All Along the Berlin Wall

Ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a traveller explores its past and pertinence.  
Berlin Wall 1
Dmitri Vrubel’s iconic mural “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” also known as “Fraternal Kiss,” is inspired by a 1979 photograph of Soviet and East German leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker. Photo By: Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis Documentary/Getty images

Have you ever wondered if a country’s politics can seep into its language? That’s the question on my mind sitting at Einstein Kaffee, beside Checkpoint Charlie—once the American sector border crossing in divided Berlin, and now a tourist magnet that has imbibed so much capitalism it has sprouted a McDonald’s and a KFC on either side. Even the actor who plays the stern-faced border guard charges visitors for the souvenir stamps on their passports. A few more euros buy you a photograph with the performer-guards, complete with a wooden post, sandbags, and the sign “US Army Checkpoint.” Behind it is the Mauermuseum.

Back to my latte and my question. Die Mauer, German for ‘The Wall,’ refers to the Berlin Wall that divided the city into communist Eastern and capitalist Western sectors for twenty eight years between August 1961 and November 1989. Nowhere did the sparks of the Cold War ignite as potently as on this Wall. The structure that incised the city left scar tissue on the language in the form of words that would otherwise neither be needed nor make much sense. For example, Mauermuseum or the Wall Museum, where I spent hours during my first to Berlin; or the distressing Mauerschütze, referring to an East German border guard who shot people fleeing to the West; or the rebellious Mauerspringer or wall jumper, who in leaping over the divide symbolises the giddy delights of freedom. In fact, Mauerspringer is so compelling a concept that it has manifested as several art forms, including German author Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper, my companion in Berlin.

Berlin Wall

The East Side Gallery with its vibrant murals bears a graffiti of a Trabi, East Germany’s beloved car, breaking through the Wall. Photo By: Sylvain Sonnet/Corbis Documentary/Getty images

Berlin Wall 2

Artist Yadegar Asisi offers an expansive view of East Berlin at “Die Mauer Panorama.” Photo Courtesy: Tom Schulze © Asisi

 

Schneider opens the book with a view of Berlin that no longer exists—the aerial approach to Tegel airport with the pilot’s dicey dance between East and West German airspaces. At “Die Mauer Panorama,” artist Yadegar Asisi offers another bygone scene: an expansive view of East Berlin as seen from Kreuzberg in the West. A flight of stairs takes me up the raised platform dwarfed by the massive installation, inside which sits another platform from which curious onlookers in the West gaze over the Wall into the East. The platform within platform makes the exhibit surreal. The lights in the television tower, the smoke from the chimneys, the reflections in rain puddles, all seem to pulsate. What appears motionless is the death strip on the Eastern side, behind the graffiti-clad Western face of the Wall. This was the zone saturated with watchtowers, guard dogs, and armed Mauerschützen to prevent illegal crossings. The purpose of the Wall suddenly becomes obvious: it was not meant to keep people out, it was meant to keep them in.

A lunch of sausage and curry sauce in a parking lot might sound odd. In my defence, I’m eating Berlin’s quintessential snack currywurst in an atypical parking lot. An almost-missable signboard alerts you to the location of the destroyed Führerbunker, Adolf Hitler’s bunker. In the closing days of World War II, once Berlin’s fall became imminent, Hitler committed suicide. Berlin was captured, and a series of negotiations led to the division of Berlin and Germany itself into Soviet-backed East Germany and West Germany supported by America, Britain, and France. Given the economic attraction of the West, East Germany lost close to three million citizens, who walked from their capital of East Berlin to embassies in West Berlin. Then one night in August 1961, the first barbed wire went up and the border was sealed.

