The Berlin Wall falls – and Continues to Fall

by Björn Larsson

It was in the late seventies. The ninth graders were going on a school trip. The Cold War was in full swing these years. Contrary to the teachers’ intention, we had voted that the tour would not go to Kufstein in Austria, as it did in the past ten years, but to Berlin. Since the end of the Second World War, the two great powers the United States and the Soviet Union had gradually increased their nuclear capabilities. The number of nuclear equipped robots was greater than any time before, and we were speculating, sometimes, where the first missiles would hit when the full-scale nuclear war broke out.

The Berlin Wall falls / Jan och Bob Bovin, 1990.

There were two ideologies, two
contrasting temperaments; and it was West Germany’s capital city, which was the
epicenter of this delayed explosion. Maybe that’s why the school trip went to
Berlin that year? We wanted to see the ”Wall”, that much was clear.
We wanted to see the famous wall between East Berlin and West Berlin, which
appeared in so many news stories. We wanted to experience the ”Iron
Curtain”, the very symbol of the global polarization that had divided the
whole world. In the East German propaganda, the wall was a defense facility
against the west and was called ”the anti-fascist protection
barrier”. In the West German propaganda, the wall was an anti-democratic,
repressive murder machine that kept people trapped in a dictatorship. There
were contrasts. There were differences. There were contradictions. There were
two different temperaments, two different ideologies, which made the situation
explosive and spectacular. Everything was overwhelming, scary and difficult to
understand. Perhaps the very sight of the wall could give a clarification, a
physical key to how the Cold War could be interpreted? 

The ritual
encounter had been going on for several years. And one day in May it was time.
We got on the bus in Ockelbo in northern Sweden in the morning, took the ferry
from Trelleborg in the evening and arrived early the next morning in Sassnitz.
We were dragged all day through East Germany and rolled late in the evening
into dark and lightless East Berlin, where barely a man could be seen on the
street. When the border police had checked our passports at Checkpoint Charlie,
we rolled on into West Berlin where the nightlife was in full swing. The
continental night darkness was illuminated by flashing neon signs which
advertised night clubs and discos. The contrast between deserted East Berlin
and enlightened, vibrant West Berlin was shocking and confirmed our
preconceived notions. In the East, it was dark, boring and poor. In the West,
one is amused in a depraved manner all night. Already, a tiny question began to
bother me. Is the wall there to separate those who have different ideologies,
different images of reality, different temperaments? Or is it the other way
around? Is it the wall, the border, which creates and reinforces these
different ideologies, these different reality images, these different

The next day
we went down to the wall, climbed onto one of the custom built observation
platforms and peeped into the fifty meter wide ”zone of death”. The
wall we saw was the fourth generation of the Berlin Wall. 

It was
constructed as late as 1975 and consisted of thousands of 120-centimeter-wide
and four-meter-high steel concrete slabs set beside each other to form a
cohesive, four-mile-long defensive system.1 Actually
there were two walls, one side faced the East German side and one faced the
West German side. Between them there were guard as steel dogs. Tank obstacles.
Sensors. On the East German side, far away, the houses closest to the border
had walled windows. At the wall on the West German side there were memorials
adorned with flowers and crosses which served as monuments to those killed
during an escape attempt. Thousands had tried. Hundreds had failed and were
shot dead. On each of the monuments there was a cross, a name, a year of birth
and one of death. Here and there on the wall there was also a single comment
painted with white color on the flat surface: well thought out sentiments
calling for reconciliation and change, ”Die Mauer muss weg” and similar
political messages. The mood at the wall was drab, a peculiar mixture of prison
and cemetery. Not a single person could be seen, except the East German guards
in the watchtowers. 

A few days
later we visited the Wall Museum, which was housed in a worn-out apartment in
the immediate vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie. The museum was one of the
simplest arranged museums I have ever visited, but there were many people crowded
in the small rooms (the wall was after all West Berlin’s most popular tourist
destination). The walls displayed cardboard sheets with photographs and
newspaper articles that told about the history of the wall, about the escape
attempts and of family tragedies, of political developments.

