The Berlin Wall was much more than a wall.
That’s as true literally as it is figuratively. Yes, of course, it was, as the closest thing to a physical incarnation of the Iron Curtain, a symbol of Cold War division and authoritarianism. But the wall was only one part of the Berlin Wall.
Actually, the Berliner Mauer, as it is called in German, was a vast and complex apparatus. East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) began surrounding West Berlin first with barbed wire and then with stone in 1961, calling the project an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” The “fascists” here, of course, were West Berlin, West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRD, which West Berlin was not technically part of), and the Western occupation forces, all of whom the GDR would keep at bay by surrounding West Berlin with the Rampart. Despite the name, and despite the fact that it was West Berlin that the Mauer surrounded, it was really built to keep East Germans in East Germany. Starting soon after the Allies divided Germany into four Occupation Zones in the summer of 1945, large numbers of those in the Russian Zone—which would evolve into the GDR—began poring into the West. Particularly concerning for GDR officials, as time went on, was the brain drain: the doctors, scientists, academics, artists, and professionals who escaped through the porous border. The Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart would put an end to that.
To achieve this, the GDR could not simply put up a slab of bricks. This infographic, from the New York Times, does a nice job of showing how complex a system the Berlin Wall was:
There were, in fact, two walls: a 20-foot wall inner wall, on the West Berlin side, and a shorter back wall. Between them was a militarized strip of land with anti-tank “Czech hedgehogs,” beds of nails, electrified fences, and guard towers with armed guards who would, and did, shoot; over one hundred attempted escapees had been killed while fleeing by the time the Wall came down in 1989. (136 is the number that appears most frequently.) This space between the walls was called the Death Strip.
It is here, on a piece of the former Death Strip, that Mauerpark, where I am spending my summer, lies today. Mauerpark is not an official memorial to the Wall—for that, you must walk a couple blocks down Bernauer Straße.
Mauerpark presents a very different way of memorializing such a site. It’s best known for the events it hosts every Sunday in the summer—a flea market with food stands; karaoke; street musicians, jugglers, dancers. While most days it does not receive the many thousands of visitors that it does on Sundays, it is always a central location for an alternative Berlin culture, and for an alternative way of doing public commemoration. While the park itself was planned—it was designed by landscape architect Gustav Lange—the ways people use it are largely organic. Mauerpark is not beautiful, but it is one of the most vibrant places I’ve ever been: one gets the sense that the carefree nature of life in Mauerpark is almost a consciously political choice: living in defiance of the wall that once stood. (Indeed, a piece of the rear wall still stands; despite being an official historical landmark, it is allowed to be covered in graffiti.) A site of death and division is now one of life and unity.
I’m indebted to Alex Puell, who I am working with this summer, for framing a discussion of the park’s history with these categories: death and division, life and unity. What work is being done by a memorial that only emphasizes the former pair? What does in mean, in contrast, for remembering to be a lively act?
In later posts I will talk much more about the park in its current form, about the group I’m working with, called Friends of Mauerpark, and about what exactly I’m up to here. But I wanted to begin with these historical questions, which are what drew my in in the first place.
I’d also like to thank the Friends of Mauerpark (especially Alex Puell and Chris Charlesworth) for hosting me this summer; Paul Farber for setting up the internship and giving me essential guidance; the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities (especially Emily Cronin and James Weissinger); and the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (especially Chloe Tucker). The internship is made possible through very generous joint funding from the HCAH and the CPGC – for which I am particularly grateful, since I graduated in May and had never imagined I could get funding even though I am no longer a student at Haverford College.
In our next installment, I’ll take us way back to the spring of 2014, when I first fell in love with the park.