The Wall Museum + the Berliner Unterwelten Tour

by Margalit Goldberg

Photo Credit: Margalit Goldberg

I think I romanticize the Cold War too much. Or maybe the right word is not “romanticize,” but the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. and podcasts about ridiculous CIA covert operations have led me to believe the Cold War was mostly just for show—a ridiculous period when tremendous amounts of money and manpower were put into ideas and tactics that, thankfully, never came to fruition. However, the stories I’m forgetting are the ones of bloody proxy wars, such as in Vietnam, and lives that were upended by the construction of the Berlin Wall. Not to mention the fear of total annihilation from an atom bomb that gripped the general population. I need to readjust my perspective and remember the stories of how everyday citizens were affected, not just secret agents or diplomats, and I sought to do that during our session on Thursday.

We began our day by going to The Wall Museum, which is connected to the East Side Gallery. A chaotic blur of multimedia led us through a series of rooms providing a mix of personal narrative and overviews of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. After World War II (WWII), Germany was divided and occupied by each of the victors. The West was divided into three parts occupied by France, Britain, and the United States, and the East was occupied by the Soviet Union. However, Berlin—situated squarely in the East of Germany—created an issue. So, it was decided that, like the whole of Germany, Berlin would be split into East and West. In 1946, the Cold War began, but it wasn’t until 1961 that tensions had escalated enough for the Berlin Wall to be built. The German Democratic Republic or GDR (East Germany) had lost a significant amount of its population from emigration to the West and wanted to prevent additional losses. Nikita Khrushchev advised East Germany to inhibit access between the two sides of the city and on August 12, 1961, Walter Ulbricht, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, enabled the beginning of construction of the Berlin Wall. The wall was not only a physical barrier between East and West but a symbolic “Iron Curtain” representing the ideological split between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Whenever a wall is built or a border is created, people will cross it by any means necessary. People jumped out of apartment windows, stole trains to transport citizens, dug perilous tunnels, and swam across canals. Yet, the insidious nature of the Berlin Wall was that each time it was breached, the GDR would figure out how it happened and then close that loophole. Each time someone crossed through to the West, they inadvertently made it harder for the next person who attempted.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Between 1961 and 1989, 138 people died attempting to cross the Wall. What shocked me the most were the deaths that occurred between the Osthafen docklands and Oberbaum|Schilling Bridge over the Spree River. There were 18 fatalities in that border zone, eleven of them Eastern refugees. The other seven were West Berliners who fell into the river and drowned. They were unable to be helped by West Berlin police or fire service because the Spree was Eastern territory. By the time GDR services were contacted, it was often too late, and the victim had drowned. Eventually, an agreement between the East and West was made for accidents and emergencies along the river. As I read this information, placed on a relatively inconspicuous placard on the balcony overlooking the Spree, I was saliently reminded of all the victims of governments that think impermeable and protected borders are an effective solution—all of those who are hurt by borders without even trying to cross them.

The Wall Museum, not surprisingly, solely presented a Western German perspective of the events that led to the construction and then eventual deconstruction of the Wall. I wish the museum had focused on what daily life was like on either side of the Wall, but instead, it limited the personal narratives to stories of escape from Eastern Germany. How did families that were split stay in contact? What did dissidence look like in Eastern Germany under Communist rule? This also makes me wonder if former East Germans feel as if the narrative of the lives they lived is inaccurate or doesn’t provide the complexities they wish it did.

Later that evening, I ended up seeing a German comedy with a group of study abroad students from the college my sister attends. The film, Stasi Komodie (A Stasi Comedy), was directed by Leander Haußmann and followed the life of a young boy living in East Berlin who is recruited to be a Stasi agent and spy on a counterculture movement in Prenzlauer Berg. He ends up becoming an underground poet and living a double life. The movie poked fun at the ridiculousness of many Stasi covert missions, but also lent complexity to the lives of East Berliners, especially those involved in dissident movements. The film also included quite a bit of ostalgie, nostalgia for specific aspects of life in East Germany. The movie used a motif of the specific cheery-looking crosswalk man that was specific to East Germany but remained after reunification upon request of the people. This was an interesting look into how life in East Berlin is being portrayed with humor thirty years after reunification.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Union and was a big proponent of democratic reforms and Glasnost, permitting greater openness and discussion of political and social issues. By 1989, the Cold War was beginning to thaw and many countries in the Eastern Bloc were on the verge of revolutions. On November 9, the Berlin Communist Party announced at midnight it would allow people to freely cross the border. The Wall had fallen. As the museum recounted the joyous events and celebrations that subsequently occurred, I found myself feeling nostalgic for an event I wasn’t even alive for. How cool would it have been to take a hammer to the wall or listen to Pink Floyd perform as the hope of reunification intoxicated citizens?

