Being in Berlin: A History of the Wall

Last year during the fall semester, I was able to attend a presentation by the very geography professor, who through his class on the human diversity of the U.S convinced me that I should be a geography major.  His presentation, like his lectures was amazing.  Tom Frazier studied abroad in Germany back in the late 1980s and early 90s and thus was able to see the aftermath involving the fall of the Berlin Wall.

His presentation was also part of an art exhibit celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The exhibit featured “Barbara Klemm: Light and Dark,”  displaying 124 black and white photos.  But photos weren’t the only items on display.  Actual pieces of the Berlin Wall were included, courtesy of Frazier, who had picked them up soon after the wall fell.

The presentation was titled, “Deconstructing the Wall, Morphology of the Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall”. Frazier briefly mentioned the movie “Divided Heaven,” which is a German film that supposedly takes place right before the wall goes up.

To everyone back in the 1960s to right before the wall fell, it seemed permanent.  Now the wall is a metaphor for the collapse of communism.  Berlin was/is a very international place and is both city and state, surrounded by the Brandenburg state.  Frazier then discussed Germany’s history leading up to the wall’s construction.  Europe has a long complex history with the last 500 years being a series of unification and division.  France and Spain unified early but Germany took a while with industrialization and railroads helping the process.  The Customs Union of 1848 allowed for a common economic unification of Germany and then Berlin became the capital.

After World War II, Germany was devastated.  The Reichstag building (parliament) was intentionally built outside the old city gates.  All of Germany was occupied militarily with thousands of people on the move.  There was a British Zone in Hanover, a French Zone across the French border and U.S. Zone in Bavaria.  The borders followed existing political divisions as did the Berlin Wall by following district borders.

The Zehlendorf district had the American embassy and Americans living there.  East Berlin was of course the capital of East Germany.  The need for housing and then labor was part of the reason for Easterners going across to the west side to work.  Both global and local geopolitics were also involved.

August 13, 1961 then became Barbed Wire Sunday as East German troops rolled barbed wire along the ground to enclose West Berlin.  This was essentially done to stop the hemorrhage of brain drain (all the young and intellectual people in East Germany fleeing to the West side).  This was also the reason only married masons were allowed to work on the wall, because they had families keeping them in East Germany.  During the construction of the wall they often used existing elements like building facades.  The wall also slashed right through landscape no matter what was in the way.

Frazier then posed the question of “What was the Wall?”.  He answered by describing each feature that made up the whole construction of it.  It was a regime of security and surveillance and a whole series of fortifications.  There were 27 documented deaths with guards who did the shooting criminally prosecuted later.

Die mauer is German for “the wall”.  It consumed space as it grew and had a death strip of many layers.  It ran from east to west with a contact alarm fence, spaces for tripwires and well-lit open space.  There was even a vehicle pit to catch vehicles that tried to crash through or go over the wall.  Then there was more open space and then the final concrete wall.  The total length was about 155 kilometers with 43 kilometers in East Berlin.  The concrete slab wall had mass-produced concrete panels topped with concrete tubes.  The footing was typically faced eastwards except in places to drive a tank through.  The wall became a canvas for expression as people painted and covered it in graffiti (on the west side).  Potsdamer Platz was a very busy intersection but was destroyed by the wall, becoming a no-man’s-land.  By the 1970s, the wall became normalized in people’s lives.

So what became of the wall?  The wall fell by accident in many ways.  Leading up to November 9th there were lots of celebrations of East Germany’s anniversary.  There were also lots of rumors about letting people move more easily between the two sides and soon people started massing on the wall, trying to get to the other side.  People were able to watch it unfold on live TV.  The East German guards lifted the gates and let people cross.  This series of events led to German reunification and the wall was completely dismantled during the following spring as people flooded into Berlin.

After this people suddenly wanted pieces of the wall.  East Germany ceased to exist on October 3, 1990 and six states joined West Germany, much like U.S. territories, and the country adopted the Deutsche Mark currency.  Federalism works well in Germany because it’s very regional.  There is still the “wall in the head” mentality for some though.  The Berlin districts were reorganized and in the 90s, Berlin was transformed.  Areas along the former wall is now very expensive real estate.  But there are also varying claims to land ownership since so much was lost and torn down.  There was lots of construction and people came to Berlin to see it, creating a kind of tourism.

As for the wall itself, many towers still exist as well as lots of little reminders of it that have been memorialized.  One example is Checkpoint Charlie, now a tourist trap.  Many of the wall panels have been recycled and remaining parts are protected and ironically, walled off.  You can learn more about it by viewing the interview Frazier gave for California Edition.

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