President Ronald Reagan once famously proclaimed: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan was referring to the Berlin Wall, which physically and ideologically divided Germany from 1961 until 1989 due to the Cold War. Though the wall came tumbling down in 1990, there is still a stretch of the former Berlin Mauer (Berlin Wall) erected in Berlin’s Friedrichshain urban area, on Mühlenstraße in former East Berlin, which is accessible from both Warschauer Straße and Ostbanhof.
Right after the wall fell, 118 artists from 21 countries began painting it. The wall no longer functioned to separate people, but instead, unite them. At 10,357 feet long (1316 meters) the Berlin Wall — a symbol of terror — transformed into the East Side Gallery: the longest open-air art gallery in the world. It officially opened as an open-air gallery on September 28, 1990, and a year after, it was memorialized. The East Side Gallery was founded following the successful merger of the two German artists' associations, Verein Berliner Künstler and Bundesverband Bildender Künstlerinnen und Künstler.
In more than a hundred paintings, on what used to be the east side of the wall, numerous artists reflected on the political turmoil. The wall is saturated with painted images that reflect the harsh reality of the Cold War that East Berliners endured during the division. There are various paintings that have become a part of pop culture, such as My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love also referred to as, The Fraternal Kiss by Dmitri Vrubel; which is Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev's sharing a passionate mouth-to-mouth kiss. And Birgit Kinder's La Trabant that shows a Trabant or “Trabbi” realistically crashing through the Wall. The paintings are “surreal images, political statements and graffiti-like effusions” which embody Berlin’s eclectic atmosphere, states berlin.de. The Gallery consists of 105 paintings by artists from around the world.
Since the East Side Gallery stands outside, it is completely exposed to the weather. This means there are regular efforts to maintain the wall from erosion, graffiti, and vandalism. That said, in 1996, Kani Alavi, a Berlin artist, founded the East Side Gallery e. V., which is an artists’ initiative to preserve and restore the works at the East Side Gallery. In 2000, a 954-foot (300 meters) stretch of the wall was restored, as well as 33 pictures repainted. By 2009, the East Side Gallery in its entirety was restored. This great effort to restore the 105 paintings on the East Side Gallery took 87 talented artists. However, complaints of copyright infringement and faulty renovations during the restoration process created major conflict. Berlin council destroyed some artworks painted on the wall and reproduced others without the permission of the original artists. Though the city of Berlin owns the wall and the land around it, it was sued over the way the council handled the renovation of the gallery by 21 artists who originally contributed to the East Side Gallery.
Moreover, The East Side Gallery is located on the Spree next to the Oberbaumbrücke. It stands where the former borders of the Soviet and American sector used to be. West Berlin citizens were not allowed access past this point, unlike some other areas that were open to West German citizens. “The bridge (Oberbaumbrücke) is what separates the kiez (a Berlin slang word for neighborhood) of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain from one another. Friedrichshain was part of the East, also know as the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), while Kreuzberg belonged to the West,” stated Culture Trips’s Lara Hurtubise.
Additionally, many think that the Berlin Wall was a single concrete wall that was erected when Berlin was divided; however, it was not. The Berlin Wall had two walls and obstacles, which made it virtually impossible to climb over to escape. According to history.com, “The 27-mile portion of the barrier separating Berlin into east and west consisted of two concrete walls between which was a “death strip” up to 160 yards wide that contained hundreds of watchtowers, miles of anti-vehicle trenches, guard dog runs, floodlights and trip-wire machine guns.” The wall went through four major redesigns during its almost 30-year existence. However, as the Berlin Wall grew more elaborate, so did escape plans. “Fugitives hid in secret compartments of cars driven by visiting West Berliners, dug secret tunnels and crawled through sewers,” states history.com.
In view of that, the East German government claimed the Berlin Wall was supposedly built to keep Western fascists, spies, and ideas out; yet, this wasn’t the case. After ordering the construction of the “Antifaschistischer Schutzwall,” East German leader Walter Ulbricht claimed two weeks after, “We have sealed the cracks in the fabric of our house and closed the holes through which the worst enemies of the German people could creep.” What many do not know as well, is that The Berlin Wall was built more than 15 years into the Cold War. “The Soviet Union had rejected East Germany’s original request to build the wall in 1953, but with defections through West Berlin reaching 1,000 people a day by the summer of 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev finally relented” states history.com. On the morning of August 13, 1961, Berliners awoke to barbed wire fencing, which had been installed on the border between the city’s east and west sections. Just a few days after, East Germany reinforced the barrier with concrete to ensure that East Germans could not defect to the West anymore.
Berlin local, Enno Lenze, war correspondent and owner of The Berlin Story Museum stated, “The East Side Gallery is art, not a history book. So I see their work as an important part of our history but it's not telling history. It's showing art in the context of a time and visual thoughts, fears or wishes.” He further explained the function of the wall, “The wall was set up to show how powerful the German Democratic Republic was. Being disrespectful to it is the best you could do. Like the artists who used it for their disrespectful pictures of her leaders. Nowadays it's somehow the legacy of the time. It should be treated with respect because it's a piece of art. But not because of its original use.” In contrast, “The Holocaust memorial is completely different since it is a memorial for those who want to remember the millions of people who were murdered by the Nazi-Regime.”
Ultimately, The East Side Gallery is an international memorial of freedom. Through its paintings, we can view the peaceful overcoming of boundaries and conventions between East and West Germany. The gallery has more than 3 million visitors per year and remains the only authentic monument of reunification to date, and has been in this urban area for over twenty years.
Have you visited Berlin’s famous East Side Gallery? Are there any monumental works of art in your community? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Brittany Garcia. Data linked to sources.