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The Berlin Wall falls – and Continues to Fall

by Björn Larsson

It was in the late seventies. The ninth graders were going on a school trip. The Cold War was in full swing these years. Contrary to the teachers’ intention, we had voted that the tour would not go to Kufstein in Austria, as it did in the past ten years, but to Berlin. Since the end of the Second World War, the two great powers the United States and the Soviet Union had gradually increased their nuclear capabilities. The number of nuclear equipped robots was greater than any time before, and we were speculating, sometimes, where the first missiles would hit when the full-scale nuclear war broke out.

The Berlin Wall falls / Jan och Bob Bovin, 1990.

There were two ideologies, two contrasting temperaments; and it was West Germany’s capital city, which was the epicenter of this delayed explosion. Maybe that’s why the school trip went to Berlin that year? We wanted to see the ”Wall”, that much was clear. We wanted to see the famous wall between East Berlin and West Berlin, which appeared in so many news stories. We wanted to experience the ”Iron Curtain”, the very symbol of the global polarization that had divided the whole world. In the East German propaganda, the wall was a defense facility against the west and was called ”the anti-fascist protection barrier”. In the West German propaganda, the wall was an anti-democratic, repressive murder machine that kept people trapped in a dictatorship. There were contrasts. There were differences. There were contradictions. There were two different temperaments, two different ideologies, which made the situation explosive and spectacular. Everything was overwhelming, scary and difficult to understand. Perhaps the very sight of the wall could give a clarification, a physical key to how the Cold War could be interpreted? 

The ritual encounter had been going on for several years. And one day in May it was time. We got on the bus in Ockelbo in northern Sweden in the morning, took the ferry from Trelleborg in the evening and arrived early the next morning in Sassnitz. We were dragged all day through East Germany and rolled late in the evening into dark and lightless East Berlin, where barely a man could be seen on the street. When the border police had checked our passports at Checkpoint Charlie, we rolled on into West Berlin where the nightlife was in full swing. The continental night darkness was illuminated by flashing neon signs which advertised night clubs and discos. The contrast between deserted East Berlin and enlightened, vibrant West Berlin was shocking and confirmed our preconceived notions. In the East, it was dark, boring and poor. In the West, one is amused in a depraved manner all night. Already, a tiny question began to bother me. Is the wall there to separate those who have different ideologies, different images of reality, different temperaments? Or is it the other way around? Is it the wall, the border, which creates and reinforces these different ideologies, these different reality images, these different temperaments? 

The next day we went down to the wall, climbed onto one of the custom built observation platforms and peeped into the fifty meter wide ”zone of death”. The wall we saw was the fourth generation of the Berlin Wall. 

It was constructed as late as 1975 and consisted of thousands of 120-centimeter-wide and four-meter-high steel concrete slabs set beside each other to form a cohesive, four-mile-long defensive system.1 Actually there were two walls, one side faced the East German side and one faced the West German side. Between them there were guard as steel dogs. Tank obstacles. Sensors. On the East German side, far away, the houses closest to the border had walled windows. At the wall on the West German side there were memorials adorned with flowers and crosses which served as monuments to those killed during an escape attempt. Thousands had tried. Hundreds had failed and were shot dead. On each of the monuments there was a cross, a name, a year of birth and one of death. Here and there on the wall there was also a single comment painted with white color on the flat surface: well thought out sentiments calling for reconciliation and change, ”Die Mauer muss weg” and similar political messages. The mood at the wall was drab, a peculiar mixture of prison and cemetery. Not a single person could be seen, except the East German guards in the watchtowers. 

A few days later we visited the Wall Museum, which was housed in a worn-out apartment in the immediate vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie. The museum was one of the simplest arranged museums I have ever visited, but there were many people crowded in the small rooms (the wall was after all West Berlin’s most popular tourist destination). The walls displayed cardboard sheets with photographs and newspaper articles that told about the history of the wall, about the escape attempts and of family tragedies, of political developments.

