24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

The Berlin Wall: Where is it Now?

Today the Berlin Wall is extremely controversial because many people claim that the wall is idolized, with little pieces of it spread throughout the world in museums, monuments, and many college campuses, including our own Chapman University. Berlin was at the center of a lot of violence during World War II and the Cold War, therefore many memorials have been built in Berlin. Some complain that those memorials do not honor the city or the people who died in those conflicts, but only make these sacred places tourist spots and ways to make money. As a generation that did not know the struggles of World War II or the Cold War, we look at the Wall differently. We have only read about the damage that the Berlin Wall caused, but have not truly felt it. We see the Wall as a piece of art, as a symbol of justice and the end of suffering for many people. But the people who actually lived within the wall viewed it very differently.

History of the Wall

During the Cold War, West Berlin was flourishing economically, while East Berlin struggled, this caused an influx of emigrants to seek jobs in West Berlin. Stricter limits on travel were imposed before the wall was finally built on the night of August 13, 1961 to separate the two halves completely. This caused social outrage in East Berlin as people were cut off from their jobs and many families were divided[1]. Nearly 250 people died trying to scale the Wall, including 18 year old Peter Fechter [2], who was shot on the night of August 13, 1962 in front of hundreds of witnesses while trying to cross the “death strip” before its fall on November 9, 1989.

Significance While the Wall was Standing

German views on the wall differed depending on which side a person resided and the experiences they had with the wall. The Wall in West Berlin was approachable, people could stroll along it and go to lookout towers to see the “other Berlin”. To the East Berliners, the wall was a symbol of entrapment and a border between where people wanted to be and where some were trapped. Though the graffiti on the Eastern side of the Wall means very little now to those who come across the scattered pieces, it once served an important purpose to those who were trapped on their respective sides.

Nearly all of the colorful and extravagant pieces of graffiti art were painted on the Western side of the Berlin Wall because it was more accessible and less dangerous for West Berliners to paint there. In contrast to the ease with which West Berliners could access the wall and paint whatever they pleased, the act of writing graffiti on the Eastern side of Wall was dangerous and signified aggressive behavior as it was a violation of the German-German border and the defacement of East German property. But even though it was considered a crime to graffiti the wall, many people still thought it was important to include their opinions on what it was like to be trapped, often including humor to highlight their frustration[3]. For example, one painter sprayed “Ausfahrt Freihalten” on the wall: this translates to “Keep the Exit Clear” which is meant to be a joke as obviously there was no way to exist the wall at this location and also because the Wall’s security made it improbable that anyone could exist there. Similarly, someone painted “Durchgang vorübergehend gesperrt” on the wall which translates to “Passage temporarily blocked” which expresses the concept of the Wall as a barrier.

Initially after its fall in 1989, these graffitied segments of the Wall were considered valuable to foreign consumers, similar to famous pieces of art. But the Germans themselves, including German officials, were far more interested in creating a united future than in preserving parts of the divided past. With the passage of time, however, the Germans have increasingly come to believe in the importance of explaining the history of the Wall[4], commemorating its victims, and preserving its few authentic remains in Berlin.

Dismantling of the Wall

Many Berliners wanted the wall to be removed as soon as possible in an attempt to erase all the hardship and traumatic memories it embodied. Even though the physical barrier that formerly divided the two Germanys was destroyed, the scars it left on the Berliners were still fresh. After it was dismantled, many countries and museums were eager to acquire a piece from the infamous landmark.[5] As more and more portions of the wall were sold to anonymous buyers or ground into  aggregate, a type of gravel, and used for street construction, the remaining larger pieces of the wall rose in value. Eventually, the graffiti on the wall transformed from a source of protest into highly desired artwork, and the formerly quintessential symbol of Communism became a capitalist commodity. Ironically, the largest supplier of these valuable pieces was the struggling East Germany. East Germany made special firms to sell the large pieces with unique graffiti art to foreign buyers at exclusive auctions, resulting in a large international trade. Now there are over 200 pieces of the symbolic wall all over the world in museums and memorials.

