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A Battle to Preserve the Berlin Wall as Cold War Landmark

April 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In Germany, a fight is on about protecting what remains of a Cold War landmark: the Berlin Wall. For 28 years, the wall separated East and West Germany as a way of keeping East Germans from fleeing. Independent producers Carl Nasman and Anne-Sophie Brandlin report on the efforts to preserve an infamous icon.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we return to the legacy of the Cold War and a battle to preserve one of its icons, the Berlin Wall.

Our story comes from independent producers Carl Nasman and Anne-Sophie Brandlin and is reported by Nasman.

CARL NASMAN: Thousands of people at the Berlin Wall in Germany. But this time, instead of tearing down the wall, the citizens of Berlin are here to protect what remains of it.

MAN: It was here for 28 years, and everybody hated it. But, nowadays, people love it.

MAN: I was here when the wall came down. And this is the last of it still standing. And they want to tear this down? I’m shocked.

CARL NASMAN: And there isn’t much wall left.

In just over two decades, nearly 80 percent was shredded and paved into roadways. Other bits were sold as gifts or souvenirs. Now there are only a few physical reminders of where the city was split in two.

This is the East Side Gallery, a mile-long stretch of political murals painted just after the fall of the wall. And it’s the longest piece of the Berlin Wall still standing. Now developers want to build a 14-story apartment building right here. The plans include removing several sections of the wall.

The battle between developers and preservationists came to a head in March when construction cranes opened up two gaps in the wall.

MAN: People want to live here in a house. It’s the same like, well, you are living in Auschwitz.

CARL NASMAN: The new apartments would be built in what was known as no man’s land, the empty space between the wall and the river. Nearly 100 people were killed in areas like this one while fleeing from East to West, some of them here.

THIERRY NOIR, Artist: Behind the wall, 10 persons have been killed who want to live on the cemetery.

CARL NASMAN: Thierry Noir moved from France to West Berlin in the early 1980s. He was one of the first artists to start painting the wall.

THIERRY NOIR: I used to live so close to the wall. I looked every day at the wall. And it was very depressing. You can put tons and tons colors on the wall. It will never be beautiful because it is a death machine.

CARL NASMAN: The proposed apartments would be built just behind his paintings.

THIERRY NOIR: Yes. It really is. I can’t understand how can you do something like that? It’s loud. It’s dirty. This is the wall. I mean, it’s not a tourist attraction. It was, it’s a memorial.

CARL NASMAN: The construction is part of a larger plan to develop the riverfront, where clubs, bars, and old warehouses occupy potentially high-rent space.

Dr. Richard Meng, a spokesperson for the Berlin Senate, says the city needs investment.

DR. RICHARD MENG, Berlin Senate Spokesperson: The city has a lot of unemployment. It’s because there’s no industry here anymore. Berlin has former death strips everywhere. And, of course, new things are being built there as well. Me personally, I wouldn’t build houses at this spot. And I wouldn’t let it happen either. But our predecessors allowed this to happen 10 years ago. And now this is the consequence.

CARL NASMAN: Attitudes toward the wall have shifted in the last two decades. Now many Germans want to preserve it, so the mistakes of the past won’t be repeated.

SASCHA DISSELKAMP, Sage Club: If you just wipe it away, it never happened. It happened. It can happen. Political systems can change and do this to people.

CARL NASMAN: Sascha Disselkamp and Robert Muschinski are Berlin club owners and organizers of the wall protest. They worry that Berlin’s history is now disappearing in a rush of development.

SASCHA DISSELKAMP: Further generations will not get the chance to have a really feeling of how it was in the GDR, leaving in East Berlin, not being able to travel, not being able to get on the other side of the wall. It started somewhere in the ’90s that Berlin authorities thought we don’t need this wall anymore. This is also why Checkpoint Charlie now looks like Disneyland.

It’s not original. There’s nothing original there anymore at Checkpoint Charlie, which is really a pity, because thousands of people come there every day and want to see how this was in the middle of a city, a border. But you can’t see it anymore.

CARL NASMAN: In fact, a few remaining parts of the wall are still preserved in some unlikely places.

Hans Martin Fleischer witnessed the fall of the GDR. It was the happiest day of his life. He purchased the first four pieces ever removed from the wall and now keeps them in his warehouse two hours north of Berlin.

HANS MARTIN FLEISCHER, Collector/Artist: At the very beginning, I had a very commercial idea. So, I simply wanted to buy these pieces and sell them as soon as possible. Over the years, I saw them. OK, there’s a lot of history in it. So, it was unbelievable. You see world history.

It’s — I still love the story, because this is the most beautiful thing that Germany has ever created — so, to prove that this was not a dream. So, to me, touching this concrete things, it’s still, I know, OK, it’s real.

CARL NASMAN: He now builds lightweight models of the wall and brings them to places where the wall once stood.

HANS MARTIN FLEISCHER: When I have the half-size copy, I — some of that in 2001. Seriously, there were some people who think, OK, this is original Berlin Wall, that size, no joke. They have no idea at all what this thing was.

CARL NASMAN: One person who remembers very well the wall and the division is Marianne Wachtmann.

MARIANNE WACHTMANN, Resident of Berlin: These houses, here they belonged to the East. And over there, it was the West.

CARL NASMAN: Wachtmann grew up in the East and would cross the Oberbaum Bridge to visit her grandparents in the West. But when the wall was built, it bisected the bridge and the city, cutting her off from her family.

MARIANNE WACHTMANN: Right afterwards, my grandfather died, and then my grandmother had a stroke and couldn’t take care of herself anymore. She didn’t have anyone but me. And I could not go over the border. It was horrible for me. And then she died after a couple of years.

CARL NASMAN: For the older generation, the wall is mainly a symbol of frustration.

MARIANNE WACHTMANN: This height here, the isolation and the horror of it, it makes you want to do this sometimes. The wall should absolutely not stay.

But you should keep a little piece as a memory. That’s the right thing to do. So you should leave the East Side Gallery as a memorial, but apart from that, we do not want to know, see or hear anything about this wall anymore.

CARL NASMAN: But for most Berliners, including the younger generation, the wall has become a symbol for freedom.

And the fight to keep the wall continues in a distinctly Berlin way. For now, the developer and the city are searching for a way to preserve as much of the gallery as possible, but construction of the apartment building will continue.

RICHARD MENG: You have to keep memorial sites alive. You have to get people to pass on experiences, especially onto children. But there also has to be something new.

CARL NASMAN: With such a long history, it’s easy to forget that Berlin has only been the capital of reunified Germany for just over 20 years. It’s still searching for its identity, finding the right mix of new and old.