x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Cold War barrier turns 50

Politicians, historians and victims of the East German communist regime say Berlin is doing a poor job of conveying the pain of its division to the millions of visitors flocking to the city. Ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall will be held tomorrow.

BERLIN //Ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall tomorrow are being overshadowed by criticism that the city is degenerating into a "Disneyland of the Cold War" filled with tacky tourist attractions that trivialise the history of a barrier that claimed hundreds of lives.

Local politicians, historians and victims of the East German regime say Berlin is doing a poor job of conveying the pain of its division to the millions of visitors flocking to the city, which is enjoying a boom in tourism and last year overtook Rome to become Europe's third most-visited location, behind London and Paris.

To the disappointment of many tourists, the wall is conspicuously absent in all but a few token locations in the city. German authorities did a typically thorough job of removing most of the 103-mile-long barrier slab-by-slab and brick-by-brick in the months and years after November 9, 1989, when East German officials opened the border crossings in a move that sealed the collapse of the Iron Curtain and an end to the division of Europe.

In an attempt to satisfy tourists keen for a sense of what life was like in the Cold War's most fraught and emblematic city, small-time entrepreneurs dress up as East German soldiers and pose for photos at Berlin landmarks such as the Brandenburg Gate.

A company called "Trabi Safari" offers rides in original Trabants, the plastic cars that were ubiquitous in East Germany. They are often seen clattering around the city centre, their two-stroke engines belching out exhaust fumes, driven by grinning tourists seeking a taste of life under communism.

At the legendary Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, where American and Soviet tanks went nose-to-nose in a tense stand-off in October 1961, men in period military dress stand in front of a replica guard hut and stamp passports with imitation East German visas for €2 (Dh10) each.

Amid the general frivolity, many tourists do not notice a small pillar nearby commemorating Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer who was left to bleed to death in 1962 after he was shot by border guards. He had tried to clamber over the wall to get to West Berlin.

The commercialisation of such momentous sites at the expense of a solemn appreciation of the suffering they symbolise has prompted the city's image managers to warn that key locations are at risk of turning into a "Disneyland." Christian Tänzler, the spokesman for the city's marketing authority said: "It's too superficial. That's not treating history the way we would like it to be dealt with".

Mario Röllig, one of the 250,000 political prisoners locked up under the 41-year-old communist regime, said he finds the sight of people in mock East German uniforms unbearable.

"Those are the uniforms of murderers. The soldiers who wore them shot more than 1,000 people who tried to flee across the border," said Mr Röllig, who refused to work as an informant for the East Germany secret police, the Stasi, and was caught trying to escape to the West in 1987.

"But neither the government nor most of the population, and especially not tourists, seem to mind. If someone stood there in a Nazi uniform, there would be protests. They would be arrested within minutes," complained Mr Röllig. who spent three months and three days in Berlin's notorious Hohenschönhausen prison and later suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ulrich Pfeifer, who helped to dig four tunnels under the wall, including one in 1962 through which 29 people fled to West Berlin, said he found the posed photos tasteless.

"But you've got to be tolerant, there's no need to forbid it," Mr Pfeifer said. "Tourists who come to Berlin might like it, but it has nothing to do with the old reality."

It was in the early hours of August 13, 1961, that East German troops, police and labourers began sealing off the border between the Soviet-controlled eastern sector of Berlin and the three Western sectors to stop an exodus of hundreds of thousands of mainly young people from East Germany that was threatening the viability of the communist state.

Berlin was an enclave within East Germany, and the border that divided East and West Germany had been closed nine years before, leaving the city as the only way out for easterners.

Overnight, streets were torn up, barriers and barbed wire were erected, sewage tunnels were fitted with gates and subway stations shut down. In the months and years that followed, the barrier became increasingly sophisticated and deadly.

Almost diabolic in design, the barrier it did not just consist of one wall - it was two walls with a strip between that became a killing zone for armed guards monitoring the border from watchtowers and patrolling it with sniffer dogs.

The precise number of people who died trying to traverse the wall is unknown, partly because the East German authorities concealed information on shootings.

A research project by the official Berlin Wall Memorial concluded that at least 136 people were killed, and that an additional 251 people, most of them elderly, died during or shortly after the rigorous searches that were standard procedure at border crossings along the Berlin Wall.

Other estimates put the death toll as high as 1,100.

The main commemoration tomorrow will take place at the official memorial to the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse, the scene of dramatic escape attempts in the weeks after the wall was built.

Pictures of people risking their lives by jumping out of windows on to the street were transmitted around the world. The pavement below was in West Berlin, while the apartment blocks lining it were in the east. Within weeks, all the windows had been bricked in and the buildings evacuated.

Angela Merkel, the chancellor, Christian Wulff, the German president, and Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin, will lay wreaths to pay tribute to the people killed trying to flee. There is to be minute's silence at midday.

In the run-up to the anniversary, German newspapers and television channels have carried witness accounts of brazen escape attempts through precariously-dug tunnels or with homemade hot-air balloons.

Despite all the coverage of the evils of the eastern regime, however, a survey by the Forsa Polling Institute published in Berliner Zeitung, a local newspaper, last week showed that more than a third of Berliners believe the construction of the wall was justified at the time given the pressures on the East German state at the time. Among eastern Berliners, the figure was almost two-thirds.

Since the wall fell, many who lived through communism have adopted a rose-tinted view of the regime that spied on its citizens and persecuted critics.

Easterners, many of whom lost their jobs after unification and still feel like second-class citizens, succumbed to a wave of "Ostalgia", yearning for the job security and cradle-to-grave welfare benefits that communism had provided.

The trend has led to calls for part of the wall to be rebuilt, complete with all its deadly equipment, to remind Berliners of its horror.

"One should show the border installations in all their monstrosity, in one place at least," said Hubertus Knabe, the director of the Hohenschönhausen prison memorial.

Surprisingly, Berlin has yet to set up a definitive, state-funded museum on the history of the Cold War.

Mr Röllig, who gives tours of the prison, said he would welcome a reconstructed border strip as part of a museum of the Cold War.

"We urgently need to educate younger people about the true nature of the East German regime," he said.

"And Germany needs to look back at the German Democratic System as what it was - a communist dictatorship and a Soviet satellite state. That would help put a stop to the GDR Disneyland."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae