BERLIN — One quarter of a century after Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, a new generation of Berliners is taking to the streets to preserve it.
On Friday, several hundred protesters stopped workers from removing segments of the East Side Gallery, a 1.3-kilometer stretch of the wall decorated by artists. The demolition was part of a plan to build upscale condominiums between the wall and the Spree River, in the former border zone between East and West Berlin.
Within days, an online petition demanding that the city stop the development gathered more than 60,000 signatures, and politicians from the Christian Democratic Union to the Pirate Party voiced their support. On Sunday, 6,000 mostly young Berliners held a demonstration at the open-air gallery.
Berliners with little or no direct memory of the wall are demanding the preservation of the little that’s left of it. The passage of a generation has dulled the emotions the Cold War’s starkest symbol once evoked and given rise to a detached curiosity about the city’s turbulent 20th century history.
After the wall fell in 1989, Berliners couldn’t move fast enough to erase the traces of Germany’s division. But as the euphoria of reunification faded and a difficult transition set in, East Germans were accused of “ostalgie,” or nostalgia for the East, when, for example, they protested the razing of the Communist-era Parliament building to make way for a reconstruction of the Hohenzollerns’ royal palace.
Bits of the wall still stand only in a couple of locations — including the official Berlin Wall Memorial and the variegated East Side Gallery. Visitors are given few clues as to where the rest once stood.
At Sunday’s demonstration, I spoke with a couple in their 30s who had come with their three-year-old son. Beatrice Ryll, whose father was a political prisoner in East Germany, made it over to the West months before the Berlin Wall fell. Carlos Jennewein, whose roots are in western Germany, moved to Berlin a few months later.
“The wall connects us to each other,” Ryll said, bemoaning the construction project as evidence that “history is being pushed aside, and money is taking first place.”
Never mind that the developer, Maik Uwe Hinkel, had all the permits authorizing him to begin construction. Hinkel says that it was the local district that required him to make a gap in the East Side Gallery to create street access to a planned pedestrian bridge. But the protesters oppose a hole in the wall as much as they do the luxury condos.
“Even Berliners — who want to tell their children and grandchildren where they come from — miss the wall as a place to discover their own lives,” the journalist Robert Ide wrote last week. “Berlin needs more of the past to look at, touch, ponder.”
But almost all reminders of the Cold War have already lost their authenticity, Ide argued. Checkpoint Charlie has become an “East German Disneyland,” with actors in uniforms charging tourists to pose for photos and street vendors hawking Soviet military paraphernalia.
The East Side Gallery itself is a fake. It’s located in the former East Berlin and wasn’t painted over until after the Communist regime collapsed.