a Museum on the site now: “The Topography of Terror”, but on my visit, it was as yet unbuilt, meaning the land on the western side of the Wall was a demolition site, a poignant memory of what had originally stood there. If a place could evoke evil, then this street would certainly achieve it.
There are many sites to visit. The Third Reich Aerodrome at Templehof, now no longer active, has become a city park where people skateboard, play football, fly kites, picnic and cycle. Walking on its runways brings a strange feeling of apprehension, and the scale of the kilometre long terminal building is as good a symbol of Nazi intent as any: huge, monolithic, sweeping in an eye grabbing curve: more intimidation.
Perhaps the most effective area to view the Wall is at the Wall Museum on Bernauerstrasse to the north of the city centre. There is 1.4 kilometre of Wall extant here, and, as it includes a reconstructed ‘death strip’ between east and west – effectively a cleared sandy strip – it is possible to imagine the barrier as it was through three decades. There is the added impact of the occasional black cross to mark where would be escapers were killed, and a rebuilt watchtower, as well as the opportunity to look down on the scene from the top of the Museum to gain a clear perspective – and a chilling view over to the cemetery on the ‘East’ Berlin side.
However, I found that I was most profoundly affected by the photographs I saw in various exhibitions. I suppose the period when the Wall was constructed was a kind of hey day for news photography – when equipment was technically well developed and before film and television cameras had quite swamped the power of the still image.
As a result, the pictures from the early sixties – especially during the building of the Wall, and mostly in monochrome – were haunting. A couple of young boys chat to a bricklaying Border guard, another gives a lift up to his pal to see over to the other side; a couple of men share a jokey handshake across a low portion of the incomplete structure. Crowds stare incomprehending – why are they building a wall down our street?
Once its purpose is obvious, the pictures change from puzzlement to panic: people drop their bags from first floor windows overlooking the Wall, and then follow, jumping hopefully; babies are held up so they can be seen by relatives ‘on the other side’. Young border guards gaze defiantly across the space – unsure of their own capabilities, avoiding the eye of old and young alike.
Later there will be more dramatic shots – young people dying on the strip – neither side able to step towards them; tanks facing off at 50 yards; Kennedy at the Brandenburg Gate ‘gazing into the East’, and declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner” at the Rathaus – for the Wall was an iconic symbol even when it was an active death strip, a place for images to be composed.
However, it is the more innocent shots of individuals in the early days of the Wall – not reacting to Cold War Realpolitik but to the simple emergence of a barricade across their normal route to the shops, to work, to friends’ houses – these are the photographs which resonate and remain in your head.
Ultimately, the Wall divided people. It divided two political systems as well, of course, but it was the people who counted more, and who suffered more.
As children, we saw the Wall as an awful evil thing, a place where people were imprisoned and separated from friends and relations, a place where the bad guys shot the good guys. Even when we grew into an understanding of the complexities of the situation, it was those grey slabs, the barbed wire, the searchlights, the floodlit strip – the appearance of the Wall – which scared us, even though we knew it was actually a symbol for a State which sought complete control over its people. It was its physical reality which dominated our reaction and made it one of the dark places of our childhood.
When it fell, the joy of the people would change to concern at the economic reality of an uneasy merging of two states – both Thatcher and Mitterand were quite clear that they preferred the Wall to remain, rather than have to contend with the new reality of a united Germany leading Europe. It was a far cry from JFK’s clarion call at Rathaus Schöneberg.
Such are the ways in which politics change, and, seeing the infirm Kohl, in that picture at the Brandenburg Gate, how we all are changed by time.
For better or worse, today’s children, raised on social media, can have little idea of how people could once be kept behind a wall, physically and in other ways; they accept the ability to connect as part of every day life.
For those of us of a certain age, however, the Wall still cuts through our memories, like a misshapen ghost in a half remembered bedtime story, from a time when politics and its practices may well have lead to the end of the world.