Should what's left of the Berlin Wall be preserved?

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First aired on Day 6 (09/03/13)

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, reuniting Germany and ending decades of oppression for the people of East Germany. Today, very little of the Berlin Wall remains. The longest stretch is a 1.3km segment called the East Side Gallery. Developers applied to take it down in order to build a bridge to a luxury condominium, and briefly got approval from city hall. But there has been a huge wave of protest in response, and the mayor has halted the plan. Day 6 talked to Thomas Cramer, a former East German soldier who was on guard duty at the Wall on the night it came down, and to Brian Ladd, the author of The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape about what's at stake.


Like other East Germans, Thomas Cramer welcomed the demise of the Wall at the time, but now he is in favour of preserving what remains of it. "These are really important pieces of our history, and also of the shaping of our modern identity," he said.

When asked why anyone would want to tear down the last stretch of it, Brian Ladd said that in 1989, the logical question would have been "why would anyone not want to tear down the Wall?... But now there are only little bits left. And the answer to your question is not based in the idea that people still hate the war. Nobody hates the wall any more. It's just the practical question of balancing the desire for historic preservation with the desire to have a living, modern, growing city."

Getting rid of the Berlin Wall is just one example of the city wanting to bury its past -- and of the backlash that results. Ladd pointed out that soon after the Wall came down, the new Berlin government, which was dominated by westerners, decided to tear down a large statue of Lenin. They thought it would be "a great celebration of unification." Instead, they were shocked when there were huge protests as a result.

Ladd sees that incident as a "first shock for the difficulties of unification that would follow." Another example was the East German parliament building, in the centre of Berlin, which was built on the site of the old royal palace. It also served as an entertainment centre that East Germans had fond memories of, but westerners wanted to get rid of it. "What followed was almost 20 years of limbo," before the building was finally torn down to make way for parkland. There are still plans to rebuild the royal palace.

As soon as the Wall came down, some people raised the subject of preservation. But they were "shouted down, they were ridiculed, laughed at, and had no influence at first," Ladd said, adding that attitudes changed within a couple of years, in part because of an influx of tourists who wanted to see the Wall.

Ladd draws a distinction between the Third Reich and the East German dictatorship, although the treatment of relics from the latter era has been affected by how Nazi relics were dealt with. "After decades of wanting to forget, bury the remnants of the Third Reich, there were active efforts to preserve, protect, call attention to the remnants of the Third Reich," he said. "So immediately in 1989 there were people saying, 'We have to take this same critical attitude to the remnants of East Germany.'"

Nevertheless, there are certain sites that remain sensitive, such as Hitler's bunker. "That's the one they least like to call attention to because the prevailing belief is that's only interesting to neo-Nazis, certainly also to tourists, but that it would become an attraction point for neo-Nazis, which is a possibility," Ladd said, adding that there are many others like it.

When asked about recent reports revealing an extensive network of labour camps throughout Nazi Germany, Ladd acknowledged that it uncovered "more than anybody had ever known," and that "they were very much a part of everybody's lives, they were a part of everybody's neighbourhoods, almost." In Berlin, young historians have been digging into the history, but it's a slow process -- perhaps understandably. "People mostly don't want that in their neighbourhood, they don't want those kind of memories in their neighbourhood."

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