The Berlin Wall is now a memory; the physical evidence of the barrier between East and West Germany has been removed. The Wall and what it symbolized remains in photographs, in pieces which have been torn down, hoarded, sold and bartered and in people’s consciousness.
Milan Kundera has so aptly stated in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, when he described the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, and its history. Then have someone write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will forget what it is and what it was. The world will forget even faster.”
A reunified Germany gave birth to a new sense of national pride along with a reconstruction program that would burden its economy for several years. Surely West Berliners felt a sense of freedom after living in a walled city for twenty-eight years. But the dominant effect from the fall of the Wall was on the former GDR who saw the opening of borders as an economic necessity.
I went to Berlin for the first time in April 1990, and again in October 1990. Initially I was struck with the most visible differences: a wealthy technologically-advanced and cosmopolitan West, streets bursting with activity, lit by city lamps and neon; and the East, dark, gray and economically depressed, streets empty and flanked with crumbling buildings and rubble from the war.
Major changes took place swiftly. Yet, change also evolved in a subtle and gradual manner. The culture of East Berlin’s recent and past histories was still apparent: Skinheads’ (a Neo-Nazi faction) marked their territory with graffiti, the workers at a Jewish Cemetery who were allowed to live in East Berlin to care for the monuments to a terrible history were forced to live ‘silently’ during the past five decades, school children who had not yet felt the effects of ‘freedom’ and a family of horse farmers who have not yet felt the effects of change went on with their daily lives.
A group of children rummaged through a large trash container filled with discarded library books, published by the former GDR. A woman exclaimed, “This is horrible, just horrible.” She was not speaking of the abandonment of an ineffective political system or the replacement of one culture with another, but of the conditions in the East that necessitated children to become more enterprising by rummaging through the dumpster of a library that threw out many of its books published under the communist regime.
Squatters waited for a government-backed eviction by the Berlin police force, while East Berliners watched the confrontation, unaccustomed to this type of political activism. Many of the squatters–university students, dissidents, and foreigners–came from the west in response to the housing crisis there and initiated their own political ideologies. The plethora of vacant buildings in the East offered a new ‘market’ for occupation.
Their political ideology clashed with the more right-leaning East Germans, particularly the Skinheads. Battles between the groups ensued and eventually the new unified city sent in police evicting the squatters from the houses they occupied. Mainzerstrasse was the site of a street battle between police and Autonomen.
The photographs comprise a small visual record of an important historic episode.
DukeUnivLibraries — October 08, 2009 — Duke University Libraries Special Collections gives students in German history the opportunity to talk to photographer Vincent Cianni via Skype about his original photographs of the fall of the Berlin Wall.