I was strolling along Bernauer Strasse during a foggy night typical of Berlin. The low-lying mist shrouded the streetlamps, casting sepia shadows on the neighborhood. The hues were reminiscent of old newsreels from August, 1963, when this street became a last gasp escape route for those seeking to flee over the Berlin Wall, a structure which in its initial crude form of cinderblocks and barbed wire was erected overnight. It encircled West Berlin to keep East Germans from escaping to the lone outpost of freedom behind the Iron Curtain.
Within years, the Berlin Wall (or “anti-Fascist protection barrier” as it was named in Orwellian fashion by the East German government) grew more sophisticated in its ability to trap those living on the wrong side of it, but in the long-run living on the right side of history. Although the Berlin Wall is long gone, there are still remnants of the Cold War in Berlin.
This area where tourists now snap photos of one of the last remaining sections of the wall was a sophisticated death zone; a no-man’s land of roaming German shepherds, car barriers, mines and machine guns triggered by the slightest movement. At night spotlights fought back the dark and eliminated the shadows that were an escapee’s ally.
But such a system, weighted down by years of oppression, would not last forever. On November 9, 2014 the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; a man-made scar that represented the cruelty of a totalitarian regime that nurtured the Cold War.
A gray cobblestone line, interspersed with bronze plaques stating Berliner Mauer 1961-1989, snakes through the city marking the spot where the partition once stood. Its twisting path across avenues, parks and cemeteries—in some cases splitting neighbors and families—marks the randomness with which the city was divided. It clumsily bisects the street in front of the Brandenburg Gate where President Ronald Reagan made his “tear down this wall!” speech only two years before the wall was torn down.
Most of the nearly 100-mile-long barrier is gone now, in some cases carted off as souvenirs to be displayed in museums around the globe, but there are still places in this now united city where the specter of the Cold War era can be found.
Eleven days after the barricade was raised, a 24-year-old tailor named Gunter Litfin attempted to swim across a small canal to the West. He was fatally shot by police while he was still in the water, becoming the first person to be killed trying to escape East Berlin.
A small brick and granite memorial was dedicated on Invalidenstrasse near the Sandkrug Bridge, that’s the point in the canal where he would have made it to safety. Located in a heavily-trafficked area only one block east of the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s glistening new train station, it’s easy to overlook this significant turning point in wall’s history. After Litfin’s killing, potential escapees knew they were risking their lives to seek freedom.
Once the city’s division became entrenched, visitors coming over from West Berlin via the train disembarked at Friedrichstrasse Station. Since this point was the merging of two societies, one free and the other not, no means of escape could be allowed. Travelers were herded through an Escheresque maze of overhead tunnels, walkways and checkpoints to move from one sector to the other.
Across the street from the station an East German Passport Control and Customs post was housed in a blue glass pavilion called the Palace of Tears; so named because it was where East Germans bade farewell to their visitors from the West. Or for those rare East Germans granted an exit visa, farewell to their family forever.
The Palace of Tears is now a museum that recreates the feeling of crossing from one zone to another. Exhibits reveal the clever devices that people used to smuggle forbidden items such as Bibles and copies of Playboy into the East; although not so hidden that they weren’t confiscated and ended up here on display.
When Communism collapsed the world watched as statues of Lenin were torn down all over the Soviet Bloc. Some of the monuments were too, well, monumental, and couldn’t be budged by a crowd armed with a few ropes, no matter how boisterous they were. One survivor was the house-sized memorial to Ernst Thälmann, the leader of Germany’s Communist Party during the Weimar Republic between the World Wars.
With his tightly clenched fist thrust upward, Thälmann’s memorial on Greifswalder Strasse was designed in the larger-than-life heroic Soviet style (it is often mistaken for one of Lenin) and then plunked down in the middle of its own barren concrete plaza. Since Communism is now out of favor in Germany there are more weeds than visitors, other than the occasional teenage skateboarder and budding graffiti artist. Ernst Thälmann Park was dedicated in 1986 so it offers visitors the opportunity to view one of the last gasps of Communism’s artistic flourishes in East Berlin.
Closer to the center of town in the Mitte district, the Marx-Engels forum posed a similar quandary. Two much larger than life statues of socialism founders Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were too big to move but no longer reflected Germany’s capitalist zeitgeist. They remain in place but mostly as a tourist photo op for people to pose on Karl Marx’s lap. With his bushy beard he rather resembles a department store Santa Claus so perhaps that use is appropriate.
Later, poking my way among the weeds and toppled headstones of St. Hedwig’s cemetery, I stumbled upon unmarked sections of the Berlin Wall that don’t appear in the tourist guidebooks including a section of the secondary wall that was set 30 yards behind the main wall to prevent East Berliners from seeing it. Through a crack stood a statue of Jesus looking down in grief upon a grave, the remnant of his outstretched arm only a few yards from grazing the barrier to freedom.
I was about to give up my search for the main wall when I saw a family strolling nearby. Their six-year-old son, clutching a teddy bear in one arm, stopped and pointed at a vine-encrusted, graffiti-covered slab of concrete and shouted “Der ist Mauer,” or “there is the Wall.” What looked like an ordinary concrete wall hiding in the overgrown vegetation revealed itself as an original remnant due to the large sewer pipe wedged on top, placed there so people couldn’t attain a grip to scramble over the wall.
Born years after the wall came down, the boy was obviously well schooled about its existence. While the wall once hid one half of the city from the other, Berlin is not hiding from its past. Like people in no other city in the world, Berliners know that to ignore history is to risk repeating it.
This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 9th, 2014, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
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