I IMAGINED the Wall long before I arrived in Berlin to cycle part of the trail.
Barely old enough to remember (much less grasp) the events of 1989, my perceptions of the Berlin Wall had come from pictures in American-authored history books and post-Cold War History Channel specials. I’d collected a few of those impressions in my mind: a clip broadcasting Reagan’s keynote speech, the pulsating crowds storming the wall the night it came down, and a man hacking away with a sledge hammer. Neatly packaged and labeled by the media or the history book authors with captions like ‘the end of an era’ or ‘the day the world shifted’, the Berlin Wall came to represent to me dramatic resistance and dramatic change.
As I cycled along the former wall trail, though, I began to feel a sense of cognitive dissonance. While those images had left impressions of great change and great strife, what I found myself thinking about as I cycled were the nuances and details that many of those photos hadn’t caught.
Former West Berlin resident Marianna Katona wrote a memoir of her years of accumulated routine border crossings to the East. She describes the wall as having been an annoyance, a nuisance, a convoluted mess, a divider. But I was most struck by the message underlying her hundreds of crossings: life goes on.
As the trail wound its way through neighborhoods and near backyards, I found myself contemplating what the wall’s relationship might have been, during the 40 years of its existence, to daily life. The codified images of politicians’ speeches and celebratory crowds have encapsulated the climactic points of the wall’s life at its end. But the flipside of that story is day-to-day reality, and the thousands of people whose everyday lives intersected the life of the wall; traces and memories of which are left behind on the wall remains today.
I studied material culture once, a branch of anthropology that focuses on the relationship between people and things. According to its theory, all objects have lives. Not in the sense that they are anthropomorphized, but in the sense that the human hands which create, shape, and use objects also imbue life onto them. Scratches, dents, tears, new paint jobs, and patchwork reconstruction from use and re-use all record the chronological life of an object. That object becomes a repository, a window through which to interpret the past through the mark of human hands.
On one level, the wall was a 160-km stretch of concrete which embodied the stories of the people who constructed it, their politics and ideologies. But the life of the wall also intersected the lives of the people who lived near it, who patrolled it, who ignored it, and who resisted it. They have stories too, which speak from the marks they left behind.
The remnants of the Berlin wall are objects, and in the world of material culture, they tell stories. Stories which have the power to open windows onto the past and give voice to the thousands who never made it into those few iconic photographs that circulated the world, but whose interaction with the wall and whose place in the larger social and political framework in which it existed are equally insightful.
A few kilometers into my bike ride, I noticed a slab of cement sticking up in the weeds, next to a roadside gas station. In front of the slab stood a tall, wiry bird, its arched neck peeking over the top of the cement. It took my mind a few moments to adjust to the context — this was a piece of art next to a segment of the wall. I didn’t immediately notice that this wall remnant was marked with bullet holes. It captured my attention.
I’d never seen bullet holes so close before. The wall had recorded a story in those pock marks, but the details have become hazy over time, left open to interpretation and speculation. I couldn’t tell from which side they came. When I envisioned them being shot inward, onto perhaps a group of protesters or aimed toward an escape route, they took on a sinister hue, one of violent oppression. When I imagined them being shot outward, their symbolism inverted, taking on shades of an equally violent resistance.
But there was no way for me to know who had fired the shots, who they were intended for, or whether the wall took a bullet to save a life. With a conscious nod toward an imagination beginning to run, I distanced myself. The wall holds stories, but it doesn’t always reveal the details or the endings.
Resting my bike in the grass, I stopped to read the sign by the big metal bird: initially created as part of a cultural initiative between an east and west neighbourhood, the ‘Berlin bird’ was relocated in 2009 to commemorate the wall’s fall.
I realized later how struck I was by the stark simplicity of the bird. The strange juxtaposition, bordering on comical, somehow altered the wall by disarming it. Perhaps whoever placed it there had interpreted the open-ended story of the bullet holes in the same sinister way that I had. Maybe that person wanted to subvert the politics of the wall, to transform an object representing power and oppression into one of comic relief.
As I took a few steps backwards for a wide-angle photo, my perception changed. The bird seemed bigger, and the bullet holes seemed smaller.
On Klemkestrasse, I pedaled past a life-sized cross which marks the spot where Horst Frank tried to climb. Just across the street, a few slabs of wall were layered in graffiti. Though probably painted years after the 1962 escape attempt, I linked the graffiti and the cross together in my head. They opened windows onto a historical narrative of resistance, lived and enacted by many former East Berlin residents.