The signs with the museum’s own texts were written with indignant rage over the absurd situation. There were also cars and other vehicles with hidden spaces that had been used to smuggle people into the West, such as a car that had a passenger seat that was hollow and where the person could hide. Central to one of the larger rooms was an escape car, which the driver drove at high speed through the barrier at one of the border crossings. The wheels had come loose and stood leaning against the sides of the car, the bumpers had loosened, and the car’s headlights hung loosely on their cords. The windshield was replaced by a steel plate with small holes, which I took for granted as being bullet holes, but as I discovered many years later when I returned to the museum, they were sight holes that the driver had drilled to be able to see. During the re-visit, I was also able to observe that the wheels and bumpers had now been rearranged, screwed in and moved closer to the car. The change was certainly not intentional, but the result was that the car looked more cohesive in 2010 than it had been in the 1970s.

I still do not understand the connection between the car’s disassembled status and the escape itself. The damage could have hardly been caused by the journey through the border post. The car is mostly like a scrap car, but here a lifelong interest in dismantling and deconstruction was awakened. When I saw the car again, I got the sudden sensation of something broken that was in a healing process. The idea was, of course, completely irrational, but I cannot get away from the idea that the Wall Museum is a museum that, in its historical analysis, sometimes yields to coincidences and improvisations, and that the same thing applies to the symbolic values that have emerged around the phenomenon of the Berlin Wall. Most photographs of the Berlin Wall you see in the media today describe the ”fall” of the wall on the ninth of November 1989. In the pictures you can see rushing West Berliners climbing up the edge of the wall, cheering, stretching their arms in the air, knocking on the wall with hammer and sledgehammers and chanting ”Die Mauer muss weg”.

The storming of the wall was sudden and dramatic, but also the final phase of a process that was going on throughout the eighties. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had taken over as the Soviet Union leader and brought about a storm in the relationship between the two power blocks: east and west. In East Germany, there had long been dissatisfaction with the country’s lagging behind West Germany in terms of prosperity and living standards, which led many East Germans to flee the country. One of the few sources of income was to ”sell” dissidents and emigrants to West Germany against payment in the western currency. In 1989, massive protests were carried out in several cities in East Germany and the situation eventually became unsustainable. At a chaotic press conference on November 9, a politburo member Günter Schabowski read a directive from Secretary-General Egon Krenz which signaled that border crossings would be allowed for private persons. Still today, what was actually said, what was not said, and what should have been said at this press conference, is disputed. But the news went on air in the West German news programs, and spread quickly into the neighboring country because most East Germans could watch West German TV. In the evening, the East Berliners gathered at the border crossings. At twelve o’clock at night, the first border crossing was opened, in the next few hours more and more border crossings were opened, and now traffic between east and west was in full swing.

There was still time for the Soviet tanks to roll in and stop this movement, dismantle the pipeline, install new puppets in the government and stabilize the situation. As in Hungary in 1956. As in Prague in 1968. But yet none of this happened. On the West German side, there was a people’s party down by the wall. The East German concrete offered resistance, but the ”woodpeckers” worked in peace and soon the wall began to give way. Pieces were knocked off. The holes became larger and larger, and finally, some of the two and a half tons of heavy concrete slabs began to twist and bend.

On November 11, East German border troops removed eight of the concrete segments out of the fortification so that a new, improvised border crossing opened. When the images of the removed, freestanding concrete segments with scribbled slogans and murals spread out in world media, the reactions were immediate. The clearly politically-targeted messages painted on the wall in the seventies were accompanied by, or were painted over with more mixed comments during the eighties. Some of the paintings, tags and texts were still political projects intended to question and mock those who took the initiative to build the wall. Other features were of a more philosophical nature or pure coincidence. Here are slogans like ”Set them free”, ”Smash normal politix, act up now!” and ”DDR= Concentration Camp BRD=Dårhus”. Painted on the wall there were laconic comments as “Jenny was here again” and ”Mauer go home” and ”Change your life”, and all this formed a difficult to control all-art work with an internal logic that meant that images and tags were constantly overwritten and deleted. The wall had also been visited by more established artists. In connection with a gallery exhibition in 1983, Jonathan Borofsky painted a running man as a contribution to the exhibition Metropolis on Martin-Gropius-Bau, a gallery located just next to the wall. In 1986, Keith Haring made a painting that covered hundreds of meters of the wall at Waldemarstrasse in Kreuzberg, but as so much else, as the eighties progressed, these works were painted over. 