It was not an easy process to acquire one of these highly desired pieces. A perfect example of this is Chapman University’s own struggle for a segment of the wall.[6] It was a two year long campaign that was started in 1996, by our former Chapman President Jim Doti, to receive our 2.5-ton, 12-foot-high piece of the Berlin Wall. Doti wanted a piece of the wall for Chapman after seeing the segment at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Doti did everything in his power to get his hands on a chunk of the wall for the University, even calling the mayor’s office in Berlin who was distributing pieces of the wall. After all Doti’s tenacity, Chapman had received approval for a piece of the Berlin Wall, but that was not the end. Figuring out how to get the wall from Berlin to Chapman and the transportation process were also very difficult. After 4 weeks of traveling on ships, trains, and cars the piece finally arrived at Chapman on September 28, 1998. Below is a map which contains many, but not all, of the locations where pieces of the Berlin Wall stand in the United States. 

Significance to People Today

Many German people viewed the Berlin Wall as a symbol of entrapment and a reminder of their hardships, while people today tend to view the pieces as little more than a decoration or piece of art to put on their campuses and in front of their buildings. The people of this generation, born after the Wall fell in 1989, were not alive to see the devastation that it caused to families and did not experience the hardships of being trapped on the wrong side of the Wall. It is for this reason that people seem to forget that these fragments were formally connected to a massive barrier, and therefore do not fully understand the purpose that these graffitied slabs of concrete served 30 years ago. This disparity between those who lived in the shadows of the wall and those who today can only see fragments of what it once was is the reason why sites such as the Berlin Wall Memorial[7] are so important.

The Berlin Wall Memorial was created on August 13, 1998, and is located at a place called Bernauer Straße. Bernauer Straße was located right on the German-German border, this meant that one half of the street ended up on the east side while the other was on the west side of the divided city. In the early years, Bernauer Straße was a popular place for escape attempts and there was even an underground tunnel dug underneath the wall. Not all attempts to escape to the West succeeded however, and those who lost their lives during their attempts are honored at the memorial with their personal stories and photos. Exhibits along the length of the memorial site give insight into different aspects of the Berlin Wall, one which includes an observation tower for visitors to see a 70 meter long section of the border area, including the death strip.

As we have recently marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 2019, it is important to remember that although the wall and graffiti are beautiful artwork being shown in museums, it is also a powerful symbol. The fragments of this wall that are scattered throughout the globe should be memorialized and a place to remember loss and oppression. These sites serve as a way for our generation to imagine a world behind a wall, fighting for freedom, and those who lost their lives trying to cross it.
[1] “Consequences.” National Cold War Exhibition. Accessed December 6, 2019. https://www.nationalcoldwarexhibition.org/schools-colleges/national-curriculum/berlin-wall/consequences.aspx#targetText=Consequences,felt had failed to respond.
[2] “Grim Scenes at Berlin Wall as Refugee Left to Die: from the Archive, 18 August 1962.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, August 18, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/18/berlin-wall-shooting-peter-fechter-1962-archive
[3] Stein, Mary Beth. "The Politics of Humor: The Berlin Wall in Jokes and Graffiti." Western Folklore 48, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1499684?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents
[4] Harrison, Hope M. 2011. “The Berlin Wall and Its Resurrection as a Site of Memory.” German Politics & Society, vol. 29, no. 2, Aug. 2011, pp. 78–106. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3167/gps.2011.290206
[5] Ahonen, Pertti. “Commemorating the Berlin Wall.” The GDR Remembered: Representations of the East German State since 1989, edited by Nick Hodgin and Caroline Pearce, vol. 106, Boydell and Brewer, 2011, pp. 133–150. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt1x71tf.12.
[6] Winslow, Jonathan. “Doti's Quest for a Piece of the Berlin Wall.” Orange County Register. Orange County Register, November 18, 2014. https://www.ocregister.com/2014/11/18/dotis-quest-for-a-piece-of-the-berlin-wall/.
[7] Ermengem, Kristiaan Van. “Berlin Wall Memorial, Berlin.” A View On Cities, https://www.aviewoncities.com/berlin/berlinwallmemorial.htm.

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