Margaret Rossiter on walking the Berlin Wall

There are pictures which stay on the forefront of memory, so vivid that they do not have to be searched for in some deep recesses of the brain. They are iconic.

There are pictures which stay on the forefront of memory, so vivid that they do not have to be searched for in some deep recesses of the brain. They are iconic.

I can put a date on one of mine - 10th November 1989. It was a picture on the television news of young men and women standing on top of the Berlin Wall, waving, laughing, shouting, singing. They looked as if they were on a drunken spree. In fact, they were inebriated on emotion and elation. They were celebrating the end of an era.

So, a few weeks ago when I was visiting Berlin for the first time, and when a grand-daughter asked what was my “first-see” on my sightseeing list, I answered: The Wall.

The Wall in Berlin was the most infamous section of a barrier of stone, steel, barbed wire, electrified fencing, mines, bullets, soldiers and dogs, which divided Europe, for over half-a-century and which Winston Churchill described as “The Iron Curtain.”

It was much more than an impregnable physical division. It was an ideological statement. In the specific case of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev declared that it was the identification of a place where the East-West confrontation would be played out. “Not only will an ideological war be fought here,” he said, “but also an economic war between socialism and capitalism. It is here that the comparison will be made as to which regime has created the better conditions.”

These conditions were such that, before the construction of the wall, the drainage of people to the West was already making the Soviet section unsustainable. They had to be kept inside a barrier which was insurmountable, but, nevertheless, hundreds of people lost their lives in their desperation to escape over it.

Walking the Wall is now the most popular tourist attraction in Berlin, and the sites of many of these deaths are commemorated on granite slabs on the ground on the former fortified, mined, wasteland where they occurred. One of the most memorable of these deaths was played out in public over several hours when a young plumber, Peter Fechter, was shot in August 1962. Having escaped over the wall, but still inside the outer fortifications, he was shot within a few yards of freedom on Zimmerstrasse. Photographers on the West took pictures of him in his death agony. Under the threat of armed DDR soldiers on the wall, nobody, from either the West or East, went to his aid.

Berlin’s Bernaurstrasse has now become an open-air museum, a few kilometres in length, memoralising The Wall. It is the place which best illustrates the paranoid thinking of Soviet totalitarianism. Here, the site of the border bisected a house, where a family lived. They were evicted. There, the entrances and exits of tunnels, with winding twists and turns. These were tortuously excavated by desperate people. Sometimes they succeeded in an escape bid, but the names on the granite slabs indicated that many did not.

The massed graves of the many thousands of people who were killed in the bombing of Berlin did not interfere with construction. The Wall ploughed right on. It ploughed through an old cemetery and enclosed an old Lutheran Church, which became a meeting place and a sort of peaceful refuge. It was demolished. It has since been re-built and, re-named the Church of Reconciliation, and has become a quiet rest-stop on a walk of The Wall.

It is a walk which demands frequent pauses, so the coffee shops at the other side of the street are well frequented. They are a good vantage point from which to see the huge cranes which dot the skyline on the former East Berlin, which has now become a vast building site. The economic superiority promised by Khruschev never became a reality.

It might be assumed that the wall-walkers were all of a generation of people, now elderly, who had lived through a traumatic period of recent European history, but this was not so. Checkpoint Charlie, the most infamous site on an infamous concept and construction, was crowded with young people, brimming with good health, tall, slim and beautiful, with a predominance of American students amongst them.

If time could be reversed, they might well have found themselves in the US forces on 26th October 1961 facing Soviet tanks separated by a distance of some twenty yards, and poised for a third World War. But, somehow, sanity prevailed.

Two years later, President John F. Kennedy, on a June day, pledged his solidarity to a people divided by the wall in his famous: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” It is said that he was so affected by the realities of The Wall that he discarded the speech prepared for him by his speech-writers, and added his own personal thoughts to the script.

“The Wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failure of the Communist system,” he said. It was “an offence not only against history, but against humanity.”

Thousands of miles of lethal fortifications separated Europe up to recent times. Yet, it seemed that while these might physically divide, they could not conquer the human spirit. People can be walled in, but their thoughts and aspirations cannot be permanently imprisoned. So, in that long traverse of barriers they tried to jump over, tunnel under, absail over, swim through, in their desire for freedom.

The Wall has gathered its collection of stories, some, more or less, apocryphal: such as the story of the boy - he from the West and the girl - she from the East - who met each other on the wall, the iconic photograph of which filled our television screens on that dark November night in 1966. Nine months later, when their son was born, they called him: Charlie.