Germany remembers Berlin Wall and those who died trying to flee

Culture minister says remembering victims of wall part of state’s commemorative culture

Artist Stefan Roloff  has covered a 229m stretch of the Berlin Wall with still images of the  wall from video footage he took in 1984

Artist Stefan Roloff has covered a 229m stretch of the Berlin Wall with still images of the wall from video footage he took in 1984

 

It was early on a Sunday morning in August when, without warning, the Berlin Wall went up, dividing Berlin and the world for 28 years.

Yesterday, another Sunday in August, the German capital and its residents remembered the hated structure erected by East Germany on August 13th, 1961, to stop its citizens fleeing to the west.

At least 139 people lost their lives trying to flee until the wall was toppled in a joyful night in 1989.

“Remembering the victims of the wall, division and state repression is and remains an elementary part of our state commemorative culture,” said Monika Grütters, federal culture minister.

The longest surviving stretch of the structure, the so-called East Side Gallery, is today less death strip than tourist mile, painted with post-1989 murals.

The other side, along the River Spree, is now home to barge hotels and fast-food restaurants. In an adjacent souvenir shop, visitors with €2 to spare can take a picture holding an MPi 41, the East German machine-gun used to shoot people fleeing to West Berlin.

“I feel weird smiling, I don’t know what’s appropriate,” laughed an American tourist as his friend takes a snap.

Historical dignity

As politicians laid wreaths on Sunday and delivered their “never forget” speeches, artist Stefan Roloff has given the East Side Gallery back some historical dignity. He has covered a 229m stretch with still images of the Berlin Wall from video footage he took in 1984.

“It was a horrible death machine,” he said. “Electric fences, lights, German shepherds and armed guards, everything was enclosed in this strip between two walls.”

Alongside images – of guards in rain ponchos, patrol boats, watch towers, tank traps – he has included testimony explaining the arbitrariness of East German justice towards critical citizens.

One woman recalls being imprisoned for illegal west contact, based on a postcard from a friend in West Berlin. Another tells of her mother’s failed attempts to flee: first, pregnant with her, on a motor boat over the Baltic Sea, then by homemade hot-air balloon.

All received prison sentences, some were bought free by the West German government because East Germany needed hard western currency.

One prisoner bought free was Mario Röllig, in prison for trying to flee west. Working in a Berlin department store after the wall fell, he was one day confronted with his former interrogator.

When Mr Röllig asked for an apology, the man said: “How dare you. Have you not realised that you were justly in prison? According to East German law you were a criminal.”

Long hair

In a final story, one man, Alexander, recalls being arrested aged 13 because he had long hair. Over three days and 25 hours of interrogations, he faced various accusations, including “stealing women’s underwear for fetish purposes”.

“I didn’t even know what fetish meant,” he said.

Later he was sentenced to 14 months in prison for distributing leaflets calling for nuclear disarmament in east and west.

He was a forced labourer in a prison, making products for western firms. Refusal to work or failing to meet productions targets could see you put in solitary confinement, on bread and water, hands and feet bound.

One day at work a prison guard pointed to the cartons they were filling with furniture parts.

“Look how you have to slave away for the west,” laughed the guard, tapping the box printed with a logo: Ikea.