Postcard from Berlin: Die Mauer
For three decades the Wall divided and defined Berlin. The line had been set after World War II when the four Allies divided up the conquered city, the Soviet sector nearer a half than a quarter. Two different economic systems and philosophies grew up side by side, and millions of citizens were soon voting with their feet by crossing from East to West. "No one has the intention of erecting a wall!" reassured party boss Walter Ulbricht in June 1961, then two months later gave the order to do precisely that. Barbed wire went up overnight, buildings along the border were sealed off or razed, and eventually a twin-walled fortified barrier was constructed through the new nomansland. The East Germans called it an Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, while the rest of the world saw a political own goal they were powerless to stop.
During the years that followed hundreds were killed attempting to cross the divide but thousands successfully defected, culminating in the unexpected reopening of the main crossing points on the evening of 9 November 1989. And if you visit Berlin today what strikes home is not the wall's lingering legacy but the fact you can barely tell where it once went. Its disappearance makes sense. What you do with a hated symbol of oppression is destroy it, not leave it intact as a tourist attraction, focussing instead on knitting two severed communities back together. Railway lines have been relinked, shopping malls laid out across former shooting galleries, and giant Nespresso posters hung across formerly sacrosanct East German facades. Such has been the regeneration of the city over the last 25 years that not even the architecture of the apartment blocks on either side today looks greatly different.
Along a portion of its urban length the Berlin Wall now exists solely as a double line of cobbles, occasionally inlaid with a metal plaque. It wiggles across pavements and out into the road, as if inviting you to follow, although it'd be a fairly peculiar journey to attempt on foot. A few briefconcrete sections exist in Potsdamer Platz where men dressed up as border guards will grin and pose for your camera, should that be anything your conscience permits you do. A couple of watchtowers survive where the border turned away from the waterside, not that a tourist would stumble upon them by accident. And of course there's the famous Checkpoint Charlie, a white hut in the centre of Friedrichstraße that again feels more sightseeing spot than border crossing. We made sure to go round the adjacent Checkpoint Charlie Museum because BestMate remembered it as utterly engrossing the last time he visited. Worthy and vast, maybe, but on this occasion its endless walls of text in four languages defeated us and we broke early.
One place to see a considerable length of the Wall in situ is along Niederkirchnerstraße. These 200m of decaying concrete are the longest surviving stretch of the outer wall, in this case between the Soviet and American sectors, though now with gaps and holes and the reinforcing iron lattice showing through. The barrier borders the site of the former SS/Gestapo headquarters, an unnerving juxtaposition, whose grounds now comprise the Topographie des Terrors. This affecting indoor/outdoor exhibition tells the story of the Nazis rise to power and of the crimes committed during their reign, which is quite a brave tale to tell in the country of origin. We were entirely engrossed by the words and pictures along the exhibition trench skirting the wall, a much fuller version of which now fills the permanent display in the low large ashlar building alongside.
The longest stretch of the inner wall stands further east near the Oberbaumbrücke on the banks of the Spree. The east-facing surface has been used as a mile-long canvas, with over 100paintings created by international artists in 1990 forming the East Side Gallery. The city has not been kind. The majority of the murals have been graffitied, or even restored and regraffitied. A 40 metre section was cut out and relocated in parallel upriver so that patrons of O2 World, Berlin's premier phone-sponsored arena, could have better access to the river. And a whole chunk has been taken out to make way for a single luxury apartment block, of the kind which a London council would probably approve immediately but in Berlin looks wilfully out of place. The remainder of the riverside deathstrip is now a park, with graffitiactively encouraged, and a vibrant gathering place for local youth.
I missed the official Berliner Mauer Memorial on Bernauer Straße, even though I deliberately visited both of the stations it links together. Then there's the forgotten wall, the fact that the DDR's boundary encircled West Berlin for almost 100 miles, carving through more countryside than city, and few venture out there. But I had other things to see. While there's time for reflection, even morbid retrospection, never forget that Berlin is a city that looks relentlessly forwards.