Walling up history

Twenty-three years after the Berlin Wall was brought down, stuart forster explores the remnants of the Wall, and the stories its art reveals.

Historic: Art on the Berlin Wall. photo by author

People often think of exploring Europe as a summer adventure, due to the changeable and often chilly autumn weather.

But anyone with an eye for art and history may well find a trip to Berlin worthwhile and that it represents good value in November.

For many Germans, especially Berliners, November 9 is a memorable day; it was on that date, in 1989, that citizens crowded around and then clambered onto and even over the city’s wall as part of the series of events leading to the reunification of Berlin with Germany.

Sections of the Berlin Wall — which once had a total length of 155 km and was known to Germans simply as die Mauer meaning ‘the wall’ — remain dotted throughout the city. Yet the East Side Gallery — which stands along Muehlenstrasse, between the Ostbahnhof Railway Station and the Gothic style Oberbaum Bridge — is the longest and by far the most aesthetically impressive intact stretch of the infamous wall.

The free-to-visit, open-air art gallery is on a 1.3 km long section of the Berlin Wall, which, for more than a generation, stood as an emotive symbol of the divisions of a city, Europe and the world at large.

Today, with time helping to blur distinctions between the boundaries of East and West Berlin, little of the original wall remains; yet where it does stand, it remains a powerful reminder of the Cold War’s impact on people’s lives and freedom.

Artists from countries East and West — including Dmitri Vrubel, Thierry Noir and Mary Mackay — painted a total of 105 multi-coloured murals on the wall in 1990, when the East Side Gallery was dedicated as an international memorial for freedom. The artists make visually powerful, sometimes profound, statements on their 3.6 m high concrete canvas.

Residents of Germany’s capital city say that the East Side Gallery is ‘the world’s longest open air art gallery.’ To understand the symbolism and imagery employed by the artists, you need to take a look back at the impact of the Berlin Wall.

You really need to understand the wall’s grim history to comprehend the swell of euphoria that overtook and gripped Berlin as the wall fell on November 9, 1989. Friends, families and strangers that had been kept apart due to their governments’ politics met, hugged and celebrated on the city’s streets.

Some pushed, hammered and chipped away at the much hated wall that began life — and started impacting lives — on 13 August 1961, when East German authorities ordered barriers and barbed wire to be erected across the city.

Berlin had already been split into sectors of control by the occupying Allies following the end of World War II. Entry and exit of the American, Russian, French and British sectors was controlled via checkpoints.

The most famous of these, Checkpoint Charlie, still exists at the junction of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse with people dressed in the smartly pressed uniforms of American guards and always ready to pose with tourists for photos. The nearby museum at Checkpoint Charlie tells the story of the city and the icy relationship between East and West during the Cold War.

The barriers and fences that would later be converted into a complex system of concrete walls, guard towers and bunkers enclosing the western part of the city, ostensibly to protect East Germany from potentially degenerative influences, stood for more than 28 years.

If you talk to a Berliner of a certain age, you may well hear stories of the human impact of the wall; lovers were separated, students blocked from attending their university and people unable to go to work after the border between East and West Berlin was sealed.

Walls of expression

The artwork of the East Side Gallery reflects the complex tensions, the repression, suffering and separation caused by the Berlin Wall.

In its 28 years of existence, an estimated 5,000 escapes were attempted and around 100 to 200 of them had fatal endings; the precise figures are still disputed. The dreams and hopes of many more were hindered and crushed by the authoritarian authorities of the not-so-democratic German Democratic Republic.

Despite, or perhaps even because of that, many of the works display an optimism and vibrancy that many people might not expect. It’s worth remembering that the artists met around the wall and created their works in late 1989 and 1990, at a juncture when it seemed as if the world had overcome a major barrier to peace and international understanding. Some hoped the globe was on the brink of becoming a better, safer place.

A sense of that avant garde creativity which flourished after the fall of the wall still lingers in Berlin. By Central European standards, the city offers highly affordable housing and gallery space and is consequently attractive to young talent seeking a creative, happening environment conducive to working, experimenting and exchanging ideas.

Since the murals of the East Street Gallery were painted, the weather, graffiti and effects of time have played a part in eroding and scarring the works. Restorations were carried out in 2000 and again in 2009, meaning that if you visit the East Side Gallery today, you’ll see the paintings in relatively good condition. 

The Iron Curtain, which divided Europe and her people into East and West, rusted and fell more than two decades ago, but the art created in its wake remains. That said, maintaining the East Side Gallery is an ongoing challenge, with a number of people all too ready to add tags and graffiti to the monument.

As Germany’s president, Christian Wulff, said last year, at a ceremony commemorating a half-century since the building of the wall began, “Freedom is invincible at the end. No wall can permanently withstand the desire for freedom.” Hopefully, the freedom that will prevail is that of Berlin’s visitors, in their desire to appreciate the East Side Gallery long into the future.

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