Berlin Wall makes comeback for tourists

BERLIN Tue Aug 9, 2011 8:40am EDT

1 of 4. Rain clouds gather above the Berlin Wall memorial site in Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, August 9, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter

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BERLIN (Reuters) - The Berlin Wall is making a comeback. A half century after it was built and two decades after its demise, a few bits of the Wall that once split Berlin into East and West are being reinstated for posterity to the delight of tourists seeking a glimpse of the city's Cold War history.

Almost all of the 160 km (100 miles) of Berlin Wall that encircled West Berlin in the heart of Communist East Germany was hastily torn down or chiseled away in the euphoria after it was breached in 1989.

There were only a few withered remnants of the wall left by the time the two Germanys reunited less than a year later on October 3, 1990. Only three of the 302 ominous East German guard towers still stood.

"There's a general complaint that the demolition of the Wall was a bit too extensive," said Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit.

"That's understandable from today's point of view and it would have probably been better for tourists if more of it could have been preserved," he told Reuters. "But at that time we were all just so happy to see the Wall gone."

There was indeed a powerful rush to obliterate all traces of the 3.6-meter-high concrete and barbed wire barrier, building of which started on August 13, 1961.

"Mauerspecht" (wall-peckers) armed with hammers and chisels got souvenir chips and bulldozers did the rest, turning it into gravel and developing the prime real estate.

Many of the Wall slabs were sold, raising some 2 million deutsche marks for the government (about $1 million at the time). Some 300 East German border guards and 600 West German soldiers worked together to tear the rest down, converting it into 300,000 tons of concrete mass.

But now, as growing numbers of tourists come to Berlin each year searching largely in vain for traces of the Wall, the city has re-erected and restored parts while monument preservation experts are working to conserve other vestigial segments.

'WHERE'S THE WALL?'

"At first no one gave a second thought to the idea of preserving any of the Wall for future generations," said Jochen Staadt, political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

"But there was always interest from foreigners who came and say 'Where's the Wall?'," added Staadt, a specialist on East Germany and the Wall. "It took about a decade until the late 1990s before people in Berlin, especially those under 30, started taking an interest in what the Wall was actually like."

New buildings have gone up on many parts of the former "death strip" that separated East and West, and it is sometimes hard to tell where the barrier once stood.

In the last few years a piece of the Wall complex running six city blocks, or some 800 meters, has been rebuilt and restored on Bernauer Strasse, scene of some of the most dramatic escapes after the wall was built.

People jumped from upper storey windows in buildings on the east side of the Wall onto the street on the west side. The windows were soon sealed off with bricks and the buildings later demolished.

In the early 1990s, the area around Bernauer Strasse was a veritable wasteland, with locals complaining about needles from drug addicts left hind in the weeds in the undeveloped land.

Part of the rebuilt section is made up authentic Wall slabs, some purchased for 1,000 euros ($1,400) each from a private collector, and some of it is made of 3.6-meter-high rusting iron rods that symbolize where the Wall stood but have gaps that allow visitors to see through it.

Another four city blocks, or about 500 meters, of concrete Wall slabs and iron rods will be added next year.

Berlin, with help from the federal government and European Union, is spending some 28 million euros on the construction.

While it is an eerie reminder of where the Wall was, the memorial on Bernauer Strasse is a far cry from the original. Instead of the death-like silence around it, it is alive with myriad tourists buzzing in and around it.

"In early 1989, (East German leader) Erich Honecker said the Wall would still be standing in 100 years and to a certain degree we're doing what we can to make that happen," Alexander Klausmeier, director of the Berlin Wall Foundation that is overseeing the project, said with a smile.

"It's all a bit crazy."

NO DISNEYLAND-IFICATION

There are a few other pieces of Berlin Wall remnants elsewhere: a 1.3-km-long section known as the East Side Gallery that is covered with 105 giant paintings from artists around the world and an 80-meter section behind the Finance Ministry.

A few individual graffiti-covered slabs were put up in Berlin, such as at Potsdamer Platz square, in the last decade. The city also embedded a cobblestone line into streets marking some spots where the Wall stood.

A biking trail follows the wall's route as well.

The rebuilding is not welcomed by all. Some local conservative leaders fear the wall could become a "Disneyland-like" attraction.

"People in Berlin already know where the Wall was and the memory is painful enough," said Staadt, the political scientist. "It's a tricky situation and quite a few people rightly worry any Wall reconstruction could turn into some kind of 'Disneyland'. No one wants that."

Wowereit said that will not happen.

"It was the right thing to do at the time, tearing the whole thing down," he said.

"But step-by-step we will keep expanding this Wall memorial actively. We've seen that a lot of people come to Berlin because of the history and we'll continue to cultivate that, not only for tourists but also as a reminder for future generations."

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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