Berlin is Changing

The Berlin Wall as a Memorial

Berlin Wall Memorial Site, Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaThe memorial site of the Berlin Wall has various levels of significance. On the one hand, there are many individual monuments in remembrance of the victims of the division of Germany. On the other, the dividing line marking the border is a unique monument of German history.

In view of the significance the Wall had, both with regard to its practical dividing function and as an all-too-evident symbol of the confrontation of antagonistic social systems, it is intriguing to see how few superficial traces of division can still be directly experienced today. In spite of the social and mental differences between East and West, the one-time wound of urban planning between East and West now seems to have largely healed. Only rarely is there any visible reminder of the Wall.

Removing traces of the Wall

Remains of the Berlin Wall 1961-1989; Copyright: Deutscher Bundestag Immediately after the opening of the Wall in November 1989, it began to be dismantled. At times, this involved ordinary people, who celebrated it as a political event. In the wake of German reunification, the declared political will was not only to create political and economic unity, but also to reunite the divided city of Berlin as quickly as possible. This was particularly important for prominent places such as Pariser Platz near the Brandenburg Gate, the curve in the River Spree near the Reichstag, and Potsdamer Platz. In constructing compact new building developments there, the idea was not only to establish a link with these places’ pre-war significance, but also and above all to give expression to the fact that division had been overcome. At first, only a few politicians and intellectuals thought that the course of the Berlin Wall was worth preserving. Apart from a few fragments, the border had completely disappeared from the face of the city after just a few years. Only three larger areas remained intact in the city centre: fragments of the Wall along Bernauer Strasse, in the so-called “East Side Gallery” and near the “Topography of Terror” along Käthe Niederkirchner Strasse.

Wall memorials

Checkpoint Charlie; Copyright: Berlin Partner/FTB-WerbefotografieBefore 1989, there were already a large number of memorials on the Western side of the Wall in remembrance of the fates of people who had been killed while attempting to cross it. A number of memorial crosses near the Reichstag building, for example, still recall the fate of many GDR citizens who lost their lives in the attempt to escape from East to West. Also before 1989, a privately-run museum about the Wall was opened near the Allied crossing point Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse. After the peaceful revolution, a Berlin Wall Documentation Centre was opened near Bernauer Strasse, which, as well as showing a historical exhibition, also enables visitors to look down on a stretch of the Wall from a watchtower. Here, the course of the demarcation line can still be imagined. Opposite this documentation site is the Berlin Wall Memorial Site, designed by Stuttgart architects Kohlhoff and Kohlhoff, which was set up in 1998. A short stretch of the border has been reconstructed, including the Wall on the western side, the posterior Wall and the death strip in between. The government encouraged the construction of both these memorial sites. The Chapel of Reconciliation, built according to plans by the Berlin architects Reitermann/Sassenroth, was inaugurated nearby in 2000. The chapel, construction of which was started by the church community, stands on the historical site of the Church of Reconciliation, which was demolished in the 1980s in the course of extending the border area. The small oval building made of clay and wooden outer panelling recalls both the demolished church and the border. In 1998, an installation based on a design by Frank Thiel was set up at Checkpoint Charlie. It shows photographs of a Soviet and an American soldier on the front and back of a large panel, thus recalling the superpowers’ confrontation during the Cold War.

Traces of the Wall

Berliner Wall Memorial Site; Copyright: Berlin Partner/TFB-WerbefotografieThese artistic interventions are only to be found in certain places in the city, and for the most part, it is no longer possible to discern where the demarcation line was. An idea dating back to the early 1990s of making the entire borderline into one green zone has only been realised in a few places. They include the “Mauerpark” (i.e. Wall Park) between the Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding districts. A much more prominent green zone has been set up along the border strip between Kreuzberg and Berlin-Mitte, where a historical garden has been constructed on the site of the former “Luisenstädtische Canal”. The markings set into the pavement of many Berlin streets are probably the most consistent attempt so far to keep alive the memory of where the Wall used to be. A copper plate or double row of cobblestones show attentive pedestrians where the former border was, subtle signs of remembrance that prompt viewers to reflect upon a memorial site that has meanwhile become largely invisible.

Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer; Copyright: Land Berlin/Thie

The debate on how to deal with the Berlin Wall, and thus with the commemoration of the victims of German division, gained additional relevance no later than on the fifteenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall in 2004 through a number of initiatives. Alexandra Hildebrandt, Director of the private Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, had a section of the Wall re-erected near the former demarcation line at Checkpoint Charlie in 2004, although not on the authentic site, and supplemented it with memorial crosses to the victims of German division. Hildebrandt’s project was permitted by the Berlin Senate as a temporary art installation until the end of 2004, but it provoked extremely controversial comments. Many critics objected to the project’s lack of authenticity and its highly emotional character.

Holistic memorial site concept

On the other hand, the installation, now dismantled, highlighted the lack of a clearly-focused memorial concept in remembrance of German division. This prompted the Berlin Senate Department of Culture to develop a plan in 2004-2005 for linking the various traces of history and the presentations of the Berlin Wall in memorials and to integrate them in a holistic memorial site concept. The overall Berlin Wall memorial site concept adopted in 2006 aims to further develop the focus on Bernauer Strasse in particular. The original sections of the Wall still remaining here near the Wall memorial and the derelict land of the border strip are to be preserved for posterity and are not to be built on, keeping visible the former boundary that cut right through the city. Local remembrance sites are also to be included in the concept, however, for example, through memorial installations and information panels around Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, the Topography of Terror and at many other locations. A memorial site is to remain at Checkpoint Charlie, too, where an extensive exhibition of documents will continue to be on display for the foreseeable future, but it remains to be seen what shape it will take if and when the site is built upon in the future.

Keeping remembrance of the Wall alive

Remembrance of the Wall is to be kept alive outside the city centre too, however. There are signposted walks and cycle tracks along the border strip, making it possible to see where the former demarcation line was. It is no longer visible in many parts of the city. More marking is planned using paving stones and copper plates. A foundation set up in summer 2008 will supervise the Berlin Wall memorial site and the place of remembrance at Marienfelde, the former emergency camp for refugees and people leaving the GDR but the many other private initiatives for remembering the Wall are also to receive ongoing support.
Paul Sigel
is a historian specialising in art and architecture

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write!
November 2005 (updated in July 2008)

Related links

Art Calendar

Current Exhibitions in Germany

Weblog: Rory’s Berlin Blog

Settling in Berlin: Travelwriter Rory MacLean gives an amusing and insightful account of his new home – part of “Meet the Germans”.