The Design Observer Group


Posted 11.08.10


Millay Hyatt

On the Trail of the Berlin Wall


Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall Trail. [All photographs by Millay Hyatt, except as noted.]

I
. Early last year, I made a pilgrimage. I'd been thinking about something none of us in Berlin, where I’ve lived for a decade, thinks much about any more, until an anniversary comes along anyway: the fact that half of us were once enclosed by a wall that kept the other half out. Motivated less by the background noise of cultural commemoration than by an impasse in my personal life, I wanted to test myself against the Berlin Wall. Breathe some fresh air, feel in my calves and the balls of my feet the great curving length of that two-way trap that held millions of people in its grip for 28 years. Impasse indeed. The Berlin Wall Trail marks both the historical path of something as preposterous as a wall dividing a city as well as the astounding fact of its bloodless demolition. Something worth paying homage to; and perhaps performing the ritual of walking it would give me some creative ideas for how to get rid of my own little Berlin Wall. So, on a crisp February morning, my 36th birthday, I packed my map and a thermos of water and set off.

II. Carving its way through urban center and periphery for just under 100 miles, the Berlin Wall created a host of unlikely enclaves, exclaves, cul-de-sacs and impossible conundrums. It kept apart friends and lovers, doctors and patients, libraries and overdue books. (Peter Schneider tells a wonderful story in The German Comedy: Scenes of Life after the Wall, of an East Berliner who borrowed books from a West Berlin library the day before construction of the Wall started on August 13, 1961, and returned them the first chance he got: November 10, 1989.) On one side covered with snide and sweet graffiti, on the other sternly blank, the wall not only divided Berlin; it seemed also to take semiotic hostage of the city, which became a symbol of the hard division — the iron curtain, as Churchill called it — between the warring interests of East and West.

But then, twenty years ago, it “fell,” as if it were an old man or an autumn leaf. The two cities melded together again and the chunks of the Wall still standing, like smudges the eraser missed, are there for tourists to photograph and locals to hurry past. I cross its former path many times a week, often several times a day, without thinking about it. My neighborhood was one of those odd protrusions that gave the Wall its lumpy, upside-down-Christmas Tree shape. It used to encase this section of Kreuzberg, in what was once West Berlin, on three sides — West and East being ideological terms in Cold War Berlin more than geographical ones: if you were to head southeast, northeast, north, or northwest from my apartment, you would be on your way to “the East,” or at least to the barrier that marked where the East once began. This made for a certain coziness, or so those who lived here then like to tell it: punks, squatters, draft dodgers and mainly Turkish immigrants left to fend for themselves in a parallel, anti-bourgeois universe unthinkable in most parts of West (or East, for that matter) Germany. Before the party ended — or began, depending on your point of view — in November 1989, they used to picnic on Schlesische Strasse, today a noisy thoroughfare, then an asphalt playground blocked by the Wall at its eastern end and the river Spree to the north. My walk officially begins where the Landwehrkanal (which translates as defensive canal; a defensiveness, however, that predates the Wall) crosses under Schlesische Strasse and empties into the Spree.


Berlin Wall
The Potsdamer Platz subway station, next to the Berlin Wall, in 1975. [Photo by Edward Valachovic.]

III. Glowing from the winter sunlight and the excitement of my fanciful undertaking, I cover the first stretch quickly. The twisty-turny route is marked by a double line of cobblestones (cars make a satisfying thunk-thunk sound when driving over it), gently reminding passersby of the course of the old Wall between East and West Berlin. This line disappears on the border between West Berlin and Brandenburg, the state that encloses the city, once part of the German Democratic Republic, a.k.a. East Germany. Here I now have to depend on the intermittent signs identifying the Berlin Wall Trail, which sometimes include aerial photographs showing the exact position of the Wall, the border fortifications and the trail itself, which occasionally veers off from the historical route because of new construction or private property. Literal-minded as I am, I pull out my map at these points and cut through fields, trying to make my body a divining rod — was it here? Could that newish looking row of poplars be growing in the former border strip? What side am I on right now? A question that rarely matters takes on a strange insistency on this pilgrimage. I read and misread the landscape. Once I cross a wooden bridge in a meadow; to the left (walking clockwise, the former GDR is on my left, West Berlin on my right) the sluggish creek is choked with algae, on my right the water is clear. I smile about this little joke until I discover that I had wandered off the route and that the bridge had never marked the border.

