The case of the missing Berlin Wall

Every city has its Penn Station. Every modern city, at some point, eats its young and then regrets the decision. New York wrecked its cathedral to rail travel. London knocked down Euston Station and tossed it into the swamps. And Berlin, ironically, had its Wall.

Yesterday in Berlin, I asked a wide-eyed German working on a laptop if the seat opposite him at the Windows cafe was free. That began a conversation about East Germany.

Ronald was born on what we consider the other side of the Wall, and he was 20 when the wall came down. (I should have asked him about the party.) Now he’s working on his Ph.D in political science, essentially writing about whether one of the vestigial parties from the old system now serves as a de facto spoiler for the new one, gaining no real power but ensuring that the country is held in check.

Say cheese and think of oppression! The very short cleaned-up segment at Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer

It was good timing. I had in my hand a guide book (Time Out, if you want to know), and I was preparing to take a long walking tour of the path of the Berlin Wall.

The Wall is indeed very, very gone. There’s a short, cleaned-up, as-it-looked fragment around Bernauer Strasse. I also found few broken panels overgrown with trees at a forgotten junction where a cemetery wall met an S-Bahn viaduct.  Near a quiet canal feeding to the Spree, there’s an old guard tower in the forecourt of a new apartment building. A sign on the door says you can go inside, but it was locked. A third minor bit was in another cemetery, appearing more like a whitewashed sculpture.

Cyclists rode through a gap in it. A couple sunbathed in the grass next to it while, a few feet away, a man repainted the letters on a memorial stone for someone who had died in the 1920s. For nearly 30 years, the Wall ran right over his remains.

The Berlin Wall is so absent, in fact, that I spent the better part of the afternoon trying to wrap my head around where it had been and what it must have felt like. On Bernauer Strasse, there was a swath of unbuilt land that I quickly came to realize was not actually unbuilt, but had been stripped of civilization to make way for the militarized zone wrapping around West Berlin.

Preserving history takes more work than erasing it

Overnight, the Wall’s membrane was created. The buildings and shops along the street were razed except for the first floor of their facades, and for a while, these bricked-up stumps formed part of the Wall, before a better design was made permanent. Eventually, even those reminders of the old neighborhoods were eliminated in favor of a no-man’s-land of dead space.

Today, that dead space looks like a strip of empty lots. They have not been rebuilt upon. In one of history’s wistful ironies, the Wall was mostly crunched up for road fill, just as the Nazis had done with the headstones from Jewish cemeteries.

Without romance, there is no way to conceive of Berlin as it was. Imagination is required to reconstruct the great stone buildings that were first bombed, then burned, then left to crumble, then completely ripped out by the Communists in their vain efforts to reshape the world into something utilitarian. Within about 25 years, the city became something foreign to itself, and something no longtime Berliner — those who survived — would have recognized, having woken from a long sleep and gone outside.

Looks like they missed a spot behind that brick wall (Liesenstrasse Friedhof at the S2/S8)

The Berlin Wall wasn’t a single wall, you see. It was kind of two, one inside the other, with a marrow of barbed wire and other obstacles to prevent easy penetration by anyone foolish enough to try to slip through. Yet in Berlin, when occasional markers on the ground indicate the location of the Wall, what they really mean was the path of the outermost one, the one that East Germany put up in order to hem the West Germans in and make life difficult for them.

Berlin has a reputation as one of the world’s most liberal cities. An arch-conservative might even describe it as debauched. Having seen the path of the Wall, I can begin to understand how this abandon integrated into the DNA of its citizens. Imagine growing up with such a powerful sense of control and with the ever-present threat of violence and deprivation.

You can go here but not there. Do this and you will get shot. You may not see what lies at the base of that building whose rooftop you see every day. There are voices and noises coming from over there, but you may not know who they belong to, or what is happening to them, even if you might be related to them. Living with that kind of furniture in your life will almost certain create a kickback, and in Berlin’s case, it was the pursuit of ultimate freedom and pleasure, an impulse that perhaps had its seeds during the Wiemar Republic days.

The old service road tarmac dead-ends into a hasty memorial

It happens. When the Black Plague happened in the 14th Century, most Europeans died. Imagine how the survivors must have felt, having seen everything they knew upended and those they loved dispatched without rhyme to gruesome deaths. When the storm passed, they partied like there was no tomorrow, because to them, there might as well not be. Life itself had revealed itself as a passing nightmare. Why not dance and sing and screw and live for today? Things got so rowdy, the church found it necessary to tighten its control over the people to get them to pay their indulgences and keep the economic order. It was the orgasmic, post-apocalyptic release after the Black Plague that gave the church much of the power it holds onto today.

It was the same with the Berlin Wall, and who can say how long its effects will last. New York City is one of America’s most permissive and diverse cities, while Boston is one of its most straight-ahead and starchy. I believe this can be directly traced back to the fact that the Dutch, a society that values diversity, formed the nucleus of New York, while Boston was English from the start. The Dutch only held New York for a lifetime, but that’s all it took. So Berlin’s chilly sensuousness may last for centuries, even if the Wall itself is now only a tale.

“There’s hardly anything left of the Wall,” Ronald had said with regret. Kids today, he lamented, barely understood what happened in those times. He blamed parents and the schools.

