Earlier this year I paid my first visit to the city of Berlin. I am old enough to remember the Berlin Wall being erected in 1961 and dismantled in 1990. Dividing the city’s East and West German portions, it spanned 155 kilometres (96 miles). It actually consisted of two walls, the border wall (the part that faced the West) and the inner wall in East Berlin.
The wall was designed to stop the residents of East Germany escaping to the West. Whichever side of the wall you were on when the wall was built was the side you stayed until Germany’s reunification in 1990. There was a wide area between the two walls with trenches to make it easier to see and thus capture anyone trying to escape, an area known as the ‘death strip’.
During these years it is estimated that over 100,000 people tried to escape. Over 5,000 were successful and it is thought that up to 200 people were killed by the guards during their attempts. Initially the barrier was made of concrete blocks and barbed wire but it was reinforced over time eventually becoming 12feet (3.6m) high and stronger so that there could be no attempt at driving cars through it. There were guard towers positioned around the wall. The wall became one of the largest canvases in the world as people in the west painted it with graffiti or street art expressing their opinions. The west side was completely covered but the east side was blank as people were not allowed to get close to it.
In 1989 a series of revolutions in Poland, Hungary and other Eastern Bloc countries caused a chain reaction and eventually the Iron Curtain between East and West was broken. On 9thNovember 1989 the East German government announced that their citizens could visit West Berlin, many climbed the wall in an atmosphere of celebration. Immediately people started to chip away sections of the wall and pieces were sold or collected by souvenir hunters.
The wall was finally demolished by the middle of 1990 and in the spring of that year an international group of over 100 artists from 21 countries began painting a series of murals reflecting the political changes in Germany and the world. That huge canvas had gone but a section remained and is now known as ‘The East Side Gallery’. This is possibly the longest open-air gallery in the world painted on a portion of the wall that originally faced the territory that belonged to East Berlin.
Many visitors to Berlin visit this site and over time there have been many repairs and touching up of the paintings. Inevitably more graffiti was added and in 2009 most of the paintings were replaced and an ‘anti-graffiti’ coat was applied. Some artists refused to repaint their destroyed images others were copied without permission. Controversy over the site has persisted especially as the area is wanted for development. It is now a heritage-protected landmark expressing hope for freedom for all people of the world.
The photographs here are ones that caught my eye and in close up you can see that some of the surfaces are damaged by erosion with flaking paint. Some are quite famous including the iconic Trabant car bursting through the wall. The manufacture of these cars was a state monopoly in East Germany and the waiting list for purchasing one was up to 12 years. The car had a steel frame with the boot, bonnet wings and doors made of plastic made from recycled cotton waste from the Soviet Union. The average life span of a Trabant was 28 years although it was noisy and unreliable!
Another well-known image is ‘The Kiss’ although the actual title is ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’. It is a depiction of a photograph taken on the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the German Democratic Republic (Eastern Germany) in 1979. The two men are Leonid Brezhnev, General Secratery of the Soviet Union and Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. It is now widely regarded as a symbol of Berlin’s inclusivity.
So the cold, grey and inhuman wall has been replaced by this colourful gallery, no longer dividing the city but bringing together thousands of tourists each day who absorb the history of the Cold War and hopefully look forward to a peaceful future.
Words and images by Linda Walsh