IV. Thanks to the Wall, Berlin hardly sprawls. I traverse long stretches where it’s obvious that something formidable once blocked the spread of the city, where the border between Berlin and Brandenburg offers up the unlikely contrast of clustered apartment buildings on one side and plowed fields on the other. City and country meet abruptly here, unlike most cities and their rapacious occupation of the hinterlands. I pass through areas, such as between Stolpe (East) and Frohnau (West), where Berlin even does the opposite of sprawl: it shrinks back from its neighboring towns and villages, so that on my left are built-up neighborhoods and on my right, just within the city limits, generous meadows and deep forests. These are the protected green areas of former West Berlin, which had to make its own countryside if it was going to have any at all.

Out here is where my walk, or rather concluding it for the day, gets complicated. Finding a bus stop with service at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night in a whisper quiet forest — the only sound the rhythmic slap of my hair against my jacket, falling acorns, and an occasional plane engine — is not a given. One cool evening, later in my walk, I trudge nervously and hungrily in the descending darkness toward distant shimmering lights, hoping, hoping they signal a commuter train station that hasn’t yet bolted its doors for the night. Finally, just past the Eiskeller (this erstwhile West Berlin exclave is called the ice cellar because — Cold War or not — it’s the coldest place in Berlin), I happen upon a bus stop, where I wait with a couple of locals who wave in recognition at every other passing car. In the end, on the twelve days it took me to complete the Wall walk, the relatively coherent public transportation network (having re-cohered since reunification) comes through for me, and I always make it home. (Still, a good part of many of my walk days are spent commuting: first getting from my apartment out to where I left off last time, which often involves a complex concert of subway, commuter train, bus and walking, and then finding my way back at the end of the day.)


Berlin Wall


V.
Thanks to the Wall — to the fact that it existed and then ceased to exist — Berlin can breathe. Wide swaths of wild, kempt and unkempt, not only surround the city but also permeate its center. Even now, 20 years on and after the celebrated building boom (the largest construction site in Europe, they liked to say), surprisingly long stretches of the border strip in the middle of the city remain undeveloped, with weeds growing amok and animals breeding in fashionable neighborhoods. A few of the trailer-park squats from the heady days in the early '90s have survived along the strip, ranging from motley collections of rusting trucks blasting punk music to gaily painted trailers housing hippie families and art exhibitions. Of course this wildlife is threatened by the greedy suck of development. Among the overgrown bushes between Mitte and Kreuzberg, I come across unsightly faux-palazzo model homes waiting for buyers, and large expanses of the once bedraggled no-man’s-land have been paved over. Still, much of the fracture remains, more than I had realized. On my way to closing the circle towards the end of my walk, between Pankow (East) and Reinickendorf (West) — hardly hip parts of town, it’s true, but in the heart of Berlin — I find rows of makeshift sheds on the Reinickendorf side housing dog pounds and TV repair shops wreathed with barbed wire: the kind of indigent economy you would expect on the outskirts of an up-and-coming city. Here it is in the middle. Because there’s room for it.

VI. Still, in any case. Walking along a row of frothing pink cherry trees — donated to the people of Berlin by a Japanese TV station upon the fall of the Wall and now marking its absence — I hope fervently that development will leave this space alone. Half a century ago a wide ribbon was cut out of the land to make room for the fortifications — so tear the fortifications down, yes, but leave us the ribbon, let the tourniquet become a lung for this city. I pass baby-blue houses with two-car garages in neighborhoods where only the cracked sidewalks remind you that this was once the “Zone,” and I think that to re-function is better than to erase. Like they did with an old guard tower between Reinickendorf and Hohen Neuendorf in Brandenburg that was turned into the headquarters of the local branch of the German Forest Youth. Or the park on the border by the North Station, where the only landscaping consists of fences keeping visitors out of the weedy wild and benches in the shape of giant slugs for sunning. This park is a beautiful example of letting nature take over while preserving access for us, the beings with memories. Sure, the Wall was ugly — but smoothing it over with new development is just an attempt to repress the memory, and repressed memories are the ones that hurt the most later on. On the penultimate day of my walk, I pass a chapel rebuilt where the East Germans leveled a church to make room for the Wall. In the heart of the city there are serious efforts underway to rebuild the Prussian palace torn down to construct the East German parliament, which was itself demolished in 2008. That’s another story, but the point is that bulldozing things is not always the best way to get rid of them.


Berlin Wall


VII
. But nor is it the worst crime. On the banks of the Havel, Berlin’s outlying river, and in parts once the fortified border between West Berlin and Brandenburg, I come across a plaque informing me that a villa built by a military captain in the 16th century stood at this spot for over 400 years — surviving the Thirty Years’ War, industrialization, and two World Wars. Then the East Germans tore it down “because it blocked their view of the Wall,” the commemorative text says indignantly. I think of Walter Benjamin’s dictum that there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism, and it is hard for me to weep over the captain’s villa.

