Retracing History at the Remnants of the Berlin Wall

by Ekua on June 26, 2012 in Germany,race/culture/identity,why i travel

Mural about the Berlin Wall Era at the East Side Gallery

Sometimes you go to the Berlin Wall to see it; sometimes it appears unexpectedly as isolated graffiti covered concrete panels in the middle of a plaza or lawn. Sometimes you sense where it used to be as you go from boxy Soviet era buildings to architecture that’s more similar to German cities further west.

Each time I spotted it, I was fascinated by it. Today, it seems unfathomable that just a little over 20 years ago, the wall was a huge barrier running through the city rather than a few remaining chunks of cement.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why the Berlin Wall is such a profound symbol to me. I think that fall of it was the first major world event I really remember; perhaps that day sparked the beginning of a realization of how many things were going on in the world beyond the small physical spaces I occupied.

When the wall came down in in 1989, I was in the middle of my brief but beautiful few childhood years in a Maryland suburb of DC. We had moved there from Northern California a couple years before. Less than a month before the Berlin wall fell, the worst earthquake in 83 years hit Northern California, something many of my current peers in San Francisco remember as the first significant event of their childhood.

For me, living near the political center of the country, the fall of the Berlin Wall was what I remember more vividly. I wondered why on Earth people would build a wall through a city to separate it in two. I remember misguidedly thinking that Berlin was more culturally similar to Russia because of its association with the Soviet Union. I remember not understanding exactly what was going on as I saw the coverage of people celebrating at the wall, but knowing that it was something major.

A funny thing about living through history in childhood is that you don’t always get to learn much about it in the moment. If you do, you often hear about it filtered through the strong emotions of history in motion. So when I arrived in Berlin, one of the first things I wanted to do was find out more about the wall and the era that created it.

I spent hours at the fantastic and interactive DDR Museum absorbing tidbits of life in East Berlin and East Germany. As someone who thrives on the ability to move about freely and experience the world, it was difficult to imagine living in such a restrictive environment. It was also challenging to imagine life for the West Berliners who were walled in on all sides, living in a landlocked island created by a mind-boggling battle of bravado often masquerading as a fight for political ideology.

As I explored the Soviet era in East Germany at museums and beyond, what stood out the most in Berlin were not the flaws of one political ideology or another, but what happens when governments are so absorbed in their own agenda that the humanity of their citizens is ignored or repressed — a governmental mindset that is never relegated to just one political ideology.

While I was in Berlin, I often felt like I was experiencing one of the most purposeful aspects of travel — when the words and images of the news, history books, and propaganda fade away and all that is left for you to see is the simplicity and the magnitude of humanity.

Image of the Checkpoint Charlie Sign at the East Side Gallery

The Berlin Wall on the opposite side of the East Side Gallery

Remaining Segments of the Berlin Wall at Niederkirchnerstrasse

Berlin Wall Remnants and History at Potsdamer Platz

Berlin Wall Remant

Berlin Wall Remnants

 

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Fly Girl June 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Wow.Your pix saw it all. The sense of foreboding and eerie history is palpable. I’ll be having dinner with Esi tomorrow, by the way. Hopefully you can reserve a spot in your travel calendar to visit Chicago soon.

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Ekua June 27, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Yeah, she told me about that! Ah, all this Chicago peer pressure 😛

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Mary R June 27, 2012 at 4:57 am

Ekua,
The Berlin Wall has always fascinated me too. I visited Berlin in August of 1989 just months before the wall came down, and listened to a whole serious brief about what to do and what not to do on the east side before crossing over. It was eery going through that checkpoint, and I remember not being comfortable at all. I also remember trying to buy some chocolates in a shop and being turned away. It was surreal to watch the wall come down on TV, and I felt like I had a personal connection to it because of my experience there. I still have those east german coins!

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Ekua June 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Hi Mary – it’s been awhile! Good to hear from you! So crazy that you visited Berlin while the wall was still up. Was it with family or for a special reason? Was there a palpable difference between the two sides? It would be awesome if you wrote about that experience… I’ll be waiting 😉

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Audrey | That Backpacker June 28, 2012 at 6:36 am

Still kicking myself that I didn’t check out the Berlin Wall! Then again I only had one day which was far too short. Can’t wait to check it out properly one day. 😀

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Ekua June 29, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Yeah, I think Berlin deserves a 5 day minimum! I only really went to see the wall on purpose once at the East Side Gallery. Another time, I made a stop there on a walking tour and the rest were just by chance because I visited a lot of places in the central part of the city where the border used to be.

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