• How Berlin Reckons with Its Past Each and Every Day

    Paul Scraton on the Fall of the Berlin Wall and Everything After

    Outside Nordbahnhof station, where Bernauer Straße rises up the hill between the districts of Mitte and Wedding, there is a grassy field where the Berlin Wall once stood. It occupies the former death strip, the no-man’s land between the inner and outer walls of the border, once a floodlit space of watchtowers, a patrol road and motion sensors, the domain of guards with a shoot-to-kill order for anyone else who set foot there. Today it is part of the open-air exhibition either side of the Berlin Wall Memorial. The former sand-traps are now a neat lawn, with memorials, photographs and information boards to tell just some of the stories of what happened in this place.

    There are slabs of the Wall, standing in a line, overgrown with brambles and bushes, and a stretch of the outer wall still in place, chiseled and pockmarked, scrawled with the messages and tags of those who come to see it from all over the world. In the centre of the lawn there is a smaller wall, a wall of photographs, remembering those who died at the border between the night it was closed on the 13th of August 1961 and the night it came down, on the 9th of November 1989. The Berlin Wall stood for just over 28 years. Now, it has been a memorial site longer than it was a fortified border and the most famous symbol of Cold War division.

    I have been to Bernauer Straße, to the memorial and the grassy stretch of the former death strip many times, taking family and friends to this important site of memory in the city I call home. I have also been there with groups, with school children and students from Berlin and elsewhere, as well as other visitors of the city, to share with them the history of the place and the stories of the border. On Bernauer Straße, many dramatic events played out, especially during the early years after the border was closed. People made dramatic escapes through windows, climbing down ropes created from bed sheets or falling into mats held by West Berlin firefighters on the street below. Tunnels were painstakingly dug beneath the death strip and a border guard defected, leaping the barbed wire fence with the media looking on. And on Bernauer Straße, the first of those lives were lost nine days after the border was closed, when Ida Siekmann jumped from her fourth floor window before the firefighters were ready to catch here. She died in the ambulance on the way to hospital.

    On the 9th of November 2019, I walked with a small group of visitors from Canada, Denmark, South Africa, Finland and the United States along Bernauer Straße. Together we explored just some of the many stories of the street, including Ida Siekmann’s. It was a walk to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of numerous discussions, exhibitions, talks, readings, workshops and other events held to mark the anniversary. On the way we walked through neighborhoods in the districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, to locations that held memories of the stories of life in East Berlin, in the German Democratic Republic, and those weeks of growing opposition and protest that resulted in the 9th of November 1989. Our final destination was the grassy field at Nordbahnhof and the memorial wall to the victims. It seemed like an appropriate place to finish.

    We never made it. We arrived at Bernauer Straße just as the official memorial service was taking place at the Chapel of Reconciliation, also located on the death strip. The street was blocked and a security perimeter in place. Police officers in high-vis jackets occupied vantage points on the roofs and balconies of buildings all around, on the lookout for potential trouble. Important guests were brought to the site in motorcades driving just that little bit too fast, to the sound of their sirens with their blue lights flashing. The grassy field, the former death strip, had been turned once more into a restricted zone, our way blocked by metal fences, the space between us and the memorial patrolled by armed police officers and their dogs.

    Remnants of the wall at Bernauer Strasse. (All photos by the author.)

    On the pavement beyond the security cordon, as a light drizzle began to fall, I told the story of the night the Berlin Wall came down and tried to explain what we would have been looking at had we not found our way blocked. It wasn’t so bad, one of the group remarked, as I apologized for not being able to get any closer. In a strange way, it helped him imagine all the better how things must have been back then, the empty no-man’s land a carved-out scar between the two halves of the city.


    A day earlier I had walked from Nordbahnhof along the route of the Berlin Wall with a group of 40 children from my daughter’s school, all aged 11 and 12, roughly the same age as many of their parents on the night the Wall came down. To grow up in Berlin is to have a great number of places that are central to the history of Germany right on your doorstep. A history teacher can explore events on location, traveling from any school in the city on public transport to the palaces of Potsdam and Charlottenburg, to the Topography of Terror or the Stasi Prison, to the remains of the Berlin Wall or to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and Platform 17 at Grunewald station, where tens of thousands of Berlin’s Jews were loaded onto the trains that took them to the extermination camps of the east.

