The Berlin Wall as a cultural heritage for Berliners

In order to gain an understanding of Berlin as a topos and the reasons behind the cultural and political division that is still occupying the collective memory of Berliners, it is vital to dig in the past and to research the history aspects that have lead to such a division. Brian Ladd in his 1957 work “The ghost of Berlin confronting German history in the urban landscape” did this exactly by looking at Old Berlin, Nazi Berlin, the Divided Berlin and at Berlin as a capital of New Germany.

In the heart of the different historical phases of Berlin lies the Berlin Wall which continues to be one of the city’s premier tourist attractions. Ladd explains how the wall used to have a special aura and used to be treated as holy relics that bespoke the deliverance from the Cold War. However, gradually the magical properties of the wall are translated into its market value. The Wall, symbol of the epic confrontation between capitalism and communism, became a capitalist commodity. As it stepped carefully into a market economy, East Germany’s brief post-Wall regime recognized that the Wall had become a commodity. It sought to assert its rights of ownership and to sell pieces of the Wall in order to raise badly needed funds for health care and historical preservation.

The Berlin Wall is now one of the city’s premier tourist attractions

The Berlin Wall is now one of the city’s premier tourist attractions

Child selling pieces of the Berlin Wall

Child selling pieces of the Berlin Wall

Here is a short history and the Wall as a means of a Barrier… “When East German border troops and construction workers sealed the border with West Berlin on August 13, 1961, they put an end to a peculiar episode in the history of the Cold War. During the 1950s, Berlin had been the one place in Germany where East and West truly met. Families and friends scattered across the two German states could rendezvous in Berlin. Berliners lived astride the Iron Curtain that divided the rest of Europe. Two currencies and two political systems coexisted awkwardly, with people and goods passing frequently, if not always smoothly, between them. On August 13, that changed abruptly. Sixty thousand people who lived on one side and worked on the other lost their jobs. After 1961 people and vehicles in Berlin circulated within one half of the city or the other. Neighbors who could no longer see one another grew apart” (Ladd, B. 1997: 12).

West Berlin in the eyes of Brian Ladd:

West Berliners, now walled off from their poor cousins in East Germany, began to share in the prosperity of West Germany’s postwar “economic miracle,” thanks in part to enormous subsidies from the Bonn government. West Berlin never became quite like West Germany, however: its subsidized economy, peculiar legal status, and frontier allure meant that artists, draft dodgers, and nonconformists (but also pensioners) were overrepresented, businessmen and factory workers underrepresented in its population. Nevertheless, the city displayed the neon signs, shop windows, new cars, and most of the other trappings of postwar Western prosperity.

East Berlin:

“East Berlin certainly looked different. Its gray buildings did not merely lack a coat of paint that their Western counterparts had; there were fewer new buildings, and fewer of the old ones were being renovated. Fewer cars, fewer shops, less advertising, and less bustle gave most Western visitors the impression of a dreary and lifeless place. The colors were more drab, the sounds were more muted-and the smells were different too. Two distinctive aromas pervaded the streets of East Berlin. One was the exhaust of the Trabant (or Trabbi), the tiny standard-issue East German car, whose two-stroke engine burned an acrid mixture of gasoline and oil. Trabbis were not as numerous as Volkswagens and Opels in the West, but many were about, despite a typical wait of ten years before a citizen could become the proud owner of one. The other familiar smell came from the burning of soft coal, East Germany’s only domestic source of energy and hence the main fuel both for industry and for home heating. It turned the winter sky brown in both Berlins, but its aroma was most pungent in the quiet residential streets of the East’s older neighborhoods, where (as in much of West Berlin) most apartments were still heated by coal-burning tile ovens” (1997: 13).

The Trabbis represented on the Wall

The Trabbis represented on the Wall

To understand the Wall, then, we must understand what it meant. “Symbols and monuments are invested with their meaning through human action, so we can best understand the Wall (and its physical and metaphoric demise) by looking at the way it has been treated” (Ladd, B. 1997: 10). Monuments are nothing if not selective aids to memory: they encourage us to remember some things and to forget others. The process of creating monuments, especially where it is openly contested, as in Berlin, shapes public memory and collective identity. In terms of the recent past and Berlin’s attitudes towards their heritage, Ladd says there is a deep uncertainty that makes Berlin such a contested landscape. He also goes on to say that “in Berlin, Germany’s wounds still lie open everywhere” (1997: 11). However, Ladd’s work is from 50 years ago which makes it outdated in the sense that in contemporary Berlin surely huge changes towards the cultural heritage and memory have happened. This is exactly one of the aspects of our research and the field trip to Berlin will be looking at Berliners’ attitudes towards their art, monuments and historical places which would oppose or support Ladd’s theories but either way it will tell much about the environment in the contemporary Berlin’s society.

The Berlin Wall now and then

The Berlin Wall now and then

Different perceptions of the Wall

Different perceptions of the Wall

Source: Ladd, B. (1997) “The ghost of Berlin confronting German history in the urban landscape”

Chicago: University of Chicago Press

(By Eva Spirova)


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