Sunbathing in a graveyard for both Berliners and their politics

I understood. I myself could barely re-assemble the political jigsaw that caused it to happen and caused the Wall to go up and then to fall, and now, placing it on the earth as I walked in its former shadow, I had trouble imagining its very existence, too.

There’s an information center, where the photos taken in the 1980s (New Wave graffiti, bleary Communist palette, constant threat of rain in the sky) brought back high school memories of my geopolitical anxieties. Atop the center is an observation tower overlooking a few blocks of an approximation of what the layout of the guard zone was like. It’s scattered with memorials to people who died trying to escape and to the unmarked graves the Communists plowed the wall over, and includes a few patches where the earth below the zone revealed foundations of the bustling city blocks that once towered there.

But the swatch isn’t much larger than a supermarket might be. History has been quarantined to the small patch over Bergstrasse, where the Wall was begun. There are signs promising expansion next year, but for the most part, there is now a wall around the Wall.

The minute the Wall was no longer needed, it was ripped out the way stitches are discarded after surgery has healed.

Slabs were shipped here and there (some are at the Newseum in Washington) and a few were set up in Potzdamer Platz as a minor, missable tourist attraction. That area was once one of the city’s great intersections, but by the time the Wall went up, it was a field. Now it’s a great intersection again, remade in metal and glass, with a few graffiti-splashed concrete panels stuck incongruously in the middle. A 20-year-old who wasn’t alive in 1989 would probably think it’s some kind of urban art installation. If they leaned them over, they could skate on them.

Potzdamer Platz's touristy segment evokes little ambiance

That wasn’t to mean Ronald loved the Wall and what it stood for. But having it there, even in fragments, would perhaps have been better for the Germans.

I agree with Ronald about how sad it is the Wall wasn’t left at least in patches, or running through yards, but I understand why it was so quickly discarded. Germany had been through so much that for a half-century, Berlin’s tendency was to spit out anything distasteful about its past. Even now, most museums talk about World War II in terms of what “they,” meaning the interloping the National Socialist party, did. That was the only way it could come to terms with the misery it inflicted and then endured as it failed to gracefully put the pieces back together.

But that happens, too. After all, what’s left of the slave markets in the South, or of September 11 in New York?

We had both witnessed history, I told Ronald. “You were there when the Wall fell, but I saw it on television,” I said. “You saw 9/11 on television, but I was there.”

It took the quick dismantling of the Berlin Wall to make the country hesitate, and to begin to embrace all that had made it what it is today. After New York destroyed Penn Station, it took a horrified step back and said, “Never again.” Londoners still dream of sifting through the marshes for chunks of their beloved Euston, and consequently, changing so much as a coat of paint on a historic building requires navigating nearly as many obstacles as existed between East and West Berlin.

Now, Berlin will be more careful about honoring its past. It already has been, with its modern, eco-sensitive reinvention of the Reichstag. The wounds have healed enough, and the people who sprinted from painful memories have been replaced by those who see the value in legacy, even horrible ones.

At Bernauer Strasse, it's hard to believe this is exactly where the Wall bulldozed neighborhoods and lives

The energy of the Wall still lingered somewhat, though, like the phantom pain of something amputated. I can’t say for sure if I was sensing the razed buildings or the echoing tension of the barricade itself, but I felt something. It felt like slowly registering the faraway sound of birds singing as you wake up in the morning — resolute, inevitable, ritual, and continuing on despite the tumult of the dreams you might have had.

Although it’s gone, you can tell where the Wall was. There’s still hesitation in the air. Long stretches of ground remain unbuilt for local political reasons I don’t understand.

I asked Ronald if he had ever visited New York.  He said no. He said he wanted to, but that he had a problem with America when George W. Bush was president, so he refused to come.

I told him that Dubya was gone now, and the trouble he caused is hopefully being slowly cleaned up.

“I don’t know quite how to say this,” I told Ronald. “But I think that as a German, you know that a leader of a country does not always represent its people.”

He smiled and nodded. He said that yes, he will come soon. And he asked for my e-mail, so I guess my words were well received.

Ironically, a lucky survivor (at Kielerstrasse)

3 Responses to “The case of the missing Berlin Wall”

  1. Hawkinsian

    Great article. It was exactly this feeling of the absence of the Wall (and the DDR) that fascinated me too. So much so that I made a documentary about it called My DDR T-Shirt.

    Take a look at for a bit more info and a few clips…

    • Jason Cochran

      That is a really terrific project, Ian. I was particularly moved by the clip in which Ursula Petszch talks about being surprised that her government had such a vile reputation, and not being able to trust things that were written about it, or about the West, for a long time. A reverse perspective like that is very exciting to document, and not everyone is willing to give it. I’m really glad you’ve done this work.

  2. Ronald

    It is a great report, Jason. Your lines are very detailed, your words are expressive, mingled with the right dose of emotions. I am glad that you involved me. If anybody ask me where I live I mostly say: In Berlins former American Sector. Is it not amazing knowing that only a few meters away from my house John F. Kennedy approx. 50 years ago call out: “Ich bin ein Berliner!”. Nowadays, you Jason, are one of my personal bridges to America that freed my country from the Nazi regime and helped it over a lot of problems. Last weekend it was nice to meet you, Jason, and I also thought a lot about 9/11 these days again. However, I am really looking forward to our reunion wherever it will be. Ronald