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Trivializing the Wall

Sonia PhalnikarOctober 20, 2004

As Germany celebrates Tourism Day on Wednesday, a row has erupted over controversial plans to rebuild a part of the Berlin Wall near one of the country’s most famous tourist attractions, Checkpoint Charlie.

"A little to the left." The symbol of communist oppression returnsImage: dpa

On a rainy October afternoon, Rainer P. stood clad in a green raincoat of the kind worn by border guards of former Communist East Germany (GDR) and allowed himself to be photographed by a group of tourists.

“Business is good,” he told DW-WORLD, pointing to his wares of Russian fur hats, green GDR police caps, a pile of medals, coins and other Cold War insignia. “You can almost always count on that here.”

“Here” is Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing between the American and Soviet sector and Berlin’s most famous Cold War symbol. And it’s not hard to follow Rainer P.’s business logic.

Every few minutes, huge busloads of tourists alight at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum that documents the spectacular escape bids undertaken by GDR citizens, disappear into the scores of souvenir shops and snack bars lining either side of the street and photograph the formidable “You are now leaving the American Sector” sign and mock US army checkpoint built in 2001.

“A monument to peace”

Bauarbeiter richten am Montag (11.10.2004) vor einem Werbeplakat für Immobilien ein Originalsegment der ehemaligen Berliner Mauer am früheren Grenzübergang Checkpoint Charlie wieder auf
Image: dpa

The goings-on are viewed distastefully by many Berliners as a crass tourist attraction. And, in recent weeks the city’s politicians have been up in arms over a new plan by Alexandra Hildebrandt, the Ukrainian-born head of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, to resurrect a 140-meter strip of the Berlin Wall a few steps from its original location near the former US army checkpoint.

Covered by huge plastic sheets to keep away onlookers, work is already underway on setting up the 120 concrete slabs, preserved by Alexandra Hildebrandt’s late husband and founder of the museum, on vacant land leased from a bank.

“This will be a monument to peace and the victims of the Berlin Wall,” Hildebrandt told DW-WORLD. “But, also a protest against the city of Berlin for the trivialization of the place.”

Hildebrandt, whose museum already enjoys cult status with 3,500 visitors a day, said her aim was not to maximize profits, but to build something worthy of the site’s significance. “The city of Berlin ignored it and allowed the site to turn into a rubbish dump,” Hildebrandt said.

She however, refused to say whether the rebuilding of the Wall was an “art exhibit” or confirm rumors she was planning a replica watchtower complete with a barbed-wire perimeter.

“Disneyland” project

There are few takers for Hildebrandt’s controversial plans. Walter Momper, president of the Berlin state parliament last week lashed at what he described as a “Disneyland” project.

“It’s an obvious commercial trick that we don’t consider appropriately remembering the victims of the Wall,” Manuela Damianakis, a spokeswoman for the city planning department told DW-WORLD. She added that the city was examining “legal steps should Mrs. Hildebrandt renege on her promise” to remove the installation by the new year.

Touristen an der Berliner Mauer
Image: AP

Others have questioned the historical accuracy of the undertaking. The artist initiative East Side Gallery, which has painted over the longest standing stretch of the Berlin Wall in Berlin’s Friedrichshain district, have distanced themselves from the rebuilding plans, saying it distorts history by not even being resurrected on its original location.

Maria Nooke, head of the documentation center at the official Berlin Wall Memorial at the Bernauer Strasse, said Checkpoint Charlie was certainly spectacular with its documentation of the Cold War espionage system and its display of nifty gadgets used by GDR citizens to try and escape.

“But not all memorials can be that way,” Nooke told DW-WORLD. “The problem with Checkpoint Charlie is that it fails to convey the entire horror of the Wall. It offers just an exciting easy-to-market landscape, but it doesn’t make the tourist pause and think about the Wall.

Coherent Wall concept needed

Even as the row over rebuilding a part of the Wall simmers, some say that the dispute has helped underline the need to draw up a comprehensive Wall concept for the city in light of its enduring magnetism for tourists.

Almost 15 years since it was almost completely pulled down, awareness is now increasing among politicians and the general public that the remains should be preserved, Nooke said.

Mauer zu versteigern
Image: AP

“The Wall was a symbol of repression and division for people on both sides for so long,” Nooke said. “You can imagine the zeal with which they tore it down. It’s only much later that people realized it was still such a tourist attraction in the city and thus legitimate to preserve.”

Dominique Krüssen of the Berlin Senate for Culture, which plans to initiate a public debate over how to deal with Wall memorials and remnants, said that the department was also working on an electronic audio guide which would lead tourists to the historic places and provide detailed information.

“There hasn’t been a coherent Wall concept so far, just remains of the Wall scattered over the city -- a double row of cobblestones in some places to mark the former border and a few disparate signs on the Wall victims,” Krüssen told DW-WORLD. “It probably was a mistake to tear it down to such a large extent in the early 1990s.”

The whole spectacle at Checkpoint Charlie, which is privately owned, had spurred the city to come up with a more decent approach to the memory of the Wall, she added.

Conveying the full horror

Nooke, however, cautioned that any concept had to keep in mind that each Wall memorial was a strong reminder of a certain facet of the GDR.

“For instance, Checkpoint Charlie documents Allied War history while the Bernauer Strasse memorial captures the destruction of everyday lives in the GDR," Nooke said. "That can’t be tampered with.” She added that staying true to the facts was paramount.

“We can’t always be thinking of presenting the tourists with something interesting," she said. "The most important thing is to transport the whole complexity and horror of the Wall -- including the system that was behind it.”