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From the Berlin Wall to the Checkpoint Charlie

I have on my desk a little piece of the Berlin Wall that a friend brought back for me from a visit some years ago. It’s a flat chunk, about five centimetres’ square, grey on one side, pale yellow on the other, the shadow of the graffiti that once covered the Western side. For nearly thirty years the Wall was the Iron Curtain made concrete – in both senses of the word. Most walls are built to keep people out, but this was one of the few walls built to keep people in, like a prison, which East Germany was; a prison of a nation.

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Today, nearly thirty years after it was finally torn down, only two small sections of the Wall still stand, preserved as a monument to the folly that was communism. The first one runs on the edge of Niederkircherstrasse, along a permanent outdoor exhibition and museum brilliantly named the Topography of Terror, which follows the history of Berlin through the decades of the twin totalitarianisms of Nazism and communism. A few hundred metres to the east along Niederkircherstrasse is the famous Checkpoint Charlie, the little chink in the Wall across which the Soviet and the American soldiers faced each other warily for decades, and through which captured spies would be exchanged between the East and the West. Today not much remains, except the signs, and a faux checkpoint where two Germans who look like Russians are dressed like American soldiers and pose for photos with tourists for 3 Euro.

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The other section of the Wall stands on the other side of River Spree in Oranienburger district. It’s an open air museum, which commemorates all those who were killed while attempting to cross the Wall to freedom. The photos of the fallen, printed on glass, make for a poignant reminder about the price ordinary people paid for the philosophers’ pursuit of utopia. Asian tourists, oblivious to the significance of the portraits take happy snaps against their backdrop. The Wall is not there, but it’s still there, if only as a thin red line running through a tourist map of Berlin I pick up from the hotel reception. I don’t notice it until some hours into constantly referring to it on the walk.

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The thin red line is not the only ghost. If you stop in front of an older building, one that predates the war and clearly survived it more intact than others, and if you look closely, you will notice its façade pockmarked with small spots that don’t quite match the colour of the wall. They are filled in bullet holes. Buildings are peppered with shot.

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Unlike in “new” countries like Australia or the United States, in Europe the past is never past; it superimposes over the present and casts a shadow over the future. The problem, in part, is that there is so much of it. It can’t be bundled up and locked away in a closet somewhere; it will always burst the door and spill asunder, made more toxic for its time out of the sunlight. So Europe has largely learned not to try. Its temporal and spatial everpresence can feel oppressive, or at best melancholy, like strolling through a cemetery. Sometimes I’m glad that I now live in the new world and only visit the old once in a while.

Berlin is a city of memory. So many people have died here, so many were killed; Berlin killed so many elsewhere throughout the continent. In a few hours’ stroll I pass by monuments to homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Third Reich, to Sinti and Roma people’s Holocaust, to Berliners who perished in bombings. On the corner of Ebertstrasse and Hannah-Arendt-Strasse, a stone’s throw from Tiergarten and the Brandenburg Gate, the whole city block is given to a sea of rectangular concrete blocks, uniform in dimensions except for height, row upon row of symbolic sepulchres to the murdered Jews of Europe. Two German security guards spend their whole time chasing off people, including adults, who stand on top of or jump from one tomb to another. At the edge of the virtual necropolis, a girl rests on top of a slab, passionately embracing and kissing her boyfriend. Life goes on. In Europe we all make love on top of the dead.

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(All photos by Arthur Chrenkoff)

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