The Berlin Wall: Production, Preservation and Consumption of a 20th-Century Monument

By Baker, Frederick | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview

The Berlin Wall: Production, Preservation and Consumption of a 20th-Century Monument


Baker, Frederick, Antiquity


Books. HARTUNG, K. 1989. Der Fall der Mauer, Tageszeitung (6 November).

HILDEBRANDT, R. 1988a. The Wall speaks/Die Mauer Spricht. Berlin: Haus am Checkpoint Charlie.

1988b. It happened at the Wall. Berlin: Haus am Checkpoint Charlie.

1993. Die Deutsche Teilung: Todlichegrenzfalle und Schwerverletzte. Berlin: Haus am Checkpoint Charlie.

HILDEBRANDT, R. et. al. 1990. Grenzen durch Berlin und durch Deutschland. A new wall has joined the classics of history, the Great Wall of China and Hadrian's Wall. This story of the central monument of 20th-century European history is a remarkable case-study in the meaning of a single item of material culture, showing the richness of confused meaning that must also envelop the older walls of archaeological concern.

Though it was only built in 1961, the Berlin Wall is today an archaeological monument. Four years after its opening on 9 November 1989, less is left of the Berlin Wall than of Hadrian's Wall. To trace its former course through Germany's capital would now test the skills of many a field archaeologist. For archaeology, the study of material objects in a historical perspective, contemporary material objects, especially those of complex meaning and history like the Berlin Wall, are as valuable as the older border fortifications of China or of Northumberland.

The Wall is important for several reasons.

No single object better encapsulates the 20th-century European experience than the Berlin Wall. It was the central monument of the Cold War, 1945-89 in Europe, a conflict that had its roots in the European wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45. As the notorious part of the 'Iron Curtain', the petrified front-line of the Soviet empire from the Baltic to the Black Sea, it was also an emblem of the division of the late 20th-century world into two political spheres. The Wall's building was the symbol of the Cold War, its destruction a symbol of its end. The Berlin Wall exemplifies features common to many monuments which carry special weights of symbol or meaning; the memory that has been preserved suffers from partiality, not just in how little physically remains, but also in its representation to the public today.

This article approaches the Berlin Wall in two stages: first it sets out the nature and development of the Wall up to its fall in 1989; then it examines the way in which parts of the Wall were preserved to be consumed by the tourist industry, and the distorted view of the Wall it offers.

The Berlin Walls

There was no such thing as 'the' Berlin Wall, there were several Berlin walls.

This is true at many levels, in time and in space. The 'border security system for the national frontier west', as it was officially known, went through several phases ('generations') of construction. And 'The Wall' was a set of in-depth border fortifications that consisted of two parallel walls: an interior and an exterior one enclosed a 'death strip' and watch-towers. But even these walls were not walls: the internal wall was often constituted of old boarded-up buildings, as at the Bernauer Stra|Beta~e, or by the banks of canals or rivers. Only 37 km of the wall ran through areas of housing; 17 km ran through industrial areas, 30 km through woods, 24 km along waterways, and 55 km along rail embankments, fields and marshland (Ruhle & Holzwei|Beta~ig 1988: 145). So in some places the Wall was made of wire fences not concrete, or was a line through a lake or a bridge, like the infamous Glienicker bridge, where spies were swapped between East and West.

The Wall's complexity goes beyond bricks and mortar, for its meaning was very different according to whether you lived on its East side or on its West side. This difference is best illustrated by the two German words that translate as the English word 'wall', Mauer and Wand. While Mauer means wall in the sense of a barrier, Wand means wall in the sense of the 'face' of a wall. …

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