Venetian Red in Berlin: The Wall that Divides

By LIZ HAGER

Brandenburg Gate pre-1989—Berlin Nummer B92 ©Ute + Berndt Eickemeyer/Berlin

Last week, I stood in the middle of the expansive Potsdamer Platz trying to imagine, as so many before me, just exactly where the Wall had run. At equally famous Pariser Platz, the photogenic Brandenberg Gate has stood intact through the decades, so it’s not surprising that it became the über-symbol of Soviet-fashioned state imprisonment. By contrast, virtually all of Potsdamer Platz is new, rebuilt after the 1945 bombing of Berlin and again when the Wall came down. Once one of the busiest traffic nexuses in Europe, through architectural metamorphosis the Platz has been returned to a gleaming and bustling space, albeit completely unrecognizable from its historical self. Crowds now gather in the atrium of the Sony Center not out in the streets as they did before the War.  Surrounded by shiny steel and glass towers with people and traffic streaming by, I found it nearly impossible to imagine Potsdamer Platz as a Cold War Dead Zone. But that’s pretty much what it was while divided by a nasty military-style border that included not only a 12-foot Wall, but wide buffer zones of empty space bordered by barbed wire, guard towers, and a back up wall.

Brandenburg Gate November 1989—Berlin Nummer B94 ©Ute + Berndt Eickemeyer/Berlin

Nearly 20 years after its dismantling, the Wall is still an obsession, though perhaps mostly with non-Berliners. On a Sunday morning my family group (including a native Berliner) joined a healthy crowd of internationals already at the Wall Memorial on the corner of Acker and Bernauer Strassen, all reading the historical placards with reverence and awe. Though historical tidbits about the Wall abound, one truth is overwhelming—in its circumnavigation of the city, the Wall not only fenced in East Berlin, but also isolated West Berlin, creating an island symbolically cut off from the rest of the world.

Throughout the week, I stumbled across other remnants of the Wall in different parts of the city. (A Mauer-Map is handy tool in more deliberate searches for the Wall.) Most of these slabs were pitted and defaced, shabby and seemingly ordinary.  Nevertheless, these sections still pack a powerful symbolic punch. Superficially, they might be mistaken for a metaphor of the failure of Soviet-style Communism— remnants of that system do live on, like the Wall sections, in the attitudes and behaviors of its former citizens. Upon deeper consideration, I prefer to think of them as a warning signal, a call to action for the eternal vigilance we must maintain against the forces that would divide us.

Brandenburg Gate, Recently ©2008 Liz Hager

Wider Connections

Antony Beevor—The Fall of Berlin 1945
Edward R. Murrow’s account of Berlin bombing
Potsdamer Platz
Wall factoids
Billy Wilder’s One Two Three



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