The signs
with the museum’s own texts were written with indignant rage over the absurd
situation. There were also cars and other vehicles with hidden spaces that had
been used to smuggle people into the West, such as a car that had a passenger
seat that was hollow and where the person could hide. Central to one of the
larger rooms was an escape car, which the driver drove at high speed through
the barrier at one of the border crossings. The wheels had come loose and stood
leaning against the sides of the car, the bumpers had loosened, and the car’s
headlights hung loosely on their cords. The windshield was replaced by a steel
plate with small holes, which I took for granted as being bullet holes, but as
I discovered many years later when I returned to the museum, they were sight
holes that the driver had drilled to be able to see. During the re-visit, I was
also able to observe that the wheels and bumpers had now been rearranged,
screwed in and moved closer to the car. The change was certainly not
intentional, but the result was that the car looked more cohesive in 2010 than
it had been in the 1970s.

I still do
not understand the connection between the car’s disassembled status and the
escape itself. The damage could have hardly been caused by the journey through
the border post. The car is mostly like a scrap car, but here a lifelong
interest in dismantling and deconstruction was awakened. When I saw the car
again, I got the sudden sensation of something broken that was in a healing
process. The idea was, of course, completely irrational, but I cannot get away
from the idea that the Wall Museum is a museum that, in its historical
analysis, sometimes yields to coincidences and improvisations, and that the
same thing applies to the symbolic values that have emerged around the
phenomenon of the Berlin Wall. Most photographs of the Berlin Wall you see in
the media today describe the ”fall” of the wall on the ninth of
November 1989. In the pictures you can see rushing West Berliners climbing up
the edge of the wall, cheering, stretching their arms in the air, knocking on
the wall with hammer and sledgehammers and chanting ”Die Mauer muss

The storming
of the wall was sudden and dramatic, but also the final phase of a process that
was going on throughout the eighties. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had taken over
as the Soviet Union leader and brought about a storm in the relationship
between the two power blocks: east and west. In East Germany, there had long
been dissatisfaction with the country’s lagging behind West Germany in terms of
prosperity and living standards, which led many East Germans to flee the
country. One of the few sources of income was to ”sell” dissidents
and emigrants to West Germany against payment in the western currency. In 1989,
massive protests were carried out in several cities in East Germany and the
situation eventually became unsustainable. At a chaotic press conference on
November 9, a politburo member Günter Schabowski read a directive from
Secretary-General Egon Krenz which signaled that border crossings would be
allowed for private persons. Still today, what was actually said, what was not
said, and what should have been said at this press conference, is disputed. But
the news went on air in the West German news programs, and spread quickly into
the neighboring country because most East Germans could watch West German TV.
In the evening, the East Berliners gathered at the border crossings. At twelve
o’clock at night, the first border crossing was opened, in the next few hours
more and more border crossings were opened, and now traffic between east and
west was in full swing.

There was
still time for the Soviet tanks to roll in and stop this movement, dismantle
the pipeline, install new puppets in the government and stabilize the
situation. As in Hungary in 1956. As in Prague in 1968. But yet none of this
happened. On the West German side, there was a people’s party down by the wall.
The East German concrete offered resistance, but the ”woodpeckers”
worked in peace and soon the wall began to give way. Pieces were knocked off.
The holes became larger and larger, and finally, some of the two and a half
tons of heavy concrete slabs began to twist and bend.

On November 11, East German
border troops removed eight of the concrete segments out of the fortification
so that a new, improvised border crossing opened. When the images of the
removed, freestanding concrete segments with scribbled slogans and murals
spread out in world media, the reactions were immediate. The clearly
politically-targeted messages painted on the wall in the seventies were
accompanied by, or were painted over with more mixed comments during the
eighties. Some of the paintings, tags and texts were
still political projects intended to question and mock those who took the
initiative to build the wall. Other features were of a more philosophical
nature or pure coincidence. Here are slogans like ”Set them free”,
”Smash normal politix, act up now!” and ”DDR= Concentration Camp
BRD=Dårhus”. Painted on the wall there were laconic comments as “Jenny was
here again” and ”Mauer go home” and ”Change your life”, and
all this formed a difficult to control all-art work with an internal logic that
meant that images and tags were constantly overwritten and deleted. The wall
had also been visited by more established artists. In connection with a gallery
exhibition in 1983, Jonathan Borofsky painted a running man as a contribution
to the exhibition Metropolis on Martin-Gropius-Bau, a gallery located just next
to the wall. In 1986, Keith Haring made a painting that covered hundreds of
meters of the wall at Waldemarstrasse in Kreuzberg, but as so much else, as the
eighties progressed, these works were painted over. 

