[OPINION] Before the fall: Remembering the casualties of the Berlin Wall

Jodesz Gavilan
[OPINION] Before the fall: Remembering the casualties of the Berlin Wall
On the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I am reminded of new barriers rising around the world

A side trip after a work event led me to witness how Germany continues to remember one of its darkest periods post-World War II, the division of Berlin literally enforced for 3 decades by at least 111 kilometers of concrete slabs.

Walking through the German capital, it’s easy to see where the areas were divided into the Soviet-controlled East and the Federal Republic of Germany-aligned WestSome sidewalks still bear marks where foundations once stood before their fall in 1989, even if sometimes cars and the occasional electric scooters block the view.

But there are at least 3 places where one can still find remaining parts of the Berlin Wall that “survived” that fateful day on November 9, 1989 – the East Side Gallery, the Berlin Wall Memorial, and the Topography of Terror.

It was a gloomy morning when I first caught a glimpse of perhaps the most famous of the 3. The East Side Gallery, running parallel to the Spree river, features 101 vibrant murals painted on a 1.3-kilometer remnant of the Berlin Wall. 

The paintings, with their wild colors, depict what the Berlin Wall and its fall meant to the people. Perhaps the most famous (and most photographed) is the mural “My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love” by Dmitri Vrubel, which shows two Cold War-era politicians embraced in the so-called fraternal kiss.

But what really caught my eye, and maybe where I lingered the most in an attempt to evade the people crowding the abovementioned mural, was one that showed a tally of people who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, from the communist East to the West.

“Escape is a mighty method to destabilize dominion,” the mural “Curriculum Vitae” by Susanne Kunjappu-Jellinek read. “Gratitude to the killed and surviving refugees.” 

BERLIN WALL. The casualties, according to a mural at the East Side Gallery.

The mural resonated with me, which is perhaps why I felt a rush of emotions when I visited the two other places in my itinerary. Compared to the East Side Gallery, where the colors sometimes betray the purpose of the murals, the Topography of Terror and the Berlin Wall Memorial show a more somber take on the period.  

A few meters of the Berlin Wall hover over the ruins of the Gestapo headquarters where the Topography of Terror now stands. It’s not the main focus of the museum, which mostly centers on the horror of the Holocaust and World War II, but still commands attention from both tourists and locals. 

It was an emotional ride reading about the rise of the Third Reich and the eventual terror it unleashed in Europe, while seeing the Berlin Wall in the background. Two different periods, maybe different intensities, yet they still left behind such an impact on history and the population.

One can’t help but think: How did this happen, just a few decades apart? But then I remember my dear Philippines, with the horrors of Martial Law under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos seemingly being replicated under the current administration.

The casualties of the division

Then there’s the Berlin Wall Memorial.

Bernauer Strasse, bordering the districts of Wedding and Mitte, was where the earlier, and maybe grimmer, impacts of the wall were seen. It’s where buildings cut across by the border once stood, where residents desperately tried their best to flee.

TUNNEL. This marker shows a tunnel dug by escapees.

The surrounding lawns bear marks of where they dug tunnels in an attempt to escape the East, and where a part of what they called the “death strip” still stands.  

According to records, thousands tried to escape the East for West Berlin.

But fleeing, especially in the later years since the construction of the Wall, wasn’t as easy as just hopping over the concrete slab, I learned as I walked and read through the markers set up in the area. 

Soldiers stood guard on towers scattered along the borders, watching for anyone who attempted to cross the border illegally, aside from those patrolling the area with one order in mind: shoot any escapee. This order was not retracted until April 1989.

The fortified part of the wall also had a “trap” made of spikes meant to severely injure any escapee. They called this device Stalin’s Lawn.

Then there were other attempts to escape, including swimming through the river without ever coming up for air and even using a hot air balloon. While there were successful ones, most of the time these proved to be futile – and fatal. 

According to official accounts, at least 140 people were killed or died “in connection with the East German border regime between 1961 and 1989.” There were also reports that at least 251 people died “during or after they had gone through checkpoints at the Berlin border crossings.”

But the emotional impact that caused distress among residents goes beyond the official recorded numbers. I even overheard one local talk about how her mother hardly knew a life beyond being controlled, after surviving the Holocaust but then to live in East Berlin.

STALIN'S LAWN. A feature meant to severely injure any resident fleeing East Berlin.

Reading the accounts of people from both East and West Berlin, of loved ones of those who perished, of families split by the Berlin Wall, was an exercise in introspection, forcing me to also find parallels between then and the events happening around the world now.

The photos of those killed, those who fought the division and tried to escape, they were people my age. Lives full of potential cut short. 

I don’t claim to be an expert on German or Soviet politics, or the different nuances of the Cold War and the division. I acknowledge that there are several other factors that led to the construction of the Berlin Wall and its fall.

But as I stood looking at the remaining parts of the Berlin Wall and seeing reminders of where it once stood with authority, I was reminded of how dangerous dividing a population is, how borders (both literal and ideological) can prove to be detrimental to peace-building and overall humane society.

The fall of the Berlin Wall also reminded me what a united population can do as new barriers rise around the world. One art installation I saw in Hamburg read, “Alone you have power, together we have force.”

REMEMBERING. Locals and tourists remember the fall of the Berlin Wall.

– Rappler.com

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.