This will be a sombre, solemn post. I thought when I decided to spend the summer in Berlin that I’d be more fascinated with WWII history (and believe me, I am), but I was unprepared for just how much Cold War history would really affect me.
Throughout the 20th century, Germans have been REALLY good at building walls. First they built walls to create Jewish Ghettos, then they built walls around concentration camps, then they built walls to separate their own people. If you just so happened to be living in the wrong part of Berlin, you were suddenly forbidden to visit your family and friends on the other side of town. You couldn’t even wave across the wall, or they would blind you with reflecting mirrors. The Soviets wanted to prevent people from moving freely from one side to the other, so they built a wall, and would kill if you dared cross. THEY WOULD KILL YOU. And this isn’t ancient history, people were being killed in 1989 for trying to cross the wall. IN 1989.
And I find the sections where the Berlin wall is still standing especially haunting. Because, really, the wall isn’t that high. It wasn’t really the wall but the kill zone in between East and West Germany that is horrific.
This is a photograph of 18 year old Peter Fechter. He was an apprentice bricklayer.
And this is the last photograph ever taken of Peter Fechter as he lay dying from a gunshot wound to the stomach when he tried to cross the wall in 1962. The East Germans shot him and left him there for over an hour to die.
This marks the spot where he died.
You know, my pictures of this murder don’t do the horror of this event justice. Here is a short film about the erection of the Berlin Wall and the murder of Peter Fechter (I know no one likes watching videos, but it’s only 9 minutes long, and it’s actually really good. The voice-over feels a bit dated, but I would highly encourage you guys to watch this. There is footage of Peter Fechter being carried off as he dies, and other footage of people trying to jump the wall, or even jumping out of buildings just to get to the West.).
What you’re looking at here is a preserved section of the wall and the kill zone, with an intact guard tower. You can see the Berlin TV tower near Alexanderplatz (in the West) in the background. If you lived here on Bernauerstrasse in the 1960s, you could see into the west, you could hear the rumble of the trams and S-bahn, you could even hear their voices. But, for over 40 years, you wouldn’t have been able to see your family living there.
It’s obscene how recent this history is.
As you saw in the video above, if you lived on a building facing the West, before the wall was built you could just jump through your window and run to the West with all your things.
But then they started to build the wall, first with barbed wire, then with bricks.
Even the East German guards were swept up in the wall-crossing fever. You have all seen this photograph before. His name is Conrad Schumann.
Schumann was a young East German guard, overseeing the border when it was just barbed wire. As the story goes, on the West was a van full of West German guards who called out to him, and said, “Come on, join us!” So when the moment was right, he hopped the wire, dropped his gun, and dashed into the waiting van which drove off. The East German police scrambled to grab his gun, and then all hell broke loose.
Here is a short video (put it on mute, there’s some obnoxious voiceover on it) of that moment. Some lucky bastard had his camera rolling at that exact moment, and caught it all on tape.
Schumann became a posterboy for West Germany. The sad thing – he was petrified his entire life that the Stasi would arrest him or seek retribution for his act. Even after the wall fell and Germany was reunified, he lived in constant fear. He committed suicide in 1998, by hanging himself from a tree.
Here’s another guard tower around the corner from Potsdamer Platz. The wall was so ridiculous, it literally cut the city in two via asinine regulations. For 28 years, nobody was able to pass through the Brandenburg Tor, because it was situated in the killzone between the East and the West. Now, the Brandenburg Tor is a huge tourist draw and everyone passes through it. If you tried to do that in 1984, for example, you would have been shot.
When the wall finally fell and the East Germans walked into the West, they said it felt like “madness.” This above photograph I took last week.
Here’s something new. In 2006, this is what a section of the wall near Wilhelmstrasse looked like. I took this picture back then.
This is what that exact same wall looked like last week.
The trees are gone, and they paved over most of the cobblestones in favour of asphalt.
Because on the other side of the wall, they have put in an open-air museum called Topographie Des Terrors, as that is the location of a former Gestapo prison. The ruins of the prison cells are down there.
Now the former border is either marked by cobblestones in the road, or by these beams.
Or, the best way to commemorate a political travesty…
Welcome to the East Side Gallery! The stretch of the Berlin Wall that had such provocative street art, it encouraged the revolution of the people, and the destruction of the DDR. It now is a protected wall, and these original murals from the late 80s serve as a reminder to the power of the people, and a people torn apart.
I’ll let these images speak for themselves, shall I?
The caption says “My God, help me to overcome this deadly love.”
This is a satirical depiction of a famous moment when Erich Honecker (leader of the DDR) kissed Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. This is perhaps the most recognizable image from the East Side Gallery.
This says, “He who wants the world to remain as it is, doesn’t want it to remain at all.”
Why is that Thierry Noir? I FINK SO!
In fact, it is the wall which made Noir famous. He put up these infamous faces in the 80s, and they became a symbol of the people separated. Along with the Honecker kiss above, it is one of the most recognizable symbols of the wall.
A touch of home! There’s a 2009 mural here that is captioned “Je Me Souviens” which is the slogan of Quebec! And underneath it references the student protests in Quebec. It has the red square that was the symbol of the protestors, and it says Fuck Charest, Fuck Harper.
For those of you who don’t know, Charest was the premier of Quebec, and Harper is our stupid Prime Minister.
Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver. I saw this wheatpaste in London, must be new.
The dust of walls torn down has settled in the hearts of men. How will you keep them from rising again?
This is all fun and stuff, but let’s not forget that people died. People were terrorized. And this is a reminder of all-too-recent history.