”painting” the wall at this time was a failure, but the unusual
combination of minimalism and outsider credibility seemed to strike the right
note, it seemed to symbolize something unique. It was like the concrete
segments painted with graffiti of resistance were perceived as a representative
of the traumatic, wounding period in Europe’s history commonly known as the
Cold War and which now seemed to be over. Taken together, the concrete slabs
formed an impenetrable four-mile, monotonous and impenetrable wall, but when
the segments were placed freely, they resembled tombstones, monuments,
epitaphs, minimalist sculptures. It was as if Donald Judd had stepped onto the
stage and transformed the entire wall area into a sculpture park by declaring
the East German concrete slabs to be modular series constructions, with the
difference that these plates were scribbled with graffiti and mural paintings.
Business people from all over the world signaled their interest and wanted to
buy the wall. The East German government first responded with dismay to the
prospective customers. Should the ”anti-fascist protection barrier”
be sold to capitalists from the West? The symbolic meaning of such an action
could have a detrimental effect on the East German self-identity. But East
German trade minister Gerhard Beil soon realized that the dismantling of the
wall was a giant project and needed to be organized. The steel concrete slabs
in the wall weighed 250,000 tones, and if border crossings between the east and
west were now allowed, the wall no longer had any function.

Sales contracts
were signed. The West Berlin tradition of ’painting on/writing over’ the wall
was shipped off and placed in museums, embassies and companies in the whole
world. One slab was placed in the Vatican garden. One was placed in the
Argentine foreign ministry’s garden in Buenos Aires. One was placed at the EU
Parliament in Brussels. Many of the concrete slabs that were placed at
embassies and institutions had the original painting from the Berlin Wall left,
some of them even had site-specific paintings. The segment which was placed in
the Vatican garden has the original painting by Yadiga Asisi (on the initiative
of architect Bernhard Strecker) which represents St. Michael church on
Heinrich-Heine-Platz in the Mitte district. 

But many of
the slabs that were taken away were also painted with graffiti that did not
originate at all from the Berlin Wall. In the Wende museum in Los Angeles,
which has about ten segments of the Berlin Wall in its collection, there is “a
program to repaint the segments in a coordinated manner”. The goal is,
according to the museum, that the segments from the wall should not be treated
as “static memorials”, but as ”areas of reflection and
activity”. But the rules governing the artistic design of the segments
have been changed. One of the segments has recently been painted and now
carries a portrait depicting Nelson Mandela. Two others have been repainted
with portraits of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Much can be
said about the two American ex-presidents in terms of democracy and freedom,
but they don’t work well as representatives of the Berlin Wall’s improvised,
activist aesthetics. When the popular, creative activists’ heritage of West
Berlin is domesticated by the American ”we remember the cold war lobby”
and transformed into a recipe for rehabilitating political stances and when the
reaction to state-sponsored propaganda is replaced by another kind of
state-sponsored propaganda credibility suffers. In the Wende museum the slabs
are even painted on both sides, which indeed can be noted as another level in
the complicated revision of history that seems to be the fate of the Berlin
Wall. The wall’s function as a boundary meant that the flow across the border
was stopped and that the policing and oppression, were not the same on both
sides of the wall. Kilometer after kilometer of graffiti would have been
impossible to find in West Berlin in the eighties, but the Berlin Wall was not
in West Berlin. The defense facility with the two walls and the zone between
them was entirely located on the East German territory. It was the East German
workers who cleaned the walls and cleaned the zone between the walls (as West
Germans threw trash and garbage over the wall into the zone for fun). The only
part of the defense facility that the East Germans did not clean was the part
of the wall facing West Berlin. The West German authorities also did not take
responsibility for cleaning the wall. The prerequisite for the painting on the
Berlin wall was that it happened in a kind of no-man’s land on one side of the
wall, a place which under the circumstances was autonomous. The border’s logic
meant a duality. One side wanted to keep the other side away and the control,
frustration and human corrosion  which appeared as a result of that were
only visible on the side where control was less intense. When segments of the
Berlin wall are painted over and painted on both sides, the original
historicity is challenged: there is an erroneous picture that the repression
being the same on both sides. 

On June 16th 2015, Donald
Trump announced that he would run as candidate in the following US presidential
election year. In his speech, Trump focused on immigration issues and one of
his promises was that ”a wall” should be erected along the border
with Mexico to prevent ”illegal immigration”. In October 2017, eight
prototypes for a future wall were unveiled between Mexico and the United States
in San Diego near the border with Mexico. During the election campaign in the
run-up to the 2016 presidential election, one of Trump’s promises was to build
a ”wall” along the Mexican border with the intention to get the
prototypes produced by eight competing companies on behalf of the federal
government at a cost of 3.3 million dollars. This would serve as a first sign
of fulfillment of this promise. Some months later, a request was submitted to
the White House website ”We the People”, by artist Christoph Büchel
who suggested that the eight prototypes should be protected from demolition and
preserved. Büchel referred to an ancient law from 1908 and claimed that the
eight segments could be regarded as ”a great land art exhibition” of
significant cultural value. In January 2018, the New York Times jumps on
the train and comments on the project in the article ”Is Donald Trump a
Concept Artist?” Büchel’s idea of the Trump wall as land art has been
perceived by some as controversial. 450 curators, artists and academics have
signed an open letter condemning the project calling it an ironic act, rather
than an attempt to critically dismantle oppressive structures that undermine
the lives of vulnerable people.

The Berlin
Wall had during its short lifetime managed to acquire a reputation as one of
the world’s most symbolic buildings. The depiction of the conflict between the
East and the West had been prominent in the press, in literature, in the visual
arts, in music, in conversations so many times that only the name of the wall
was enough to evoke a fountain of ominous associations. Some of the
associations were about totalitarian state abuse and lack of democracy. Some
were about the politically and legally perverse and unethical act of dividing a
country and a population. Some dealt with the personal tragedies that occurred
when families were split up and relatives went different ways. The term
”The Wall” has come to grow into a general metaphor for a
culture-specific system, delimited, isolated ideology, by extension as a symbol
of all sorts of feelings of being trapped, longing, social isolation and
emotional cooling. The wall symbolized an ideology which separated east from
west, but the symbolism of the wall grew to be so strong that it has, in the
long run, been used as a symbol of alienation and lovelessness in general
terms, a ”separation” between people on a more interpersonal level,
not least in popular culture. 

Without even
having set foot in the city, Lou Reed produced the music album Berlin in
1973 about a couple of addicts in the city. Four years later David Bowie sang
in the pompously bombastic Heroes about a couple embracing each other in
the shadow of the wall. The Sex Pistols’ single Holidays in the Sun
released in 1977 is a portrayal of a visit to the wall the same year. ”I
want to see some history” the band’s singer, John Lydon, sings, describing
how he stares at the wall, and that the wall keeps staring back. But Lydon’s
paranoia and claustrophobia were equally concerned with the violence and
killings in West Germany as well as the trench warfare between the East and the
West. Since the beginning of the 1970s, a bunch of young West German
revolutionaries who called themselves Rote Armee Fraktion murdered
dozens of people, including a high-ranking prosecutor, a bank manager, and a
chairman of a large union. In the spiral of violence that developed between the
West German police and the wanted persons, the country began to resemble a
police state. Like many other songs about the Berlin Wall, Holidays in the
uses the wall as, a symbol of alienation and estrangement, but Lydon’s
instinctive movement to escape this paranoia is to ”go under the
wall”. As if there was a tunnel under the wall, or as if the border
problem were a psychosocial problem that could be worked out in the
subconscious. The popular cultural story of the Berlin Wall had evolved into a
goth-inspired cliché of a divided, anxious, ”depraved” post-Nazi town
with a fetish wall that was a tourist attraction, and the Sex Pistols’ song is
a powerful coming-to-terms with such a new constellation, just as the punk
movement was a criticism of the popular music industry in general.

artists, scribblers, Berlin artists created a ”Berlin wall style” as
a form of resistance to repression and boundaries. The style consisted of two
ingredients: first, the repressive, separating part that materialized through
the concrete slab itself (high ”art” in form of minimalism). Secondly
the graffiti itself, brought about by the activist, (”low” art in the
form of street art), and which was only painted on the side of the wall that
faced towards the west. Based on an art-historic and artistic tradition, it is
not surprising that Christoph Büchel wanted to incorporate the eight wall
segments that are located at the border between the United States and Mexico in
an artistic context. It seems that walls, painted and repainted, erected or
demolished are always predestined to be incorporated into an artistic
tradition. Sometimes bit by bit. Sometimes in all its long glory. In the film The
Man Who Stole Banksy
, which premiered in the autumn of 2018, the story of
the taxi driver who sawed one of the graffiti artist Banksy’s paintings out of
the wall between Israel and Palestine and sold it to an art collector is told.
Already in 1964 Joseph Beuys presented a theory that the Berlin Wall was and
should be raised five centimeters along its entire length, for proportional
reasons. The only way to go, said Beuys, was to ”laugh at the wall,
destroy it […] to overcome it that is what it is all about”.2 That
statement too, caused at its time, disgust and protests.

