Nick Allen in Berlin -
The busiest spot on the East Side Gallery in Berlin is the mural of Leonid Brezhnev’s full-on fraternal kiss with East Germany’s Erich Honecker, copied from a photo of the leaders’ meeting in 1979.
Tourists admiring the artwork on this preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall invariably pose and lock lips here to giggles and the flutter of iPhone cameras. No matter that Gorbachev is often their best guess when pressed to identify the kissers, or that some might take it for a tribute to the city’s prolific gay scene. This is simply the hip Berlin vacation photo and quite enough Cold War immersion before they go in search of Hitler’s long-gone bunker.
Cold War kitsch
Okay, it’s easy to mock the tourists, and maybe they do all Google the kiss when they get home. But as Germany prepares to mark 25 years since Mauerfall (the Fall of the Wall) on November 9, it is curious to observe Cold War history still in flux and evolving into a gaudy parody of itself.
As the capital prepares commemorative events like the 10-mile Lichtgrenze (light border) of 8,000 illuminated balloons marking the Wall’s route, the Cold War tourism industry is also turning up the heat, all the way to GDR-themed stand-up comedy acts. There are GDR-décor hostels where you can slumber beneath Honecker’s portrait, novelty Trabant rides (East Germany's answer to the Lada), €10 painted wall chunk souvenirs (all genuine), and even Stasi "Funshirts", complete with the emblem of the East German internal security service that crushed so many lives over an almost 50-year reign. “It’s a slap in the face for the victims, as if someone would go round in an SS T-shirt,” said Stefan Weinert, a documentary film maker whose new work "Die Familie" (The Family) looks at the impact on relatives of the deaths of 138 people shot dead trying to escape from the GDR.
But serious reflection is there for those who seek it. The Berlin Wall memorial centre at Bernau Street, with photos of the victims, preserved guard tower and "death strip" between the parallel wall lines, is the most sombre relic.
And while many Germans and Berliners balk at the prospect of another anniversary splurge, it is part of a continuing and painful healing process. Only the passage of years has enabled some people to tell their stories. Historians are also still unearthing disturbing revelations about the GDR period, including Stasi collusion by respected members of reunified German society.
One man who was shot twice while escaping from the GDR in 1963, Wolfgang Engels, joined a recent protest over awards conferred on a university rector who had been revealed as an ex-Stasi informer. Engels, 71, was shocked when elderly colleagues of the academic came up to him and hissed, “The Stasi should have taken better aim that night”. “That these people are still around us 50 years later and cling to their old beliefs shook me more than what happened in 1963,” he said.
Built and enlarged from August 1961, the Berlin Wall was portrayed as an “anti-fascist barrier” intended to keep Nazis from sabotaging the nascent GDR workers’ state. In reality, it was meant to stop the outflow of skilled workers and their families to the West. Prior to construction, the flood of refugees threatened to destroy the GDR’s economy and overwhelm West Germany. Some 3.5m people fled west before August, including 100,000 in the first half of that year.
But apart from surviving members of the old guard, few people would argue today that Mauerfall was a bad thing. Just as Mikhail Gorbachev knew that the Soviet Union had to reform in order to survive, the stubborn refusal of the East German regime to follow suit ultimately sealed its fate.
Neighbours like Hungary and Czechoslovakia decisively pricked the bubble earlier in 1989 by opening their borders, allowing thousands of East Germans to flee to Austria. The demise of the Berlin Wall and the inner German border was only a matter of time.
But the irony lies in the true agenda of Western leaders. While US President Ronald Reagan publicly demanded that Gorbachev “tear down this wall” in Berlin in 1987, there was an underlying fear of upsetting the European apple cart.
Stirring the embers
Nine months before the Wall fell, according to Gorbachev’s adviser Anatoly Chernyaev, Margaret Thatcher told the Soviet leader that the UK and Western Europe were “not interested in the unification of Germany”, nor in “the destabilization of Eastern Europe or the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.” Reagan’s successor George H. Bush felt the same, she assured Gorbachev.
Meanwhile, the economists are still thrashing out how much reunification has cost Germany since 1989. With estimates running as high as €2 trillion, the issue has triggered a fresh round of unseemly squabbling in this commemorative year. “Instead of recognizing and valuing this as a great feat of solidarity that we have accomplished in Germany, the discussion is being reduced to a one-sided transfer balance sheet,” Reiner Haseloff, the state premier of the east German state Saxony-Anhalt, told media.
Nor does Cold War history end with the bill for the momentous changes of the 1980s, followed by the Soviet collapse in 1991. Kremlin foreign policy is again turning over the embers and sending tremors westbound with the annexation of Crimea and by waging a proxy war in Ukraine.
In April, two German tabloids sought to do some historical revision by launching a petition to remove two Soviet T-34 tanks removed from their city centre pedestals and relocated because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. “In an era when Russian tanks are threatening free and democratic Europe, we don’t want any Russian tanks at the Brandenburg gate,” the organizers said. The campaign failed after the German government said it remained committed to preserving Soviet war memorials.
There has been no such dedicated preservation at the most iconic Berlin Wall site of all, however. There is almost nothing left of the original installations at Checkpoint Charlie, with the last East German watchtower being removed in 2000 to make way for an office block.
Now drenched in razzmatazz, the site’s only authentic remaining relic is the wooden checkpoint signpost. Still, like the Socialist kiss, the details don’t seem to matter much to visitors convinced they are getting the ultimate Berlin Wall experience.
But for all the shuddering about commercialization, this could also be the best affirmation of the hunger for freedom that toppled the hated Wall after 28 years. That you can ride an open-top Trabant through East Berlin drinking champagne and not wind up in a Stasi cell, buy a random piece of painted concrete for €10, or simply not know who Erich Honecker was.
Fast food giant McDonalds would seem to think so, having opened an outlet at the checkpoint site in 2009 in one undeniable affirmation of the West’s triumph over the Eastern Bloc.
But for those with a broader Weltanschauung and palate, there is always the complimentary taster at the German Currywurst (curry sausage) museum round the corner.
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