Berlin Marks 50 Years of Wall Building, Taunts to Border Guards
East Germany’s communist regime built the Berlin Wall overnight, by stealth, on a Sunday in August 1961 when many Berliners were out of town.
Just two months earlier, as the exodus out of East Germany swelled to a flood, the communist leader Walter Ulbricht had said, “No one intends to build a wall.” That wall, reinforced over the years to become the most impenetrable border in the world, survived for 28 years and claimed at least 136 lives, including nine children.
Dozens of exhibitions, events and ceremonies in Berlin mark the 50th anniversary of Aug. 13, 1961. One of the most intriguing is “The Other View,” a photographic documentation of the wall in the years after it was built.
The photos were taken by East German border guards equipped with official cameras and show the rarely seen eastern side. The pictures -- more than 1,000 of them -- were discovered in an innocuous-looking cardboard box in the Intermediate Military Archive in Potsdam by the author Annett Groeschner and photographer Arwed Messmer.
They show a border that has nothing to do with the image of the Berlin Wall that first springs to mind -- those 4-meter-high walls of reinforced concrete with curved tops on either side of the treacherous death strip and painted with colorful graffiti on the western side.
In the early years, the wall was a patchwork of whatever materials the East German regime could scrape together: barbed wire, bricks, concrete, even wooden fencing. It was also easier to communicate across, as the exhibition in the dilapidated former Italian Cultural Center on Unter den Linden makes clear.
The East German border guards were under orders to note details of any attempted contact from the west and were barred from responding to the sometimes bizarre taunts, exhortations to flee and invitations.
“Nordgraben, 12:40: Two West Berlin building workers pull down their trousers and show the border guards their naked behinds,” is one dry entry. “Puderstrasse, 11:30: A man throws Bild newspapers over the wall” is another.
Equally well documented is an incident the guards must have been tempted to keep to themselves: “Britzer Allee-Bruecke, 19:15: A woman and a man silently throw a parcel over the border. It contains two packs of cigarettes with 24 cigarettes in each, two bags of peanuts, two bars of chocolate, one West German pfennig coin, and a note saying: ‘Best wishes and greetings to you and your colleagues.’”
Patterns in Snow
The guards’ notes serve as captions to the photos, which were digitally stitched together by Messmer to create a 250- meter panorama of 43 kilometers of Berlin Wall.
Groeschner also documented praise and criticism from border guards for colleagues, noted in the logs of regiments. Some of the reprimands are very funny. “When bored, he used his feet to make patterns in the snow while on duty,” is one example.
Others are more tellingly sinister: “He used his gun at such an angle that the border violator was not forced to stop.”
Information on “The Other View”: http://www.aus-anderer-sicht.de
Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulff will be among the guests at tomorrow’s official event at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse, where one of the few intact sections of the wall still stands.
A huge program of events includes accounts by eyewitnesses of the construction of the wall, concerts, discussions with people who assisted refugees in their escape, readings of the biographies of victims and a dance performance.
The outdoor museum and a new area of parkland with information posts about the Berlin Wall don’t give much of a sense of how formidable it was. Twenty-two years later, this is now one of the most desirable residential areas of town, with swish new townhouses encroaching onto the former death strip.
To remember what it was really like, go inside the documentation center and watch the film shown on a loop there, shot from a helicopter 50 meters above the wall in 1990, just months after the border opened.
Information on the film: http://www.mauerflug.de/.
For the Berlin Wall Memorial site, go to http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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