25 years since fall of the Berlin Wall, tracing a winding history

Germans and foreign tourists traced the route of the Cold War relic today, remembering a divided history and a wound that still figures prominently in the German psyche.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
People walk along the Lichtgrenze art installation at the East Side Gallery, the largest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, on Nov. 9.

The Berlin Wall has long been understood as one of the strangest structures of the Cold War. But only by tracing its old course, as it splices parks, zigzags around canals, and makes abrupt turns around street corners, can its arbitrariness and divisiveness be viscerally felt.

Twenty-five years after it fell, Berlin has set up a 15 kilometer (9 mile) corridor of balloons marking where the wall once split the city for nearly three decades. The Lichtgrenze, or Light Border exhibit, has drawn thousands of Berliners, Germans, and tourists from around the globe. Many see it is a chance to celebrate a quarter century of liberation. But it’s also a moment of reflection for those who lived with the wall and formed their notions of history around it.

“I’m here to think and to remember. I’m trying to find the feeling the Wall conveys,” says Joseph Mueller, who grew up in the West and came from Bavaria to Berlin for the anniversary event. “On one side, I can feel oppression and on the other freedom.”

The wall exhibit, which covers a third of the wall's old length within city limits, starts fittingly at Bornholmer Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg, where East Berliners congregated to breach the wall after news spread on Nov. 9, 1989 that travel permits were to be issued "immediately, without delay." Sascha Eicker sets off from the starting point, taking the opportunity, he says, to trace his history. He was 18 when the wall fell, and was nowhere near Berlin. “But it still means freedom to me."

The Berlin Wall has long fascinated the globe, and the world has come out in throngs, mulling exhibits that share tales of escape and bravery along the way. There are Spaniards, Swedes, Danes, Italians, Americans, Chinese, and Russians. But this is more than a tourist attraction to many visitors, who were also affected by Cold War divisions. Danish visitor Martin Risechert says the wall was part of his childhood, as his father crossed to visit the East German side of their family. “It was only 100 kilometers away but it was so different it could have been China,” he says.

He stands near the Bernauer Strasse station, which turned into a ghost station after the wall was built and trains ceased to stop. Today it’s home to the Factory, a new technology hub backed by Google and hosting some of Berlin’s largest start-up success stories such as SoundCloud and 6WunderKinder, vintage Berlin in a new Berlin.

Crooked lines

Continuing onward, the wall takes a sharp right, and wraps around a run-down park, a reminder that the Berlin Wall, which spanned 43.7 kilometers in Berlin (112.7 kilometers in total) didn't run straight for long. That it cut through rich and poor Berlin alike. And while it was an immediate obstacle for the East, it also walled in West Berliners like Artur Fabiunke, now nearing 80.

Mr. Fabiunke, a blue bandana around his neck, stands taking photos today, in the same place he took photos in August 1961 when he came outside to watch what was happening, using a mirror to catch a glimpse of the other side. Over the course of nearly three decades, some 5,075 East Germans successfully breached the wall, while many hundreds of thousands of others were trapped on the other side. But it was also a moment of repression for the West. “I’m from an isolated island called West Berlin,” says Fabiunke.

The exhibit draws more visitors as it crosses the Spree, past the Reichstag, Brandenberg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, and Checkpoint Charlie. In this area the distinction between East and West is indiscernible. But Britta Faeth, a taxi driver and painter who has lived in Berlin since 1988 and is painting a stretch of the balloons along the calm Luisenstadt Canal, says East and West still have different vibes. “I’ve been driving around this city for 10 years. I have a map of it in my head. You can still tell the difference between East and West Berlin. ... The West is still more capitalist.”

The West also dominates the historic narrative says Manuel, a 20-something Berlin transplant, originally from Bavaria. “In West Germany, we didn’t really learn about the history of East Germany in school. Many people don’t have a clue about East Germany,” he says. “They call it a dictatorship and make fun of the bad technology. They’re not really looking at how it was.”

He is standing where the exhibit ends, just beyond the East Side Gallery. Here artists painted this section of the Wall in 1990 and today it represents the longest preserved stretch of the wall, trailing almost a mile along the Spree. There is a party atmosphere, but when the 8,000 balloons are lit tonight and set to the sky, it will be a reminder that its history remains deeply etched in the German psyche long after the wall itself disappeared

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