Berlin and German Politics

The New Berlin Wall Protests

The East Side Gallery

To see people protesting in front of the Berlin Wall, as they have done this week, is not something new. But to see them demanding that it be preserved, as opposed to torn down, is unusual. ‘Tear down this Wall’, are the familiar words from the Cold War. Today, ‘Keep the Wall’ is a  matter of preserving public memory. This week thousands of Berliners have come out to demand that parts of the East Side Gallery not be dismantled to make way for luxury apartments along the river.

The East Side Gallery is one of the remaining strips of original Berlin Wall still standing and is the most important, and best known, example of street art meets historical monument that exists in the world. It’s 1.3 km long, and a major tourist attraction, covered with murals, including the famous kiss between the leaders Brezhnev and Honecker. The work dates from 1990 when, after the wall’s fall, more than a hundred artists came and joyously painted the Eastern side of the barrier, something that would probably have had you shot in the old days. In 1991, the East Side Gallery was given protected status as a landmark.

Now, I am, like everyone else I know, shocked and disheartened by the City’s cavalier attitude towards the past. How is it, if the East Side Gallery is a historical monument, that already 22m of it has been removed (with the idea to put it in a nearby park)? If the protestors had not put their bodies between the wall and the construction crews, this week, more would be gone today. Is it that the East Side Gallery itself is a monument but not the land it stands on? Of course, the wall demarcated a border. It does not have the same significance somewhere else, like in a nearby park. Another shocker is that the East Side Gallery was just restored at great expense in 2009! Hello?

I’m well aware that the Gallery, snaking right along the waterfront, is hogging more than a kilometer of choice riverside real estate. The whole area has been slated for the extremely unpopular Mediaspree, a large corporate development which spells the end of the present irregular nightclub and music venues as we know them  (which occupied former factories and derelict public works following the de-industralisation of East Berlin with reunification).  These creatively converted industrial spaces typify many people’s image of Berlin.

It’s now planned that these archetypal Berlin arts spaces will make way for ‘exclusive and upscale’ apartment complexes, office blocks, mid-market hotels, many with a ‘media’ orientation. The benefits are decidedly short-term. Berlin is booming with tourism, attracting young people, and becoming Europe’s new creative capital precisely because these creative spaces exist. Replacing them with soulless corporate architecture spells the ‘Frankfurt-ication’ of the city. It erodes what makes Berlin unique. And I can tell you that if Berlin ever ends up feeling like Frankfurt, a whole international set of ‘creatives’ is going to get up and leave! Then again, I sometimes get the impression that we’re not too popular sometimes with the city’s more spießig elements, many of whom I suspect are involved in these grandiously bland plans for the capital.

The City’s vision of the future, and their desire for short-term financial gain in cash-strapped times, is very much out of sync with the long-term potential for Berlin to be a creative leader and to distinguish itself from other cities.

I have been following the debates in the English-speaking press about this issue and there’s a fair amount of distortion which prevents readers from understanding the current situation. I’m thinking of an article which appeared on the front page of the online edition of the New York Times today (the one a few days ago in the BBC was more reasoned). Today’s headline of the NY Times article, ‘In Berlin, a Protest to Keep What Remains of the Wall’ suggests that all that’s left of the wall is the East Side Gallery. That’s not true. There are large pieces of the Wall at various locations around the city, such as on Bernauer Straße, where the official memorial is located. What is unique about the East Side Gallery is not that it’s a ‘remaining piece of wall’, but rather that it is a curious and historically significant melange of public art and memorial. How the creative impulse meets, and tries to examine, the scars of a turbulent history, is very much the spirit of Berlin. Or the sensitive, thoughtful, Berlin many of us care about!

Finally, thinking about the Bernauer Straße memorial (which I mentioned above): the outcry in the 90s there was against efforts to preserve those pieces of the Wall. The Wall represented for many Berliners the separation of families, restrictions on travel, the cruelties of Soviet occupation, and those shot trying to escape. The site at Bernauer Straße is now a mix of original fragments and reconstructions, which attests to the complicated efforts, esp. by the German Historical Museum, to keep the site a memorial.

In this light, it’s important to remember that many Berliners do not like this Wall, are not at all unhappy to see it torn down, and are possibly delighted to see parts of it (even those containing historically important art works) damaged, altered, or destroyed, to make some money from a big corporate development. For people who have that mentality, an understandable one, but a fundamentally problematic one for historical memory, knocking down parts of the East Side Gallery is a no-brainer. The problem is that many of those people are planning the city’s future.

Protesters have stopped the construction today. But the developers meet on March 18 to discuss what’s next. This is only Act I. We’ll all be waiting for the end of the intermission.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

One thought on “The New Berlin Wall Protests

  • Just to play devil’s advocate: I read in the Taz (which is usually accurate), that the largest section of the wall is being removed to (re)build a bridge that was bombed by the Nazis.
    The smallest section to be removed is for real estate.
    You can read the article here:!112114/

    I don’t agree with destroying history but Berlin really has to find a balance….

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