    Some of the kids live close to these sites of memory, and they are part of their everyday routines, passing them on their way to school or to visit a friend’s house. Each morning, my daughter crosses the former border on the U-Bahn, leaving the train at what was a “ghost station” during the years of division.

    As the anniversary approached, it was a conversation among her group of friends about where they lived in the city, and who could have visited whom and who would have found their way blocked. When I was asked to take the Grade 6 classes for a walk on the day before the anniversary, I sensed it would not be difficult to trigger their imaginations.

    To grow up in Berlin is to have a great number of places that are central to the history of Germany right on your doorstep.

    As we walked, the kids listened to stories from the divided city and searched out traces of the old border to mark on the maps they had brought with them. They were tasked with reflecting on the legacy of division, to think about how the city had come together physically over the three decades since 1989, and where gaps still remained. As we walked, they began to tell stories of their own, sharing memories of their parents and their grandparents. These were the tales of family history and collective identity, shared at dinner tables or triggered by a particular television show, a journey through the city or significant anniversary. These kids, all born around 20 years after German reunification, seemed to have no problem understanding the realities of the divided city, and for every story I told, one of them had something to share.

    As young Berliners from a variety of backgrounds but all at home in the city, they certainly grasped it better than many adults from outside the city do when faced with the stories of these places, even those who are old enough to remember the Wall still standing. The end of our walk was at Bornholmer Straße, where a bridge over the railway tracks linked the two sides of the city. During the years of division there had been a checkpoint, occupying a space cleared at the foot of the bridge that is now home to a Lidl supermarket and a set of brand new apartment blocks. It was there, on the 9th of November, crowds gathered following a bungled press conference that announced citizens of the German Democratic Republic were now free to travel. It was there, as elsewhere in the city, the citizens of East Berlin faced down the guards with their guns and their shoot-to-kill orders and demanded to be let across. It was there, on Bornholmer Straße, that the first gate was opened, and what became known as the Fall of the Berlin Wall began.

    I cross that bridge around four times a week on my morning run, passing the small exhibition of photographs that tell the story of that night and that of the border, the checkpoint and the surrounding area. Thousands of travelers use the bridge to reach the entrance to the S-Bahn station at the top, halfway between the old East and the old West. People shop at the supermarket from both sides of the bridge, waiting not to have their papers checked but their groceries scanned. This space is not a closed off memorial site, only visited in relation to the historic events that happened there. It is part of the fabric of the city and like so many such places it helps us to understand the stories of the city.

    As I described the crowds arriving at the checkpoint, flooding down the streets of Prenzlauer Berg to demand their freedom to travel, the group turned to look down the bridge to see from where they had come. It was late afternoon in November. The street lights were on. Cars streamed over the bridge in both directions and pedestrians made their way to and from the station, wrapped up against the cold. A normal city scene. But the story remained alive on the bridge, told in the place where it happened, surrounded by the dramatic photographs of that night in which the landmarks of 1989 were still visible 30 years later. I’m not a teacher, but I was sure at that moment there was no better classroom for this lesson.


    When it comes to the story of the Berlin Wall, the bridge at Bornholmer Straße is not uncommon. The whole of its length can be said to be a memorial, running for 40 kilometers through the city, where it is often marked with a line of cobblestones laid in the ground, and 120 kilometers around its edge, a circular and waymarked hiking and cycling route known as the Mauerweg or the Berlin Wall Trail. There are sites of memory all along the 160 kilometers of the trail, including the exhibition at Bornholmer Straße and the main memorial site at Bernauer Straße. There are memorials to the tunnels and the escapes, at the checkpoints and where the watchtowers once stood, memorials that tell of how the border impacted on life in certain parts of the city, and one each for the 140 lives lost, almost always at the very spot where Berliners lost their lives.

    A little way down the street from Checkpoint Charlie, perhaps the most famous and most commercial of all the sites of Berlin Wall tourism, there is a gap in the row of parking spaces at the side of the road. In the space is a bronze column, a simple sculpture just inside the line of cobblestones that marks the border. This is the memorial to Peter Fechter, a young man who attempted to cross from the East to the West in 1962 and very nearly made it. He was shot as he attempted to climb the final barrier to West Berlin, and fell back into the death strip. There he lay, huddled against the cold concrete of the Wall at the spot where his memorial now stands. The whole scene was witnessed by people on both sides. Photographs were taken of the young man, crumpled at the foot of the Wall. Nobody from West Berlin could help him. None of the East German border guards chose to. After an agonizing hour, alone and bleeding in the death strip, he died where he lay.

    People shop at the supermarket from both sides of the bridge, waiting not to have their papers checked but their groceries scanned.

    The story is horrific, one of the crimes committed at the Berlin Wall that helped cement its reputation as a symbol in concrete and wire of communist repression. In his death, Peter Fechter’s name echoed around the world. It is unlikely that his story is so well known today, but the memorial stands for those who look up from the sidewalk and engage with it. Standing at that spot on Zimmerstraße can give you a strange feeling. In this part of the city, the “coming together” of reunification feels, at least in an architectural sense, complete. There are no gaps. You are surrounded by glass and steel office blocks, hotels and apartments. Beside the memorial, a small coffee shop sells healthy snacks and shakes, while guests tap away at their laptops. Walking down the street, it would be easily possible to pass Peter Fechter’s memorial without noticing it.

    Perhaps that is what gives the simple sculpture its power, easily equal to the historical hustle of nearby Checkpoint Charlie or the overload of stories on Bernauer Straße. It is important, I think, for the memorial to stand where Peter Fechter lay because it reminds us of what took place in the not-too-distant past, within living memory of many Berliners and those who come to the city. There is a power to knowing an individual name whose story is part of a wider history, and there is a power in hearing such stories of people and events in the places where they happened, whether an American Civil War battlefield, at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, or on a Berlin sidewalk.

    In 1928, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig took a trip to the battlefields of Flanders. Parts of the experience troubled him, especially the idea of a place where so many lives were lost had become a tourist attraction. “Nevertheless,” he wrote, “it is good that, in some places on this earth, one can still encounter a few horrifying traces of the great crime.” In my explorations of the Berlin Wall, and other sites of memory, I often think of Zweig’s words, and the conclusion that he took when thinking about his visit to the battlefield. Whatever his concerns when he saw the carefree visitors considering such a place, it was still important that they did so, “for only in remaining so informed can we take on so terrifying a past and then be able to turn and face the future.” (From “Ypres,” an essay in Journeys by Stefan Zweig.)


    During the week leading up to the anniversary, I went with my partner Katrin, who grew up in the German Democratic Republic, and my daughter to see the “Stories & Places” exhibitions, held at seven locations throughout the city that were central to the key events of what became known as the “Peaceful Revolution” of 1989-90. At each of the seven sites, photographs and texts were combined with eyewitness testimony from those people who had been part of it, including activists, church leaders, journalists and other members of the public who experienced the events as they happened. Their quotes were added to the exhibitions, and listening stations had been installed so we could hear them as they told their stories. Alongside the open-air exhibition, 3D video projections using archive footage were displayed each evening after dark, and the on-site festival pavilions hosted a program of readings, concerts and discussions about the events of 1989-90 and its legacy.

    At the Gethsemane Church in Prenzlauer Berg, where the opposition had formed in the autumn of 1989, we read the stories of a vigil for political prisoners that, over four days in early October, went from 30 people to 3,000 as courage grew and the possibility of change became palpable. At Alexanderplatz we heard the stories of some of the hundreds of thousands who flocked to the square on the 4th of November, the largest demonstration in the history of the German Democratic Republic, and we watched as images flashed up on the buildings around us, the voice of East German writer Stefan Heym echoing across the famous square once more.

    There is a power to knowing an individual name whose story is part of a wider history, and there is a power in hearing such stories of people and events in the places where they happened.

    At Schlossplatz, where Marx and Engels still look over the river, we followed the story of the first elections of the GDR as images were projected onto the facade of the unfinished Humboldt Forum. This museum project sits in the reconstructed Royal Palace, built to replace the demolished Palast der Republik, home of the East German parliament, that in turn had been built on the site of the original Royal Palace, demolished after the Second World War. Sometimes the layers of history in Berlin make your head spin.

