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Cold war modern

Remnants of the wall are luring tourists to Berlin

On the east bank of the River Spree, something strange is happening - the German government is renovating a section of the Berlin wall. This is by far the biggest remainder of the so-called anti-fascist protection barrier that divided the German capital for nearly 30 years. Well over a hundred people died trying to cross it, so why is the Bundesrepublik spending €2m restoring it, rather than simply tearing it down? The answer, bizarrely, is that the wall is fast ­becoming Berlin's biggest tourist attraction, and although millions of tourists come here to see it, there's not that much left to see.

This patched-up stretch of concrete epitomises the surreal afterlife of the Berlin wall. Almost a mile long, it's adorned with murals from end to end, and some visitors assume these pictures are relics of the cold war. Yet, as its name implies, this "East Side Gallery" is on the eastern side of the old border, where graffiti was strictly forbidden. Those iconic daubs by artists such as Keith Haring (now long gone) were all on the west side of the wall. These East Side murals were painted in a flurry of euphoria, soon after the wall came down. Today they're a poignant snapshot of a more optimistic era, when anything seemed possible, and before the economic reality of reunification kicked in.

“There are many walls to dismantle," reads one slogan. "You have learnt what freedom is," reads another, "Don't forget again." Ironically, the reason this part of the wall became such a graffiti-friendly canvas is because it's on the way to Schönefeld, former East Berlin's main airport. The East German regime wanted to impress foreign VIPs, and so built this section of the wall from smooth white concrete. Most other sections were made of rough, unfriendly béton brut. Equally ironic, the reason West Berliners were free to paint the west side of the wall was because both sides, east and west, lay within East German territory. Hence the West German police weren't allowed to approach the west side of the wall.

Apart from the East Side Gallery, the biggest surviving sections of the wall are further west, at Bernauerstrasse and Niederkirchnerstrasse. Both sites are usually swarming with bewildered tourists, unsure of quite what they're ­doing here or exactly what they've come to see. The locals are even more perplexed - that millions of foreigners should travel thousands of miles to see the remnants of a lethal eyesore that was largely demolished 20 years ago. After all, they tell you, there are lots of better things to see. Yet tourists travel to confirm their preconceptions, rather than to refute them. For these sightseers, London is Big Ben, Paris is the Eiffel Tower and Berlin is the wall.

The cold war border between the Soviet and allied sectors followed the old city boundary with no regard for modern buildings, and Bernauerstrasse was one of its most spec­tacular absurdities. In this street, the houses lay in the Eastern sector. The pavement lay in the West. Consequently, it became the site of some dramatic escape attempts, and a section of the wall that eventually replaced these houses has been preserved as a memorial. The structure is only visible in its entirety from a new tower that's been built beside it. School parties tramp up and down the steps of this shiny new attraction. A death trap has become a tourist trap, the fate of every defunct atrocity, in the end.

There's not the slightest sense that the authorities are exploiting these sombre relics - the museum at Bernauerstrasse is a model of objectivity and tact - but like all legends, the Berlin wall has acquired its own mythic momentum. Short of obliterating every trace of the wall, it's hard to see how the Bundesrepublik could have prevented the evolution of this cult. Ever since reunification, street traders have been selling tourists purported pieces of the wall, just as medieval peddlers used to sell pilgrims purported pieces of the Cross. At Niederkirchnerstrasse, the wall has been picked clean, like a carcass. It's now been cordoned off to prevent souvenir hunters hacking it to bits.

The Berlin wall has become an icon, more mythology than history. American coach parties park next to the former border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie and disembark to pose for snapshots in front of a reconstructed replica of the old US army control post, alongside actors dressed as GIs (who will stand beside you, for a fee) before climbing back onboard and driving on to the next stop on their itinerary - the next destination on their European Grand Tour. Berlin has acquired a public image that's in­separable from the cold war, and patiently, obediently, the city is constructing a new narrative to fit it, a story to reassure foreign visitors, rather than making them uncomfortable or confused.

Amid the conscientious commentaries, one inconvenient truth about the wall remains more or less taboo. The human cost was immense, but without it the US and the Soviet Union could easily have stumbled into a third world war. In 1960, the year before the wall went up, 200,000 refuseniks left East Germany, 150,000 via East Berlin. Most of them were young and well educated, people the GDR could least afford to lose. The West Germans couldn't turn them back without betraying their own countrymen. The Americans couldn't relinquish West Berlin without losing the cold war. Yet the GDR couldn't survive if it continued to lose so many of its most productive citizens, and the USSR surely wouldn't have let it collapse without a fight.

Maybe this is why it still feels awkward to walk along the route of the Berliner Mauer, especially in the humdrum stretches between the memorials and the multimedia information points. For at the heart of the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the Mauerfall is a painful, unspoken paradox that the tourists and tour guides would far rather forget - that for all the suffering it caused, the wall also helped to keep the peace.

East Side Gallery


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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains