The wall fragment.

Migrating Heritage : the Exile of the Berlin Wall.


Berlin_Wall_image (2)While Europe is dealing with augmented, diversified and accelerated migration phenomena – and with the resulting new forms of exile and diaspora – a word seems to recurrently resound in many discourses commenting on the current situation: walls.

When it circulates in regard to issues of enclosure and segregation, especially in the European context this word immediately evokes a specific wall, related to a precise place and memory, the Berlin Wall. For the present generations this Wall has a clear (and yet multifaceted) role in the collective imagery; it operates as a universal symbol reminding of the Cold War, the extreme consequences of the frictions between different political views, and the absurdity of the situation of a divided Europe.

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), in order to symbolically as well as physically separate and isolate West Berlin from surrounding East Berlin and East Germany. The Eastern Bloc claimed that the Wall was erected as an “antifascist bulwark”, intended to keep Western “fascists” from entering East Germany and undermining the construction of a socialist state. In practice, it served to prevent the massive emigration that marked East Germany during the post-World War II period.

Since 1949, the border from East Berlin into West Berlin had been used by 2.5 million disaffected East Germans as the main route to circumvent Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions, and to move to West Germany and other Western European countries. The erection of the Wall prevented such emigration – and, for certain families, it also caused exile, as those who found themselves trapped on the wrong side where obliged to move in a different world, and to leave friends, family, jobs, homes and livelihoods (1).

The Wall became an insurmountable boundary, a more than 140 kilometres long barrier which completely encircled all of West Berlin. It was constructed from 45,000 separate sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6 metres high and 1.2 metres wide. The wall was reinforced by mesh fencing, signal fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, over 116 watchtowers and 20 bunkers.

The Berlin Wall stood until 9th November 1989, when the head of the East German Communist Party announced that citizens of the GDR could cross the border whenever they pleased and allowed guards to open the checkpoints.

The fall of the Wall began that night – when ecstatic crowds swarmed the barrier, some celebrating and crossing freely into West Berlin, while others (nicknamed Mauerspechte, this is, “wall peckers”) using hammers and picks to chip away parts of the wall itself and seizing them as souvenirs – but it continued over the following years. The official dismantlement of the Wall started on 13th June 1990, when German military started to remove all the remaining segments, and it was completed in 1992.

What happened after the structure (and meaning) of the Wall was opened and shattered into pieces is a captivating phenomenon. It can help us reflect on the understanding of walls and barriers, as well as on the development of new forms of memory – as it may be interpreted as a milestone in the growth of what has been defined as the “objectification” or “materialization” of memory, this is, the consolidation of a new approach to the interplay between tangible and intangible forms of memory, and to the use of the material traces of memory, turning simple, non-valuable, ordinary objects into heritage because of their belonging to a specific place or event.

Beyond the significant development of a complex memory landscape in Berlin (2) – where several material (e.g. monuments, museums, etc.) and procedural (e.g. exhibitions, rites, etc.) forms of commemoration have been implemented to transform the physical and symbolical vestiges into shared memories, by experimenting with new and heterogeneous forms of memorials (3) and infinitely extending in time the limited temporal range of personal and generational memories (4) – it is also interesting to observe another phenomenon that is often neglected, which concerns the parts of the building that were removed.

On the night of 9th November 1989 the Wall started to be broken into smaller or larger pieces, which quickly began to circulate. Indeed the Wall was not really destroyed: its structure was gradually removed from its position, and necessarily moved to other places by acquiring new forms, functions and significance.

This process developed on an official as well as on an unofficial level. On the one hand, the small fragments that the “wall peckers” had seized started to travel – and, by way of a market that has continued well into the present day, now they can be found in several private spaces (e.g. houses, offices, etc.) in Europe and beyond (5). On the other hand, several pieces became the object of economical negotiations between private or public subjects and the German government, which immediately started to consider the possibility to find ways to market the Wall and, through the years, has sent a number of segments around the globe.

A quarter century after its removal, more than 120 sections of the Wall have found new homes all over the world (6). On the internet it is possible to view several lists reporting this migration, and mapping the places where all the single pieces of the concrete barrier now stand.

They are distributed in 40 different countries around Europe, Asia and the Americas; one is also located in Cape Town, South Africa. Several segments are situated outdoor; in some cases they are exhibited in significant places – such as, for example, in the areas around monuments or memorials, or outside the EU Parliament in Brussels – but they are also in public parks, streets and squares. Some other segments are on display in a variety of private or public buildings, ranging from galleries, museums, libraries and foundations, to embassies, offices, publishing houses and malls.

The segments of the Wall are rarely encased in a display case, and rather are usually situated as stand-alone elements in an open space (and thus they can be freely observed and touched). Most of them can be seen in their original form – showing the « West » side painted with colorful graffiti and the « East » side colored in plain white – but some have also been written (e.g. with special inscriptions or words from Psalms) or re-painted by artists. In some cases they are paired with other artworks complementing the display.

The ways the Wall’s segments are exhibited changes, as well as how they are used to convey messages and meanings.

Indeed these elements are not simply ruins or relics: when the Wall lost its integrity and its pieces were displaced, each segment turned into a “sedimentation basin of controversial memories” (7).

On the one hand, while the physical entrenchment was broken, each single piece became an eloquent object imbued with all the meanings, values and stories associated to the entire Wall.

Although they are displaced – and no matter how ubiquitous the remains of the Wall are around the world – these objects speak out loud about their historical identity. The reference of the single fragments to a specific structure and to their original context clearly persists, in their physical manifestation (as they display a recognizable section) and in the content they convey: they operate as catalysts of memory, which have the ability to transport people to a different time and place, and connect them to the past. In this regard, each segment can be described as a “lieu de mémoire” – which has been defined by Pierre Nora (8) as an element (a site, an object, an event, etc.) where “space and time meet memory”, this is, where the collective memory is prompted through a shared symbol. Although in a displaced “milieu”, wherever they are these artifacts are able to crystallize a broken memory and to fix it in space and time.

On the other hand, the stratification of meanings embedded in the segments displayed around the globe is not limited to the memories specifically related to the Wall itself: the remembrance of what happened in Berlin is often intertwined with the cross-reference to more or less similar stories, or with the celebration of universal ideals and values. In this regard, the association with other meanings is one constant theme, but the metaphorical use of the Wall’s fragments varies in different contexts – remembering the victims of specific or generic wars and dictatorships, soliciting a reflection on civil rights, freedom or global peace, etc. – and the variations in this symbolism sometimes remain unclear.

Whether it is used to trigger remembrance, admonishment or reflection, today the story behind the migration of the Berlin Wall’s segments remains relevant.

They remind us to question the nature and the destiny of “walls”, and inspire critical considerations in regards to the currently changing political agendas. At the same time, they highlight the necessity to confront us with the problems related to the conservation or transformation of some controversial relics from the XXth century, and in particular with the number of barriers and checkpoints that used to filter the national borders between the countries in the Schengen Area, which have fallen into disuse after the Agreement entered into force. When these places lost their original role and understanding, some have been renovated and reconverted to new uses, but most of them have become pending spaces, open to new possibilities but mostly missing a clear function and meaning (9). By remaining abandoned and out of service, on the one hand they are being ruined by vandals or due to the passing of time, but on the other they allow us to gaze into the past from the present. Because of the politic, economic, cartographic and cultural memories they hold, the dismissed walls and border crossing points represent a potential heritage which is asking for a clearer expression – which may find a way in the conversion of these obstacles generated by conflicts and separation into opportunities for exchanges and encounters (10).

Elena Montanari

Bibliographic References

(1) Frederick Taylor, The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 (New York: Harper-Collins, 2006).

(2) Marc Silberman, ed., The German Wall: Fallout in Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

(3) Elena Pirazzoli, A partire da ciò che resta. Forme memoriali dal 1945 alle macerie del Muro di Berlino (Reggio Emilia: Diabasis, 2010) and Michela Bassanelli, Oltre il memoriale. Le tracce, lo spazio, il ricordo (Milano: Mimesis, 2015).

(4) Aleida Assmann, “Four Formats of Memory: From Individual to Collective Constructions of the Past,” in Cultural Memory and Historical Consciousness in the German-speaking World since 1500, eds. Christian Emden and David R. Midgley (Bern: Peter Lang, 2004), 24.

(5) Mary Biekert and Betti Hunter, “The Wall for Sale,” ExBerliner 132 (2014), accessed 12 December 2015: http://www.exberliner.com/features/lifestyle/fall-of-the-berlin-wall-25-years-the-wall-for-sale

(6) Annas Kaminsky, ed., Where in the World is the Berlin Wall (Berlin: Story Verlag, 2014).

(7) Raul Calzoni, “Luoghi della memoria,” in Memoria e saperi. Percorsi Transdisciplinari, eds. Elena Agazzi and Vita Fortunati (Roma: Meltemi Editore, 2007), 530.

(8) Pierra Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26 (1989): 7-24.

(9) Marc Augé, Le temps en ruines (Parigi: Editions Galilée, 2003).

(10) Piero Zanini, Significati del confine. I limiti naturali, storici, mentali (Milano: Bruno Mondadori, 1997), XVI.