A new exhibit presents a different view of the Berlin Wall - from the East | Arts | DW | 31.05.2016
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A new exhibit presents a different view of the Berlin Wall - from the East

Concrete, separation, death - that's what comes to mind when thinking about the Berlin Wall. But a new exhibition presents the border between the two former German states from a different view - that of the guards.

One may wonder whether a new exhibition by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, presenting a different take on the Berlin Wall, really makes sense. Haven't the stories about the Berlin Wall already all been told?

Writer Annett Gröschner, who put together the exhibition, isn't quite sure about that. She and photographer Arwed Messmer were inspired by Gröschner's findings in the archives of former East German border guards.

East Side Gallery in Berlin Foto: Wolfram Steinberg

The East Side Gallery, with its multicolored graffitti, dominates the popular image of the Berlin Wall

"What got stuck in the collective memory is the concrete that one saw when looking at the wall from the Western side," said Gröschner. But with more than 1,000 pictures presented in folios, taken in 1965 and 1966 by East German border guards, the exhibition has chosen to highlight the reverse perspective, the view from the East to the West. And that's definitely something new.

Nobody else could have taken these pictures, Gröschner told DW during the exhibition's opening. "It was strictly forbidden to take pictures from the east side of the wall, therefore only the border guards were able to do that," she said. The goal of the photo series was to document the conditions of the wall before various planned structural changes.

Barbed wire and wooden barriers

Until now, the photos have never been presented to the public; Gröschner found the trove in a military archive in the city of Freiburg. What's particularly striking about the images is that the wall of the 1960s looked quite different from the way we remember it today.

"We all have that image of a concrete wall in our heads, but that's only true for the '70s and '80s," said Gröschner. The huge concrete barrier only came into being in 1975. During the 1960s, the border fence consisted instead of a collection of barbed wire, wooden barriers and watch towers.

The exhibition, now on display at the Kleisthaus cultural center, changes our view of the Berlin Wall but also offers a new narrative. "The wall was much more open to communication back then, as the 4-meter (13-foot) high concrete wall did not yet exist," Gröschner explained.

People were able to talk across the border fences, and in their reports the East German border guards noted precisely what people were yelling from one side to another. "Hey, come on over, we have some pretty women here waiting for you," was one such quote, before the tone changed abruptly: "We'll get you anyway."

A sketch presented in the exhibition © DW/G.Schließ

Attempts to flee East Germany were documented in these sketches

More open, more dangerous

Back then, the Wall was much more open - and also more dangerous. "Many people thought it would be easy to flee. But that wasn't the case at all," says Gröschner. She knows what she's talking about: she grew up on the eastern side of the wall, in the present-day Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg.

Photos of border guards © DW/G.Schließ

Photos of border guards are part of the exhibition, their identities blurred

The exhibition organizers point out that the wall was not only made up of fences and concrete, but also people. In one section, the personal records of border guards can be read, like one which praises a guard as a "model for all comrades in terms of order and discipline." Another is commended for his proficient use of weapons.

Included in this display is a booklet with sketches documenting various attempts to flee, along with photographs of border guards with their eyes blurred.

Even guard dogs, which played an important role in the border defense, are represented, with their names and their states of health meticulously noted in exhibition documents.

Where are the victims?

With the new exhibition, 25 years of studying the Berlin Wall have come to a close for Gröschner and Messmer. They're the first to tell the story of the Berlin Wall from a totally new perspective, based on documents and other archive material.

But one perspective seems to be missing in the story, that of the victims, some who died trying to cross the border - a fact that is hardly surprising, as the exhibition is based solely on documents collected by those who constructed and guarded the border wall. And yet, this vacuum is felt, and it leaves a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth.

The exhibition "Inventarisierung der Macht - Die Berliner Mauer aus anderer Sicht" ("Taking Stock of Power: Another View of the Berlin Wall") is on display at the Kleisthaus cultural center in Berlin until August 14.

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