Berlin Wall 3

“Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos (1); Remnants of the Berlin Wall (2); Checkpoint Charlie (3). Photos By: Werner Spremberg/Shutterstock (statue), Aluxum/istock/Getty images (wall), KELENY/Shutterstock (people)

 

An original section of the Wall at the Topography of Terror exhibit brings out an uncomfortable irony. In East Germany, the Mauer was called the ‘anti-fascist protection barrier.’ The communists who had fought Hitler’s Nazis winced at the hypocrisy of the West, which had appointed more than a few ex-Nazi officers. But the blueprint of the Wall’s death strip, designed and guarded to foil escapes, was straight out of the Nazi playbook. The surviving concrete Wall and its exposed metal rods at the former headquarters of the Gestapo, the Nazi Secret Police, eerily meld Berlin’s Nazi and communist periods into an uneasy amalgam.

A lonely red rose rests by one of the victim’s photographs on the iron gallery at the open air Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Its withering petals smell of the heartbreak behind the statistics of border crossing deaths. The Wall here is reduced to collapsing concrete and naked rusted rods. But I cannot shake the image of a once-impenetrable barrier that inflicted such personal pain.

I intend to hop on an S1 train from Nordbahnof to Brandenburg Gate but I lose myself in a map of ‘ghost stations’ or subway stops in East Berlin that were shut off due to the Wall. Padlocked stations sitting on the same transit lines as packed platforms drives home the everyday realities of a divided city. I get goosebumps when I see Nordbahnof crossed out.

Berlin Wall 4

The “Mauerspringer” statue (1); Peter’s Schneider’s 1982 novel The Wall Jumper (2); A market stall at the now-touristy Checkpoint Charlie (3); Currywurst (4); Famous sign at Checkpoint Charlie (5). Photos By: Cineberg/Shutterstock (statue), Hudzilla/fstop/Getty images (shop), Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty images (food), Delpixel/Shutterstock (sign)

 

Brandenburg Gate radiates an electric energy, as if the horse-drawn chariot at its crest would burst into life, forcing the locals and tourists to drop their bubble blowers and selfie sticks. I wonder if, back in 1987, the crowd in the Western sector behind the Gate sensed the same energy when American President Ronald Reagan famously challenged Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “open this Gate…tear down this Wall.” Just over two years after this speech, the Wall fell as suddenly and unexpectedly as it came into being. An East German official was to announce new travel regulations between the East and West at a press conference. However, due to some confusion, he ended up saying that private travel abroad was allowed without restrictions, taking effect “immediately, without delay.” That’s it! That’s all it took for this formidable physical symbol of the Cold War to come crumbling down. As a swelling mass of East and West Berliners gathered at the site of their partition, it was almost as if the Wall was brought down by sheer force of will dammed up for 28 years. And with this momentous event, the German language gained another word. A single term that captures the entire triumph and promise of the dissolution of the divisive Wall—Mauerfall.

The colourful murals of East Side Gallery reflect the happy and hopeful mood after the Mauerfall. German and international artists painted images of love and freedom onto this section of the Wall that is now also a monument to its own fall. In one mural, a Trabi, East Germany’s beloved car, breaks through the Wall. In another, Soviet and East German leaders Brezhnev and Honecker lock lips in a “Fraternal Kiss.” This sea of chromatic messages also makes room for artist Gabriel Heimler’s “Mauerspringer,” that same defiant freedom-seeking spirit, now celebrated as a mural. Schneider’s Mauerspringer may be old, but his message remains strikingly fresh. The one-sided broadcasts he describes in East and West Germany are not terribly different from our own filter bubbles and fake news. Then comes his chilling realisation: “Where does the state end and the self begin?” This observation is also a warning. There is a subtle tendency for our language, our psyche, to absorb the message of the government that surrounds us. And if that message is one of discord, we will likely begin to believe and act on it. Unless, we, as travellers, turn to our inner mauerspringers and choose to jump the walls being built in our hearts
and minds.

Berlin celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Mauerfall on November 9, 2019. Between November 4-10, visitors can enjoy film screenings, exhibitions, art installations, and concerts. Don’t miss the MauAR augmented reality app that recreates visualisations of the Berlin Wall.

 

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller India and National Geographic Magazine, head here.

  • Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to over 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?