Just as it records stories in bullet marks, the wall was an object large enough to bridge extremes. On one side of the political spectrum it served as a barrier to curb movement and interaction. But the wall also simultaneously embodied the opposite side of the spectrum. Transformed into a message board for a living and breathing dialogue of resistance, it was used as a platform to fight the purpose it was built to serve. The network of graffiti tells a story of more peaceful resistance, of a call to free speech and a changed political atmosphere.
But no object — and no social atmosphere — can withstand such extreme competing tensions. Perhaps the wall’s ability to embody both sides of the spectrum was also the cause of its fall.
A few kilometers later, on Bernauer Strasse, I passed a red metal frame holding the photos of people from the neighborhood who had attempted defection to the west. Many spaces in front of the frames held individual mementos. Some, like the flowers, spoke messages of remembrance, while others — stones, a string, a small sealed envelope — served as vessels to protect private messages, memories, and processes of healing.
As I stopped to absorb the photographed faces, the intended message of the exhibit was clear: the wall, and the politics it represented, had a profound effect on the lives of the neighborhood residents.
But the stretch of wall behind the exhibit spoke another line of dialogue running counterpoint. The tall slabs had been gutted, the concrete disintegrating, covered in deep scratches, notches and holes large enough to crawl through. With outward expressions of dissent directed toward a political system they disagreed with, the neighborhood residents — and their social politics — had an equally profound effect on the life of the wall.
As I continued cycling north, remnants of the wall become fewer and further apart. The occasional patches of concrete slabs, disintegrating cement foundations and rusty, twisted metal supports in the grass disappeared. I found myself cycling along a paved trail running through well-manicured neighborhoods in the Hermsdorf district.
At times the trail was close enough to butt up against backyard fences, and I could see through open windows and into garages. There wasn’t much left to my imagination about the wall’s close proximity to the lives of the individuals in the area.
I’ve tried to imagine what the view would have been like from the inside of a house whose neighbor was the wall. At what point does the line between insane and inane blur? Where does extraordinary bleed into normalcy? Did the wall simply become part of the landscape out the kitchen window?
But in those neighborhoods, there was no wall left. If an object carries with it a human-molded life that grows and gathers stories over time, the implication that follows is that eventually the object will die, either through disintegration and dis-use, destruction, or a change into something new.
Eventually the houses and neighborhoods began to disappear too and I entered a park, the trail running along a glass-flat lake. The Lubars Recreational Park is one of over 150 separate green parks along the Iron Curtain trail, which extends as far north as Norway and south as Bulgaria and Greece. While the Berlin Wall was the most concrete physical manifestation of the former east/west border, the entire dividing line was demarcated by intermittent barbed wire and cement barriers.
And while the Berlin Wall came to embody peoples’ stories from both sides of the political divide, large areas along the rest of the east/west border became space largely isolated from human interaction. In these areas, nature took over, and the border strip became a living habitat for local flora and fauna. Large tracts of these inadvertent biospheres are now under international protection.
Bike parked, I made my way toward the lake, crossing paths with a woman near the water’s edge. She was picking out the wildflowers from a patch of weeds and leaves.
Pictures on the historical markers in the area showed a terrain that had once looked empty. En route to the lake, I’d passed a family picnicking in the grass, an old couple whose years likely spanned beyond the life of the wall walking hand-in-hand, a guitar-laden group of teenagers alternating between singing and swigging beer cans, spandex-suited cyclists, and horseback riders.
I stopped to watch the woman picking wildflowers. Even though the wall is largely gone, in that moment I realized that it is still more alive than dead. The winding trail that I’d been following is the wall’s newest iteration, the most recent mark on the timeline of its life. Rather than being completely destroyed, the wall remnants and the path they once followed have been transformed into something new.
On that sunny summer afternoon, every person on the trail was engaging with the wall in a way that opened windows onto Berlin’s present, just as it does onto its past. It’s still a living piece of material culture. The picnickers, the families, the musicians, the cyclists — all were snapshot images of Berlin today. Cycling along the trail, I felt balanced, alive, part of a community.
The woman returned to her bike and secured her handmade bouquet to the basket in back. We nodded at each other in acknowledgement as she smiled and pedaled away. I hopped back on my own bike, following her lead.