1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Scene in Berlin

May 4, 2012

How many memories of a dark past should a city preserve? It's a question Berlin struggles with constantly, says DW's Louise Osborne.

Image: DW

For many, Berlin's charm comes from its connection to recent history and the way it has been shaped by world events through the 20th century - arguably more so than any other European city.

Evidence of these historic events can been seen all over Berlin, including the Olympic Stadium and Finance Ministry built by the Nazis, the Holocaust Memorial, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, the Berlin Wall, Teufelsberg and Checkpoint Charlie.

But what would it mean for Berlin if the relics and memorials to its past disappeared?

That question took on a keen sense of reality when local media reported that the owners of the plots of land on either side of Checkpoint Charlie had become insolvent. An Irish investor has said he hopes to pay off the debts and use the land for retail and residential developments, while including a Cold War museum or memorial.

The former checkpoint between East and West Berlin is the most famous of all the crossings through the Berlin Wall. It was the site of one of the tensest standoffs between Soviet and American tanks, nearly triggering a third world war.

The news that it was under threat has been met with mixed reactions from Berliners. Some are also outraged by the recent appearance of fast-food stands and the thought of further commercialization of the site.

Still, others would gladly see Checkpoint Charlie gone so they could forget the past and finally move on.

A section of the Berlin Wall
For East Berliners, the Berlin Wall was once part of everyday lifeImage: DW

Remember or move on?

The conflict is just one example of Berlin's never-ending dilemma: Should the city preserve relics of a past fraught with some of the darkest times in human history, or should it sweep them aside in order to move on?

"Checkpoint Charlie was an important gap in the Wall, which doesn't exist anymore, but at the same time it was a site of enormous historical significance and that needs some sort of recognition and regulation. The question is, how to deal with it?" said Fredrik Torisson, author of "Berlin - Matter of Memory," which explores the city through its relics and monuments.

And then there is the issue of tourism, one of the fastest growing industries in Berlin, which attracts around nine million visitors every year. While it may be unpalatable to think that a site may be maintained purely for financial reasons, it is true that locations like Checkpoint Charlie bring in cash for a city that has been described by its may, Klaus Wowereit, as "poor, but sexy."

The ultimate relic of divided Berlin is the Wall itself. Built in 1961, it remained intact for 28 years as a concrete barricade for East Berliners living under the oppressive communist regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Following the announcement on November 9, 1989 that East Germans would finally be allowed to cross the border into West Germany, people immediately began to scale the structure, hacking chucks out of it. What was a symbol of fear became a memento sold by the dozen in souvenir shops.

Many of those who had been subject to GDR rule wanted to rid the city of the Wall that had separated families and saw people captured, tortured and sometimes killed for attempting to escape. Now, only fragments of the Wall remain, in addition to a two-brick path embedded in the ground to indicate where East and West were divided.

Berlin Wall memorial path
Visitors can trace the boundary between East and West BerlinImage: DW

Relics and monuments

Other relics have changed in their significance to the city.

Tempelhof Airport was expanded by the Nazis in the 1930s at the heart of what Hitler wanted to become Germania. Later, the airport became a symbol of freedom as the site of the Berlin Airlift. From June 1948 to May 1949, more than 200,000 flights brought supplies provided by the United States and the United Kingdom to West Berlin while it was besieged by Soviet forces.

Torisson said that monuments are "subjective interpretations of history, while relics are open to interpretation with a historical significance to those to whom it played an importance on the world wide stage."

In Berlin, relics stand side by side with monuments. It would be a shame to see Berlin's links to the past forgotten, but perhaps the decision should lie with those who have to live with the burden of the city's history.

Author: Louise Osborne
Editor: Kate Bowen