Germany's New Future Erases Cold-War Wall as Germans Rebuild Their Reunified Capital, Remains of the Berlin Wall Disappear Fast. Some Want Portions Kept

Article excerpt

Once, not long ago, it stalked through a forbidding strip of wasteland, a harsh and ugly symbol of a divided world. Now it is a fast-fading memory, its remnants few and far between. They stand - where they stand at all - as curious anachronisms.

Follow the path of the Berlin Wall through the city center, and you learn a lot about Germany's once and future capital from what you see. And even more from what you don't.

Their eyes fixed on Berlin's baptism next year as the capital of a reunified Germany, the city fathers have launched into a frenzy of construction. And it seems no accident that much of this activity has obliterated the past, altering the geography of entire districts in ways that do not merely eradicate the wall, which was knocked down in 1989, but make it unimaginable. This is not universally popular. At the Checkpoint Charlie museum, for example, where for 35 years Rainer Hildebrandt has run an exhibition about the wall at its most famous crossing point, the wholesale destruction is viewed very dimly. "Until 1989 we were fighting against the wall, and now we are having to fight to keep some of it" to keep memories alive, comments Hans Jurgen Dyck, one of Mr. Hildebrandt's aides wryly. In its day, the Berlin Wall was a fearsome object, running a total of 97 miles and not just dividing the west of the city from the east, but hemming in the whole of West Berlin, an enclave within Communist- held East Germany. Nor was it simply one wall. The 11-foot-high wall visible from the west hid a dead zone patrolled by dogs, a lower secondary wall, an antivehicle ditch, barbed wire, and electrified fences. Watchtowers and bunkers studded its length, and trip wires set off self- activating machine guns pre-targeted to cut down would-be escapees. The museum documents all this well. But step outside, look down Friedrichstrasse into the former East Berlin, and you are in a different world from the museum's grainy black-and-white photographs. Where squat border-guard offices once dotted the wasteland among tangles of barbed wire and tank traps, now bright concrete, steel- and glass-plated office blocks fill the view. "Halt! Construction in progress" reads an advertising billboard, which continues: "1961: Erection of the wall. 1994-1998: One of Europe's most attractive business centers under construction." If you turn left down Zimmerstrasse to follow the route that the wall used to take, and look closely at the buildings on the north side of the street in the old "Soviet sector," you can still see the iron pegs driven into the wall that were used to help seal the windows. For in many places in the city, the front walls of apartment blocks were simply transformed into "the wall" itself. And then, almost hidden behind a row of young trees, you come across an intact stretch of the wall. Ironically, the wall that once fenced in a whole people is now fenced in itself - to protect it from souvenir hunters. "Here stands the last remaining stretch of wall in Stadtmitte" district, reads a sign, "which did not have to make way for construction interests, but which has been chipped away." In another irony, this 200-yard stretch has been preserved only because it stands directly above a testament to another German horror, recently excavated: the cellars of Nazi Gestapo Headquarters. $5 billion facelift For a hundred yards or so, the line of the former wall is traced along the curbside by a brass strip, which turns into red asphalt and then to fading paint. The line disappears altogether as you run slap bang into Potsdamer Platz, the largest construction site in Europe. Potsdamer Platz was once known as the busiest crossroads in Europe (it is said that the Continent's first traffic lights were installed here) but after the wall went up through the middle of the square it decayed into an empty expanse of weedy nothingness. Now the square no longer exists - it is filled with an astonishing conglomeration of half-built skyscrapers covering 30 football fields - an urban jungle of girders, raw concrete, plate glass, and mud where the noise of bulldozers bulling, piledrivers piling, and cement mixers mixing is deafening. …


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