traditional wall is a guard, delimiter that excludes and prevents. It can be
carelessly built or solid. It can be illegal or sanctioned. It can be permanent
or temporary. But the Berlin Wall example has also taught us that walls (and
other boundaries) are kits, organisms, temporary constructs that are moved to
new places, and are transformed into constantly new symbol-bearing objects with
new complex meanings. The horizontal and non-hierarchical relationship between
the parts of the wall is reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s
concept of the rhizome: ”It is a liberation from the arborescent models
using tree-pillars, branch-beams, and leaf-vaults […] the iron is inserted
into a rhythm, and more so: it forms a complex rhythmic person on the
sea-bearing surfaces where the ”stems” have different sections and
variable intervals depending on the intensity and direction of the force
trapped and (armature and not the structure).”3 The
autonomous conversation that arises on the back of the walls, in this way
becomes a comment on the museum and art world’s boundary against what is
outside. On the one hand, there is a forced, mutual consensus (walls can be
painted on both sides). On the other hand, there appears a friction (poor taste
and unpleasant surprises). On the one hand the reaction is an improvised,
do-it-yourself aesthetics. On the other hand, curators and institutions react.
The Berlin Wall may have been pulled down, but the symbolic value, between the
outside and the inside, between good and evil, between good and bad, this
absolute wall is ongoing and “Iron Curtain” shall be its name. 

The wall between East and West Berlin had a lifetime
of 28 years. Today it has been gone for a longer time than it existed. The East
German engineers who constructed the Berlin wall had no idea that the wall
would enjoy a longer life as a chopped, picked apart, kidnapped concrete copy
than a boundary between two superpowers. As the individual concrete slabs were
lifted up in the air, removed from the border wall and exported, the Berlin wall
was increasingly transformed into a ruin: on some stretches where the
woodpeckers had worked intensively, there was only a skeleton, the
reinforcement left by concrete. The macabre
revelation was just too symbolic. The drilled holes in the wall resembled the windows in a prison where the
parallel reinforcing bars represented prison window grids. In March 1991, a
portable ”crushing plant” was placed at the wall area. The concrete slabs
were destroyed in several steps, the reinforcement pulled out using a magnet.
The show was open to everyone to witness, and Berliners flocked to see how the
wall was broken down (much like when audiences were allowed to attend public
executions). In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the process of
crushing a concrete slab was described accurately: ”It takes 22 seconds
for modern technology to defeat Walter Ulbrichts will”. When the slabs
were crushed, the gravel was spread out onto German roads, by that time East
Germany had been part of the Federal Republic for a year and Germany was
resurrected. Today, there are more than 200 concrete slabs from the Berlin wall
“erected” at various locations around the world. Many of them are painted, and
painted on both sides, and now serve as ideologically confused ”peace
symbols” rather than authentic parts of a wall that was once a boundary, a
contradiction, a symbol of all sorts of feelings of grief, horror, alienation,
life-long suffering and deadly violence. In Berlin, one still paints on walls
today. In the Mauerpark there is a three hundred meter long wall where the wall
is scratched, painted and sprayed with uninterrupted enthusiasm – on both
sides. An even longer concrete wall called ”East Side Gallery” is
also painted on on both sides. In the gift shops in Berlin, graffiti-painted,
wrapped pieces of the Berlin Wall are still being sold for eleven euros. How
many of those have original painting on them? Nobody knows.

The Berlin Wall falls / Jan och Bob Bovin, 1990.

1. Diers, Michael. “Die Mauer. Notizen zur Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte eines deutschen Symbol(l)Werks“. Kritische Berichte. vol. 20, no.3, 1992, 58-74.

2. Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, Karin Thomas: Joseph Beuys, Leben und Werk, Köln, 1981, sid. 14, Hainer Stechelhaus: Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf, 1987. 

3. Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari,Tusen platåer, [översättning: Gunnar Holmbäck, Sven-Olov Wallenstein], Hägersten : Tankekraft, 2015, sid. 489.