As ”painting” the wall at this time was a failure, but the unusual combination of minimalism and outsider credibility seemed to strike the right note, it seemed to symbolize something unique. It was like the concrete segments painted with graffiti of resistance were perceived as a representative of the traumatic, wounding period in Europe’s history commonly known as the Cold War and which now seemed to be over. Taken together, the concrete slabs formed an impenetrable four-mile, monotonous and impenetrable wall, but when the segments were placed freely, they resembled tombstones, monuments, epitaphs, minimalist sculptures. It was as if Donald Judd had stepped onto the stage and transformed the entire wall area into a sculpture park by declaring the East German concrete slabs to be modular series constructions, with the difference that these plates were scribbled with graffiti and mural paintings. Business people from all over the world signaled their interest and wanted to buy the wall. The East German government first responded with dismay to the prospective customers. Should the ”anti-fascist protection barrier” be sold to capitalists from the West? The symbolic meaning of such an action could have a detrimental effect on the East German self-identity. But East German trade minister Gerhard Beil soon realized that the dismantling of the wall was a giant project and needed to be organized. The steel concrete slabs in the wall weighed 250,000 tones, and if border crossings between the east and west were now allowed, the wall no longer had any function.

Sales contracts were signed. The West Berlin tradition of ’painting on/writing over’ the wall was shipped off and placed in museums, embassies and companies in the whole world. One slab was placed in the Vatican garden. One was placed in the Argentine foreign ministry’s garden in Buenos Aires. One was placed at the EU Parliament in Brussels. Many of the concrete slabs that were placed at embassies and institutions had the original painting from the Berlin Wall left, some of them even had site-specific paintings. The segment which was placed in the Vatican garden has the original painting by Yadiga Asisi (on the initiative of architect Bernhard Strecker) which represents St. Michael church on Heinrich-Heine-Platz in the Mitte district. 

But many of the slabs that were taken away were also painted with graffiti that did not originate at all from the Berlin Wall. In the Wende museum in Los Angeles, which has about ten segments of the Berlin Wall in its collection, there is “a program to repaint the segments in a coordinated manner”. The goal is, according to the museum, that the segments from the wall should not be treated as “static memorials”, but as ”areas of reflection and activity”. But the rules governing the artistic design of the segments have been changed. One of the segments has recently been painted and now carries a portrait depicting Nelson Mandela. Two others have been repainted with portraits of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Much can be said about the two American ex-presidents in terms of democracy and freedom, but they don’t work well as representatives of the Berlin Wall’s improvised, activist aesthetics. When the popular, creative activists’ heritage of West Berlin is domesticated by the American ”we remember the cold war lobby” and transformed into a recipe for rehabilitating political stances and when the reaction to state-sponsored propaganda is replaced by another kind of state-sponsored propaganda credibility suffers. In the Wende museum the slabs are even painted on both sides, which indeed can be noted as another level in the complicated revision of history that seems to be the fate of the Berlin Wall. The wall’s function as a boundary meant that the flow across the border was stopped and that the policing and oppression, were not the same on both sides of the wall. Kilometer after kilometer of graffiti would have been impossible to find in West Berlin in the eighties, but the Berlin Wall was not in West Berlin. The defense facility with the two walls and the zone between them was entirely located on the East German territory. It was the East German workers who cleaned the walls and cleaned the zone between the walls (as West Germans threw trash and garbage over the wall into the zone for fun). The only part of the defense facility that the East Germans did not clean was the part of the wall facing West Berlin. The West German authorities also did not take responsibility for cleaning the wall. The prerequisite for the painting on the Berlin wall was that it happened in a kind of no-man’s land on one side of the wall, a place which under the circumstances was autonomous. The border’s logic meant a duality. One side wanted to keep the other side away and the control, frustration and human corrosion  which appeared as a result of that were only visible on the side where control was less intense. When segments of the Berlin wall are painted over and painted on both sides, the original historicity is challenged: there is an erroneous picture that the repression being the same on both sides. 