    The stories continued at the Brandenburg Gate, where the dramatic night of the 9th of November 1989 was remembered, and over in the West of the city, on the Kurfürstendamm where, 30 years ago, the horns of a thousand Trabants resounded along the boulevard having crossed the border for the very first time. The main instruments of repression, and how the people took control of them, were explored at the former headquarters of the Ministry for State Security, otherwise known as the Stasi. And at the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, the story of how this symbol of a repressive regime came to be a symbol of humanity through the different murals painted on the concrete surface, but also the debates of what was to follow, from the privatization process in the reunified country to the rise of the radical right in the years after the Wall came down.

    The exhibitions were simple yet powerful, offering the chance to reflect not only on the stories of the past but also the legacy of those events 30 years ago. At the Gethsemane Church it was a shock to come face to face with photographs of East German Neo-Nazis, who were already making their influence felt in the GDR in the 1980s and whose wave of violence in the 1990s and 2000s would lead the period becoming known as the “baseball bat years.” At Schlossplatz there was a recognition that many of those civil rights activists who led the opposition movement in East Germany, often at great personal risk, found themselves sidelined by events as their calls for reform and change were drowned out by the demands for reunification. And at the East Side Gallery, the story of an art project was also a reflection on what reunification meant for the city of Berlin, the collapse of East German industry and the tensions unleashed by the historical process.


    These tensions remain very present and very real, and perhaps explains why the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall felt somewhat different to those other anniversaries I have experienced in the city since I moved here in 2002. This time around there seemed to be less of a celebratory atmosphere in the air, despite the impressive range of events taking place to mark the occasion. Perhaps it is the current political situation we find ourselves in, or perhaps it was simply the weather, as the 9th of November dawned as a day of gray clouds and near-constant drizzle. Although it was hard to put my finger on it, it felt, to my mind at least, like an anniversary that was less euphoric and more reflective.

    I felt this not only at the open-air exhibitions of “Stories & Places” but also as attempted to follow the wave of documentaries, articles, commentary pieces and more that crashed down during the week of the anniversary, both in Germany and beyond. One of the key moments of the events of 1989 that has long been commented on is the moment when the cry of the opposition shifted from “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the people, aimed at those who claimed to be representing them) to “Wir sind ein Volk” (We are one people, a call for reunification). It was a moment where the coming together of West and East supposedly became inevitable. But three decades on, it is clear that this process is far from complete. The German government’s annual reunification report, published in September 2019, showed that although progress had been made attitudes were, if anything, hardening. Some 57 percent of citizens in the former East Germany saw themselves as second-class citizens, while only 38 percent saw reunification as a success, down to only 20 percent of the under-40s.

    At the same time, the anniversary played out following strong showings in three separate state elections in the former East for the right wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. In the newspaper Die Zeit, the connection was made between the rise of the radical right in the generation that grew up around and in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as documented at both the Gethsemane Church and the East Side Gallery, and the AfD vote today: “In the recent state election in Thuringia, older voters were less likely to vote for the right-wing populists. It was mostly the 18 to 55 year olds who cast their ballots for the AfD.”

    I came out of the anniversary weekend, after the walks, workshops, exhibitions and media coverage, thinking as much about the contemporary Germany I call home as the events of 30 years ago. It is a reminder again of why history is important, and why it cannot be boxed off. I have long believed that it is not only important to understand how and why things happened, but how they connect to what we are experiencing today. The history is the starting point for the discussion, and as we enter the period between the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and 30 years since reunification, on the 3rd of October 2020, the legacy of those events needs to be at the center of our debates if we are to be able, as Stefan Zweig wrote, to think about the future. I also came out of the weekend ever more convinced as to the power of places to be witnesses to the stories of the past, to help us make those connections and begin the process of meeting the challenges we have already started to face.

    Paul Scraton
    Paul Scraton
    Paul Scraton is the editor-in-chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany's Baltic Coast (Influx Press). His debut novel Built on Sand was published by Influx in 2019. He lives in Berlin.

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