It is hard for me to imagine everyday limitations to my freedom. The only barrier, save from an economic barrier, is at a Customs post, and even then I am ‘surrounded by Europe’. It is hard for me to imagine my everyday life coming up against a limitation to my freedom, it is difficult for me to imagine any form of confinement, it is virtually impossible for me to imagine life in Berlin for nearly 40 years.
My first real visit to Berlin was turning out to be a little morbid until someone suggested the Berlin Ost Mauer. Basically a mile long stretch of the Berlin Wall which, after unification, was turned into a mural. The Wall gave a real impression of being enclosed in East Berlin, a monolith stretching along the road and obliterating a view of the West. Whilst a great space – the graffiti is on the East side – it also served as a popular memorial to the people of Berlin who lived with the political power play between capitalism and communism.
Strolling down Muhelnstrasse in Berlin on a cold March day in 2012 I found myself transported back to the 60’s, if it wasn’t for the O2 Centre the scene was pretty much had it had been for 40 years. The claustrophobic, almost choking, arrival at Berlin Ostbahnhof had, apart from the trains, not changed since it was built. Its solid Iron Arches its gloomy and depressing interior set the scene for the walk. This could have been the old DDR.
The feature of Mulhlenstrasse is, or was if the planners get the construction crews get their way, is a mile long stretch of the Berlin Wall, known now as the ‘East Side Gallery.
We have all read about them Cold War, but we rarely read beyond the ‘face off’ between East and West, we think little about the human cost, about the ‘what would it be like’ bit of history. Walking along Muhlenstrasse you have no need to imagine, you are there.
Walking along the Wall, even though it is now decorated with murals, in a moving experience, to walk for a mile knowing there is something ‘on the other side’ that you cannot see, that you cannot hear, that you cannot touch. The sense of isolation and disconnection is palpable, the knowledge, or the imaginings, of what life is like on the other side of the wall. It is so near, yet unreachable. ‘The Wall’ stretches on, continual, unending, bleak even though now decorated, it is a scar, and unnatural division.
What is on the other side, a different world, another way of life, but more than that my family, my friends, a hope and an escape from the bleakness of life. What is life-like over there? Walking the Wall puts you not in history, but in part of it,
The Berlin Wall (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall or Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart) has all but been eradicated from the landscape – though it is easy to trace the route through the city, Muhlensrasse is the last monument.
The Berlin Wall is a monument to the resilience of the people of Berlin against the political machinations of the superpowers as they collided head on in the city.
The wall was the physical manifestation of politics. Today our Parliaments and Congresses make laws which have no physical form, apart from ink on paper, yes it regulates the way we behave, but they have no physical presence. The Berlin Wall was the concrete embodiment of the collision of political systems and the confrontation of ideologies. The story of the people, not the politics, is far more real in Berlin than other cities. Yes the wall was a product of the international political situation, but it was personal as it ripped through neighborhoods, families and friends.
The official memorial to the Berlin Wall is on Bernauer Strasse, the wall itself has been demolished but the strip of land has been turned into a linear memorial, at the end of the memorial, and Norhbahnhof, there is a strip of land which it wild and unkempt which gives an air of foreboding, its ‘Beech Café’s’ sitting nervously in the ‘kill zone’ waiting to be redevelop.
When I think of the Berlin Wall I think immediately of the societal war inflicted by the East German State on its people, it is about the story of everyday people, not politicians.
Whilst the monument to the people who lived in East Berlin is hacked to pieces for the river side apartments, the gaudy ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ remains, the Disneyfication of the struggle of the people.
The Wall was about a boy drowning in the Spree unable to be helped because the river was in the wrong country, the Wall is about Furniture being dumped at the border crossing waiting to picked up by the purchasers because the Furniture Truck came from West Berlin and the delivery address was in East Berlin, and the Wall is about the Church of the Reconciliation being bulldozed because it was in the ‘kill zone’.
It is therefore ironic that the Ost Mauer is under threat, it is due to be partially demolished for Apartments, that the City Government – and I appreciate it is broken – have sold it against the wishes of many of its citizens, to corporate builder, again it is about the Government not listening to the people, it about power, it is about politics which is not for people, of the people and by the people.
It is not strange that memorials and monuments about the people are bulldozed and the monuments to the elite are preserved, and built on the rubble of the ordinary citizen, what a perfect allegory for the political process of the 21st Century.
The irony must be that in 1989 the citizens of Berlin demonstrated against the monolith of communism to destroy the wall, today they are protesting against the monolith of capitalism to preserve it.
Berlin must own its history, and it must remind us what living was like lest it happens again, lest we have another Berlin, another Bethlehem, another Nicosia – all divided cities – the Wall needs to remain as a testament to the folly of ideology, and the pursuit of power regardless of the cost to the ‘ordinary people’ who make the countries the politicians rule.