On June 16th 2015, Donald Trump announced that he would run as candidate in the following US presidential election year. In his speech, Trump focused on immigration issues and one of his promises was that ”a wall” should be erected along the border with Mexico to prevent ”illegal immigration”. In October 2017, eight prototypes for a future wall were unveiled between Mexico and the United States in San Diego near the border with Mexico. During the election campaign in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, one of Trump’s promises was to build a ”wall” along the Mexican border with the intention to get the prototypes produced by eight competing companies on behalf of the federal government at a cost of 3.3 million dollars. This would serve as a first sign of fulfillment of this promise. Some months later, a request was submitted to the White House website ”We the People”, by artist Christoph Büchel who suggested that the eight prototypes should be protected from demolition and preserved. Büchel referred to an ancient law from 1908 and claimed that the eight segments could be regarded as ”a great land art exhibition” of significant cultural value. In January 2018, the New York Times jumps on the train and comments on the project in the article ”Is Donald Trump a Concept Artist?” Büchel’s idea of the Trump wall as land art has been perceived by some as controversial. 450 curators, artists and academics have signed an open letter condemning the project calling it an ironic act, rather than an attempt to critically dismantle oppressive structures that undermine the lives of vulnerable people.

The Berlin Wall had during its short lifetime managed to acquire a reputation as one of the world’s most symbolic buildings. The depiction of the conflict between the East and the West had been prominent in the press, in literature, in the visual arts, in music, in conversations so many times that only the name of the wall was enough to evoke a fountain of ominous associations. Some of the associations were about totalitarian state abuse and lack of democracy. Some were about the politically and legally perverse and unethical act of dividing a country and a population. Some dealt with the personal tragedies that occurred when families were split up and relatives went different ways. The term ”The Wall” has come to grow into a general metaphor for a culture-specific system, delimited, isolated ideology, by extension as a symbol of all sorts of feelings of being trapped, longing, social isolation and emotional cooling. The wall symbolized an ideology which separated east from west, but the symbolism of the wall grew to be so strong that it has, in the long run, been used as a symbol of alienation and lovelessness in general terms, a ”separation” between people on a more interpersonal level, not least in popular culture. 

Without even having set foot in the city, Lou Reed produced the music album Berlin in 1973 about a couple of addicts in the city. Four years later David Bowie sang in the pompously bombastic Heroes about a couple embracing each other in the shadow of the wall. The Sex Pistols’ single Holidays in the Sun released in 1977 is a portrayal of a visit to the wall the same year. ”I want to see some history” the band’s singer, John Lydon, sings, describing how he stares at the wall, and that the wall keeps staring back. But Lydon’s paranoia and claustrophobia were equally concerned with the violence and killings in West Germany as well as the trench warfare between the East and the West. Since the beginning of the 1970s, a bunch of young West German revolutionaries who called themselves Rote Armee Fraktion murdered dozens of people, including a high-ranking prosecutor, a bank manager, and a chairman of a large union. In the spiral of violence that developed between the West German police and the wanted persons, the country began to resemble a police state. Like many other songs about the Berlin Wall, Holidays in the Sun uses the wall as, a symbol of alienation and estrangement, but Lydon’s instinctive movement to escape this paranoia is to ”go under the wall”. As if there was a tunnel under the wall, or as if the border problem were a psychosocial problem that could be worked out in the subconscious. The popular cultural story of the Berlin Wall had evolved into a goth-inspired cliché of a divided, anxious, ”depraved” post-Nazi town with a fetish wall that was a tourist attraction, and the Sex Pistols’ song is a powerful coming-to-terms with such a new constellation, just as the punk movement was a criticism of the popular music industry in general.

Graffiti artists, scribblers, Berlin artists created a ”Berlin wall style” as a form of resistance to repression and boundaries. The style consisted of two ingredients: first, the repressive, separating part that materialized through the concrete slab itself (high ”art” in form of minimalism). Secondly the graffiti itself, brought about by the activist, (”low” art in the form of street art), and which was only painted on the side of the wall that faced towards the west. Based on an art-historic and artistic tradition, it is not surprising that Christoph Büchel wanted to incorporate the eight wall segments that are located at the border between the United States and Mexico in an artistic context. It seems that walls, painted and repainted, erected or demolished are always predestined to be incorporated into an artistic tradition. Sometimes bit by bit. Sometimes in all its long glory. In the film The Man Who Stole Banksy, which premiered in the autumn of 2018, the story of the taxi driver who sawed one of the graffiti artist Banksy’s paintings out of the wall between Israel and Palestine and sold it to an art collector is told. Already in 1964 Joseph Beuys presented a theory that the Berlin Wall was and should be raised five centimeters along its entire length, for proportional reasons. The only way to go, said Beuys, was to ”laugh at the wall, destroy it […] to overcome it that is what it is all about”.2 That statement too, caused at its time, disgust and protests.