Yet, I find myself also wondering if East Berliners were aware that their political and social structure was going to be completely upended once again. The museum painted the narrative that the wall fell, and everything was reunified and perfect. From a historical perspective, we can see that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the beginning of the end of many state supports in East Germany. In “Women and East Germany Today” by louise k. davidson, I was delighted to read about all the reproductive freedom and support for having children that women had in the GDR: “Women have long enjoyed the freedom to make informed decisions about birth control without worrying about its affordability of availability.” Still, I can only imagine the experiences of a difficult reunification for further marginalized people, stories not often told in the “mainstream.” In “Feminism and Post-Communism,” Nanette Funk explains that “in virtually all post-communist countries there is a tendency towards a repositioning of women away from the workplace and into the family,” citing high unemployment rates for women in the former GDR and the Soviet Union and decreased access to abortion and family planning resources.

Both davidson and Funk take a transnational approach to what feminist work should focus on in reunified Germany. They argue that not only did former GDR women have less support for reproductive labor after reunification, but that they also had different understandings of feminism and ideas about the goals of a women’s movement. This has led me to have a deeper understanding of the social and cultural implications of the division of Germany. I think seeing transnational thinking within a single country can help us to understand and extrapolate that different groups have radically different experiences that lead to their understanding of feminism. If people are to work across those divides, they must be willing to understand the other’s background.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The second part of our session was the “East-West Conflict in the Underground” tour with Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworlds). As we made our way down two flights of stairs into a bunker in West Berlin, I was afraid our tour would be led by some doomsday prepper dead-set on convincing us of the importance of bunker preparation. On the contrary, we had a wonderful guide, Elliot, who was not only extremely knowledgeable about the history but provided a critical perspective on the Cold War and the absurdity of the arms race and mutually assured destruction.

We began by touring a bunker that had been updated in the 80s to be a fallout shelter but had been used over 300 times as a bomb shelter during WWII. Despite believing Berlin wouldn’t have been bombed in the Cold War due to both sides of the conflict having citizens in the area, I was assured by Elliot that the city would have been sacrificed and that there were plans that could have been used to stage an attack if necessary. If bombed, the city of 3 million only had 28,000 spots in bunkers. As the guide described how ill-prepared the bunker was to handle the fallout and human survival, it became clearer to me that an attempt to survive an atomic bomb is futile, to say the least. As we sat under a direct replica of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that was used on Hiroshima, I struggled to comprehend how a 10 x 2.5 ft. piece of metal could generate 16,000 tons of TNT power and murder 139,000 innocent people. And how could someone decide it was necessary to hold that much power let alone detonate it? This was a stark reminder of how close the world once was to annihilation and that we still have this amount of power, more even.

Elliot ended the tour by telling us he believed good diplomacy ended the Cold War and prevented the detonation of atomic bombs. He gave the example of Stanislav Petrov, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, who judged a U.S. missile launch warning as a false alarm and made the decision not to launch a retaliation, thus preventing nuclear war. Another example was the Soviet border soldiers who were ordered to fire one warning shot and then to shoot to kill. Yet, many soldiers refused to shoot to kill, disobeying orders and therefore saving lives. I can’t believe I’m saying this but, this tour gave me some semblance of hope, hearing stories of those who resisted violence and knowing I’ve never in my life genuinely had to think about using a bunker. Maybe our world is moving in the right direction.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The Cold War was fundamentally an ideological conflict between capitalism and communism that affected almost every part of the world. The demarcation of Germany and subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall created division in an already fractured country. In 1945, two nations were created in a country that had not long ago rallied for an idea of nationhood far from what the East and West provided. Divides were not healed before more divides were created. Reunification came at last in 1990, but the future also contained struggles for women, racial minorities, and the unemployed that we must not forget. As Ika Hügel-Marshall poignantly writes in “Crossing Borders, Overcoming Boundaries,” “As we can see in Berlin, the society around me has a long way to go before it recognizes that crossing borders does not mean overcoming boundaries, if experience is limited to national borders.”

Margalit Goldberg is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from Denver, Colorado. She is interested in pursuing History-Philosophy and Feminist and Gender Studies although she has still not declared a major. Described by a friend as “a messy bookcase of a person”, she loves to learn and explore ways of knowing. She is especially excited to be in Berlin connecting the stories of marginalized people to the complex history of the city. When she isn’t reading for class or deep in a Wikipedia rabbit hole, you can find Margalit climbing and setting at the campus gym, having dinner parties with friends, and engaging in non-violent activism with the Bijou Community in Colorado Springs.

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