Monday, April 11, 2005

The Mess At Checkpoint Charlie

Yesterday, the BBC reported that the Museum am Checkpoint Charlie has to tear down the memorial they've erected on a plot of land there. I walked past it a few months ago but didn't stop, so I figured that today, with temperatures approaching 55 and a nice clear sky, would be a good time to take a walk down there and see what all the shouting is about.

I visited the Museum am Checkpoint Charlie on my first visit here in 1988, endeavoring to be a good tourist during the hours my then-girlfriend was working. It's a pretty remarkable place, which certainly does document a lot of escape attempts and has a lot of cool artifacts, but there was a creepy feeling about the place I couldn't really define. A collection box solicited donations for an unnamed "human rights organization" there, and my girlfriend gave a short laugh when I asked what this mysterious organization could be. "Probably the Ku Klux Klan," she said.

Probably not them, but certainly that far to the right. I'd still recommend the museum to interested visitors, but their agenda is something else entirely. According to the documentation at the site, it's owned by the Arbeitgemeinschaft 13. August e.V., or the 13th of August Working Group, which doesn't reveal much, and this non-profit (which is what the e.V. stands for) was founded by one Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt in 1962. Dr. Hildebrandt died on Jan. 9, 2004, and his widow re-erected a length of the Berlin Wall on a lot he'd leased from the Berliner Volksbank last year, then filled in both that lot and one opposite it on Friedrichstr. with wooden crosses, each of which represents someone killed, not, as the BBC reports, crossing the Wall, but attempting to escape from East Germany. Some of them go back to 1948, well before there was a Wall, in fact.

There are a lot of placards, very badly translated by someone who was proud enough to sign his name to them, decrying the fact that the city wants this private display of righteousness torn down. As for the monument itself, it's mostly fenced off, so it's impossible to read the captions on the vast majority of the crosses, which are made of simple creosoted wood and stand about 8 feet high. The placards express outrage that the city sold the lot to the Volksbank, instead of to the museum, although this part of town was and is a place where the city is desperately trying to establish a business district (with the minor inconvenience that very few businesses indeed want to relocate to Berlin). Widow Hildebrandt also mentions the expense she's gone to to lay wreaths at the site, although most of them seem to be at a makeshift memorial to her husband, and she also urges people who want to know why Dr. Hildebrandt's ashes haven't been interred to ask the "red, red Berlin Senate" why they haven't been. (One wonders where she's intending to plant the old guy).

There's also a guy there collecting signatures from unsuspecting tourists on a petition to allow the memorial to remain. He was busy barking at a bunch of Bavarians when I was there -- and naturally they'd be sympathetic -- but the only people who seemed to be doing really good business were the assembled Egyptians selling Soviet and East German crap: medals, watches, flags, hats, and of course matryoshka dolls, questionable amber, and painted wooden eggs. (How the Egyptians managed to get a monopoly on this would probably provide a fine primer on the workings of Berlin's criminal underground).

The city is alleging bad taste, but that's hardly going to wash with a lot of folks. They also allege that there are already two memorials to the Wall and its victims, and that's true, because one of them is near my house at Brunnenstr. and Ackerstr. There, a section of the Wall was purchased by the Berlin Museum (a museum of city history which I don't think has a building at the moment, having given up their old one to the Jewish Museum), and restored, poorly, then bookended with slabs of brushed stainless steel. I once took American artist Richard Posner there, since he specializes in political statements in public spaces and he almost had an apoplectic fit over how much of an opportunity the creators of this empty genture had wasted. Furthermore, the entire neighborhood where this thing was erected was outraged by the inscription Helmut Kohl's right-wing government had put on it, which stated it was a memorial to the division of the city and the "victims of the Communist reign of violence." For the longest while, police were unobtrusively stationed around the memorial because people kept defacing the inscription. As for the stretch of Wall itself, it's been treated by a graffiti-proof chemical, although that hasn't stopped scratchers from tagging the stainless steel inside the place.

Across from the Brunnenstr. stretch of Wall is a documentation center I admit I haven't gone to see, although I did visit it when it was owned by the church, on whose land the memorial wound up standing once the post-Wall paperwork was done. Back then, it appeared that the most horrible crime the Wall had occasioned was the dynamiting of the Schrippenkirche, the famous church which had stood there and had been caught between the two Walls. (Yes, there were two: a rather plain one on the eastern side, followed by a stretch of no-man's-land which was filled with booby-traps, dogs, and patrolling soldiers, and then the Wall we all know from the pictures.) In conjunction with the opening of the current documentation center, though, a number of glass signposts were erected all along Brunnenstr., which, because of its location with residential neighborhoods on either side and a huge wooded graveyard at the point where the current memorial stands, became a notorious death strip, with numerous escape attempts, many successful, occuring along the street. Also, the first person shot while trying to escape, a 19-year-old who bled to death in full view of West Berlin police who were unable to reach him without causing an international incident, was on Brunnenstr. right near the Nordbahnhof checkpoint. (There were numerous checkpoints, but they were all German-German for people going east to visit relatives; international visitors either had to use Checkpoint Charlie or Friedrichstr. station).

Given the horribleness of the Brunnenstr. official memorial and its inscription still taunting its neighbors, the cry of bad taste for Frau Hildebrandt's mass of crosses just doesn't wash, though. What's at play is a bit more subtle. It's the thing that's still haunting this city, the condition the Germans call Mauer im Kopf, the wall in the head. There's no question in my mind that it exists on both sides. Easterners are nostalgic for a time of full employment, even though it often wasn't very fulfilling work and it would eventually have bankrupted the country, since it depended on subsidies from Russia. Westerners are nostalgic for a time when West Berlin had its own subsidies, provided by the West German government and the governments of the Allies which occupied West Berlin until 1994. But Mauer im Kopf also means shoddier goods sold in the east (one need only visit a grocery store over here to see that in action), a persistent stereotyping of the other guy (Ossis are lazy and dumb; Wessis are yuppified and snobbish), and a general refusal (predominantly on the part of the Wessis) to visit the other side of town. Why, on my way back from Checkpoint Charlie I ran into an American who's been here for ages, and he told me he'd just rented a studio over here in the East. "I'm getting to like this part of town," he said. For those of you who don't remember the exact date, the Wall opened on Nov. 9, 1989.

But the right-wing mentality which operates the Museum am Checkpoint Charlie and is painfully obvious in the Widow Hildebrandt's public statements finds very little sympathy in official quarters in Berlin today. Yes, the Senate is governed by a coalition of the SPD (social democrats) and the PDS (successors to the communists, but really more a party of the left these days), and that, I think, actually does represent the feelings of Berliners who care to vote (and about 90% of them do, by the way). Frau Hildebrandt may want to keep the wall up in her own head, for very good business reasons as well as very questionable political reasons, but that doesn't mean she gets to trample the rights of the rest of us.

I say tear the damn things down.

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