The traditional wall is a guard, delimiter that excludes and prevents. It can be carelessly built or solid. It can be illegal or sanctioned. It can be permanent or temporary. But the Berlin Wall example has also taught us that walls (and other boundaries) are kits, organisms, temporary constructs that are moved to new places, and are transformed into constantly new symbol-bearing objects with new complex meanings. The horizontal and non-hierarchical relationship between the parts of the wall is reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s concept of the rhizome: ”It is a liberation from the arborescent models using tree-pillars, branch-beams, and leaf-vaults […] the iron is inserted into a rhythm, and more so: it forms a complex rhythmic person on the sea-bearing surfaces where the ”stems” have different sections and variable intervals depending on the intensity and direction of the force trapped and (armature and not the structure).”3 The autonomous conversation that arises on the back of the walls, in this way becomes a comment on the museum and art world’s boundary against what is outside. On the one hand, there is a forced, mutual consensus (walls can be painted on both sides). On the other hand, there appears a friction (poor taste and unpleasant surprises). On the one hand the reaction is an improvised, do-it-yourself aesthetics. On the other hand, curators and institutions react. The Berlin Wall may have been pulled down, but the symbolic value, between the outside and the inside, between good and evil, between good and bad, this absolute wall is ongoing and “Iron Curtain” shall be its name. 

The wall between East and West Berlin had a lifetime of 28 years. Today it has been gone for a longer time than it existed. The East German engineers who constructed the Berlin wall had no idea that the wall would enjoy a longer life as a chopped, picked apart, kidnapped concrete copy than a boundary between two superpowers. As the individual concrete slabs were lifted up in the air, removed from the border wall and exported, the Berlin wall was increasingly transformed into a ruin: on some stretches where the woodpeckers had worked intensively, there was only a skeleton, the reinforcement left by concrete. The macabre revelation was just too symbolic. The drilled holes in the wall resembled the windows in a prison where the parallel reinforcing bars represented prison window grids. In March 1991, a portable ”crushing plant” was placed at the wall area. The concrete slabs were destroyed in several steps, the reinforcement pulled out using a magnet. The show was open to everyone to witness, and Berliners flocked to see how the wall was broken down (much like when audiences were allowed to attend public executions). In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the process of crushing a concrete slab was described accurately: ”It takes 22 seconds for modern technology to defeat Walter Ulbrichts will”. When the slabs were crushed, the gravel was spread out onto German roads, by that time East Germany had been part of the Federal Republic for a year and Germany was resurrected. Today, there are more than 200 concrete slabs from the Berlin wall “erected” at various locations around the world. Many of them are painted, and painted on both sides, and now serve as ideologically confused ”peace symbols” rather than authentic parts of a wall that was once a boundary, a contradiction, a symbol of all sorts of feelings of grief, horror, alienation, life-long suffering and deadly violence. In Berlin, one still paints on walls today. In the Mauerpark there is a three hundred meter long wall where the wall is scratched, painted and sprayed with uninterrupted enthusiasm – on both sides. An even longer concrete wall called ”East Side Gallery” is also painted on on both sides. In the gift shops in Berlin, graffiti-painted, wrapped pieces of the Berlin Wall are still being sold for eleven euros. How many of those have original painting on them? Nobody knows.

The Berlin Wall falls / Jan och Bob Bovin, 1990.

1. Diers, Michael. “Die Mauer. Notizen zur Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte eines deutschen Symbol(l)Werks“. Kritische Berichte. vol. 20, no.3, 1992, 58-74.

2. Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, Karin Thomas: Joseph Beuys, Leben und Werk, Köln, 1981, sid. 14, Hainer Stechelhaus: Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf, 1987. 

3. Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari,Tusen platåer, [översättning: Gunnar Holmbäck, Sven-Olov Wallenstein], Hägersten : Tankekraft, 2015, sid. 489.