09 September 2010

walls of the cold war

 by Açalya and Jens Allmer

On a visit to Berlin chances are high that you encounter little colourful pieces of concrete advertised as parts of the Berlin Wall, the manifestation of the iron curtain, being sold as souvenirs. Do you end up buying one of them? – sure you do!

       Walls in architecture can be ambivalent: do they keep people in, or out? Unlike the Great Wall of China which kept out the Mongols, or a prison wall which protects outsiders from its contents, the Berlin Wall which separated East from West Berlin displays exactly this ambiguity. Built in 1961 as a response to brain drain from communist East Germany (German Democratic Republic) to capitalist West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) it was obviously meant to retain its inmates. However, propaganda in East Germany declared that the wall was protecting its East Germans from the threatening, all-engulfing, capitalistic ideology on the other side. 
       The Berlin Wall became an icon of the Cold War. No other military installation, from bunkers and missile silos to military airports and any other military construction, ever gained such visibility. Clearly, its roots were in the aftermath of World War II and the subsequent division of Germany into four parts, each governed by one of the Siegermächte. 
       Twenty-eight years after its construction, in 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down. Thousands of Berliners attacked the wall with any tool they could lay their hands on. Today, on the twentieth anniversary of the demolition of the wall, is a quite different scene: groups of tourists now visit the remaining wall segments, such as the East Side Gallery near Warschauer Straße, or the Mauerpark near Prenzlauer Berg. The physical destruction of the wall was straightforward but removing it from people’s minds proved more difficult. Years after you are still able to hear some West-Germans say: ‘Let’s rebuild the wall but make it higher’.
The wall in its raw form as constructed by GDR’s Walter Ulbricht can hardly be called a piece of art but countless graffiti artists enhanced the appearance of the side facing the FDR. Painted peace-related topics and comments on the existence of the wall itself added value to its existence. Without this illegal (as the wall was completely on GDR territory) artwork the Berlin Wall would most likely not be exhibited as widely as it is today. Many pieces of it have been presented to political leaders and museums around the world – the Imperial War Museum in London and the Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum in New York, for example, underlining the historic significance of the object-nature of the wall: although either absent or dispersed, it still, fragmentally, exists.
       Shortly after the fall of the wall, selling its pieces, especially those with visible traces of graffiti, was very successful – buying a piece of the wall meant taking home a piece of German history. However, these pieces may represent more than a fragment of the wall; they can be considered a collective memory of what happened in Berlin. Through the wall’s elevation to a historical monument partially through its status as an artwork and mostly owing to its demolition, the Berlin Wall has been transformed from a symbol of the Cold War into its complete opposite, a symbol for overcoming differences and an icon representing peace.
       In the process of opening new construction sites, the authorities could possibly demolish the remaining fragments of the original wall. Soon we may no longer see the object that changed the lives of so many, that separated not only countries and ideologies, but more importantly families and lovers, just by its mere existence. It will become history in the word’s most literal meaning. 1
       Scattering its pieces as widely as possible (one per tourist, coming from anywhere in the world), makes it impossible to actually rebuild this wall. As long as sellers do not run out of wall fragments (how they do not is a mystery since large parts were exported and others were used in road construction), such a small piece of painted concrete sitting in your far-away house is not just a souvenir of Berlin but is also part of the dismantling of the Cold War. People who buy pieces of the Berlin wall take an active role in its deconstruction and may as well help in overcoming other, still existing barriers.
       Long after the complete disappearance of the wall from Berlin, with its memory dissolved in history, little pieces all over the world will collectively remind more people of its former existence than if it had remained on site. We therefore strongly encourage anyone to buy a piece of an amalgamation of history, art and peace. Is the piece you bought genuine? Doesn’t matter. With all the ambiguity and ambivalence of all walls, it is the concept that is important not the actual material.

1 A Deutsche Welle TV documentary on the Berlin Wall can be found at
Allmer, Açalya and Jens.  'Walls of the Cold War: Berlin Souvenirs'. On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Açalya and Jens Allmer and On Site review