VIII. On a mild autumn afternoon I stop to take a picture of Glienicke Lake — once cut in two by the Wall, patrolled by guards in motor boats and garlanded with netting to entangle any intrepid divers; today placid and lovely, a single rowboat poised in a pool of blue. An elderly couple stops and waits patiently for me to finish snapping, at which point the man asks, rhetorically: “Can you believe that people used to swim across the Wall here to get to the West?” (This Wall was the object of so many verbs — it was “not intended” and then built in rapid succession; it was guarded and protected; it was burrowed under, climbed and flown over; it was torn down and it fell; and, apparently, it was also swum across.) As his wife continues on her way, the man tells me that when the Wall was built, several people managed to prop a ladder against it in the middle of the night, shimmy across, and then swim to West Berlin on the opposite bank. In response, the authorities constructed a second wall to reinforce the first (most of the Wall was in fact bolstered by a second barrier in the form of a fence or concrete fortification with the border — or “death” — strip in the middle) and upped the ante with guard dogs and patrol boats. “There used to be this cat,” the man tells me, “I would see it every night slipping into a pipe that led underneath the Wall. So one day I asked the border guards if they knew where the cat was going. They told me the cat was visiting their dogs. They were friends.” Perhaps the wife has heard this story a few too many times; the man tells it with rehearsed haste, his chuckle anticipating the punch line. It’s a good story though: cats and dogs, those immortal enemies, making friends across the Wall, slipping through pipes to commune across ideologies while human beings are shot for the same offense.

The man then points out the trees growing on the banks of the lake, some of them post-Wall, some older. “On this side they tore all the trees down to give the border guards a better view,” he explains, which raised the ire of West Berlin property owners and of weekend revelers on the other side, who also wanted a nice view. The complaints rose all the way to the highest level of federal government and became a matter of East-West diplomacy. “Could you even see the lake from this side?” I ask. He could not. Only those with houses on the hill, no doubt mostly privileged party members, could see over the tangle of fortifications. The regular folk — those living on the plain, those walking to work every day like this man — spent years in spitting distance from a lovely vista without being able to catch a glimpse of it, let alone go wading or row-boating of a summer evening.


Berlin Wall
The Wall strip park at Nordbahnhof (North Station).

And so it was with whole stretches of Berlin’s outer edges, flecked as they are with lakes and rivers, emptying into and snaking past each other, creating islands and peninsulas and isthmuses covered with dense forests growing out of the sandy Brandenburg soil. Berliners have flocked here on the weekends since Berlin was the capital of Prussia, and they do so again today, but for the years of the Wall, the western flank of the city and its natural beauties — which are also those of the eastern outskirts of Potsdam, capital of Brandenburg and once home to Prussian royalty — were crudely blocked off. A stark partition rent the landscape, obstructing views of the playful weave of water and land, keeping people out of the river and off the forest paths. I take a ferry across the Havel on a blazing August day, my body soaking up that rare gift of sun in this northern climate, my senses feasting on the world. Nearly impossible to visualize an eleven-foot-tall concrete wall slicing across this artfully designed scene, and even, in one of those ironies — or farces — of history, obscuring the view from the Cecilienhof palace in Potsdam, where Stalin, Truman and Churchill planned their administration of defeated Germany in the summer of 1945. Back then these contented victors could still give lip service to keeping Germany unified as they gazed out across Jungfernsee Lake; 16 years later the view from Cecilienhof would no longer be a charming waterfront but instead a walled-in yard.

IX. Discussions about the atrocities of the Wall usually focus, understandably enough, not on violated nature but on those who were murdered trying to get across. At irregular intervals I come upon a memorial to these victims; the first one I encounter is in honor of two children, a ten-year-old boy and a thirteen-year-old boy shot to death in March of 1966 trying to crawl (like the cat) through a pipe leading under the Wall to West Berlin, where the younger boy’s father lived. The memorial is beautifully designed: a gray wall pock-marked with bullet holes and the cut-out shape of a child lying flat on the ground, like a gingerbread man in the dirt, leaving an empty space filled, today, with pink roses. Still, it’s hard, in this peaceful little park, to summon the image of two blonde boys in grimy pants dead in the ditch. The exact numbers of these Mauertote, Wall dead, are cause for an ongoing and mind-numbing political dispute, which serves only to make the individual human beings less real. I do personally know someone who tried to escape (he ended up in jail and was later allowed to leave legally, and he lived for a while in a trailer in my parents’ front yard in what was then West Germany when I was fifteen, and sent me into a fury of rage and pleasure with his lecherous looks) and someone else who actually succeeded in escaping in a hidden compartment of her boyfriend’s car. Heiko and Gisela are real people. They could easily have died in their attempts. That’s how badly they wanted to get across and that’s how hostile it was, this Wall. But these stories of heroism, desperation and foolhardiness are so well rehearsed and oft-repeated that they have become a kind of lore that lacks the power to unsettle. So when on a mid-September day I feel the sting of the autumn-cooled waters of Glienicke Lake on my bare body, what moves me most is the knowledge that people went from childhood to adulthood, from teenagehood to having teenagers of their own, from middle-age to death, on the shores of a lake they could not see or let run through their fingers.


