Berlin honors victims 58 years after the Wall was built | News | DW | 13.08.2019
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Berlin honors victims 58 years after the Wall was built

Victims of Berlin's former Soviet-era Wall, whose construction began 58 years ago, are being remembered in the capital. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has warned of 'new walls' in electoral thinking.

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Escape from East Berlin

Reunited Berlin's mayor Michael Müller told a memorial service Tuesday that the Wall's erection in 1961 and its fall during East Germany's peaceful demise in 1989 were "both memories that belong together."

Berlin's message as a city of freedom was that "the will of people to live freely can never be defeated," said the center-left Social Democrat (SPD) and head of today's 3.6-million metropolis.

Despite joy over the Wall's fall in 1989 — 28 years after its construction — the victims of Germany's division should not be forgotten, said Müller.

German President Steinmeier, hosting talks Tuesday at his Berlin residence, warned of what he termed "the poison of hate" creating metaphorical new walls — an apparent reference to elections in three eastern German regional states — in September and October — where far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is polling strongly.

It was a "perfidious distortion of history" when "political groups today in electioneering" sought to turn the legacy of Germany's 1990 reunification into slogans of fear, said Steinmeier.

Wall along 'death zone'

Wall construction began on August 13 1961 under former East German (German Democratic Republic, GDR) leader Walter Ulbricht in a city then-controlled by four post-World War Two powers — the Soviet Union, USA, Britain and France.

Read more: What Germany was like when the Wall was built

Two months earlier, Ulbricht had professed that "no-one has the intention to build a wall."

At least 140 persons were subsequently killed while trying to cross the 155-kilometer (100-mile) structure, guarded by East German forces and surrounding West Berlin — then isolated and only reachable by plane and via land corridors.

Outside Berlin, between Magdeburg and Hanover, the GDR also maintained a fortified 1,400-kilometer-long border, where at least 327 more persons are thought to have lost their lives — a figure that is still subject to critical research — while trying to flee.

Tourist magnet

Müller spoke in a memorial chapel erected in 2000  standing among widely-visited Wall remnants at the intersection of Berlin's Benauer and Acker streets. It was here that a 19th century church was situated inside the former "death zone," a structure which was demolished in 1985 by the GDR regime.

Pavement plaques mark where would-be escapees were stopped or dug tunnels to reach the West.

The Berlin Wall Memorial site draws hundreds of international visitors daily, many of them young tourists.

Near the former US-controlled Checkpoint Charlie, mourners were also due to remember Peter Fechter, then 18 years old, who bled to death after being shot by East German guards and despite a crowd calling for him to be rescued. 

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was also due to visit another former Wall checkpoint, the Glienicker Bridge, near Potsdam (on Berlin's western fringe), where numerous spy swaps took place during the Cold War.

Marathon retracing Wall route

Next weekend, sports enthusiasts hold their eighth 100 mile Berlin Wall Race, a marathon tracing the former barrier's more-or less circular route.

The event, first held in 2011 and open to individuals as well as relay teams of two and four, is this year dedicated to Dieter Wohlfahrt,  a West Berlin chemistry student who helped East Germans escape, often through sewers.

Using his Austrian passport and bolt cutters on December 9 1961, he cut a border fence for escapees on December 9 1961, but was shot dead by GDR forces who hindered rescue bids by West Berlin police and British military police.

Remembering history

The sociologist Martina Gille of the German Youth Institute in Munich has observed changes to the way Germany's 15-to-24-year-olds, who were born after German reunification in 1989, see the 28 years of partition.

She has found that while they all drew on memories of their parents and grandparents, those born in the east and west now seemed to have a similar knowledge base. Whereas older generations from former East Germany expressed less trust in state institutions than their West German peers, today's young adults tended to share similar views, she said.

The federal statistical office Destatis said last year young adults across reunited Germany benefited from an unprecedented labor market, with only 6.2% joblessness in their age group — compared to 15.2% in 2005.

Lives unimproved

How the young generation in the east viewed politics and society depended very much on whether their parents were "winners” or "losers” of the economic turmoil that followed the Wall's fall, added the Berlin research institute Pollytix.

A Forsa Institute survey published Monday by commercial RTL television showed that 55-to-60-year-olds who saw their lives as unimproved were more likely to vote for the far-right AfD.

ipj/rg (dpa, epd)

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