Berlin Wall
Guard tower between Mitte and Wedding.

X. As I walk along the strip between Marienfelde (West Berlin) and the Teltow-Fläming region (Brandenburg), two women ride past me on bicycles, their baskets filled with Queen Anne’s Lace, dandelions, lady’s smock and buttercups. Later in the season and further along on my route, Spandau to my right and the Havelland region to my left, I pass a middle-aged couple riding their bikes slowly, scanning the woods on either side for mushrooms; moments later I hear the sudden squeaking of their brakes and turn to see them bending over by the side of the path. By the time I have come full circle — eight months of one or two walks a month and four major blisters after I began — I have spotted squirrels and woodpeckers, portly black beetles laboriously crossing the path (the trodden-on ones look like crushed blueberries), nervously strutting pheasants, wild rabbits and, on the Brandenburg side of the Havel, a flock of Canada geese calmly grazing on a grassy patch, oblivious to the busy road and an unleashed terrier nearby. Everyday scenes, yes, and no doubt London and New York also have feral crevices wide enough for geese and mushroom-hunters to pass through — but here, along the Berlin Wall Trail, these simple encounters carry a special poignancy: 20 years ago, they would not have been, or would have been curtailed by a severe obstruction; but if this obstruction had never been built, they would perhaps not be happening now. Even the path I’m walking on through the piney woods would not be if it weren’t for the Wall and its fall.

XI. And it is not only Communists who keep people from a Sunday stroll along the waterfront (just as it is not only Communists who tear down historic buildings or people in their way). Griebnitzsee, one of the lakes that served as a border between the Wannsee neighborhood of West Berlin and Potsdam, is famous for the prominent villas along its banks that housed the Allied statesmen during the Potsdam Conference. The Truman Villa, the Churchill Villa, and the Stalin Villa all have exquisite views of the water, as did anyone who wanted to take a walk here in the golden years between 1990 and 2007, after the Wall came down and before local property owners decided they didn’t like sharing the lakefront with just anyone and started barricading the path. While the dispute festers in the courts and in the media, access to the lake on the Potsdam side is now restricted to periodic lookout points, where you can stand and admire the water, the former border, and today’s border made of fences, barrier tape, and signs threatening trespassers with prosecution. The mansions sit in the sun still as graves. Further inland, many of the houses in the Griebnitzsee community have colorful banners strung from their balconies inscribed with “Free Shores” and “The Lakefront is for Everyone!,” and the little café at the train station where I stop to buy an ice cream cone has a petition demanding the re-opening of the Wall trail and public access to the lake.


Berlin Wall
Remnants of the Wall between Kreuzberg and Mitte.

XII.
I signed another petition recently, online, protesting the federal government’s plans to sell off Brandenburg’s plentiful lakes to private investors in order to resuscitate ailing budgets. The specter of not one Berlin Wall but a myriad of Brandenburg Walls surrounding each individual lake, armed not with live ammunition but with turnstyles and entrance fees, looms large in 2010. While this would still rank low on a scale of human wrongdoing caused by walls — consider the citizens of divided Nicosia on Cyprus, the wall being built to keep Palestinians inside the occupied territories and out of Israel, the border wall between the United States and Mexico — it is enough to make the heart sink.  

Nothing to be complacent about then, two decades-plus after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and anyone who remembers and has their eyes open today will bypass the congratulatory sentiment and pick at the stitches suturing the cut. Too much beauty and simple pleasure is still kept from those who might love it, if they only had an unobstructed view. And too many wounds are hastily bandaged up rather than being left out in the air to heal into gorgeous scars.

XIII. I finish my walk on October 4, the day after German Unity Day, feeling somewhat heroic. True, my own wall still stands. But I can already smell the fresh air that will blow and the sweet clover and goldenrods that will grow once I’ve gathered my forces to topple it.