A Defining Moment

Barriers, both physical and psychological, are structures that tend to harm us over time rather than protect us. Such was the case of the Berlin Wall. It was a monstrous symbol of the Cold War, dividing a city not only by concrete but also by political ideology.

At the end of the Second World War, Germany was split into four zones of occupation under the control of the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union, respectively. Berlin was also divided among the four powers. It became a multinational island, with the Soviets occupying East Berlin and the other Allies controlling the west side. When I arrived in the city in 1988, nothing much had changed — and no one had a clue of what was about to happen.

It was autumn and my first time to Berlin, a trip that would have been wildly unrealistic just months earlier. My mother had recently died, and I was recovering from an accident that had left me with a broken jaw. Though weakened by pain and weight loss, I made a full recovery. Days later, I unexpectedly met Anke, a German woman who had been working temporarily in Toronto and who later returned to Germany to continue her education. By coincidence — or good fortune — she decided on Berlin. A year later, the fall of the Wall reverberated around the world, becoming one of the most pivotal events of the twentieth century.

Seven months after the border opening, I landed in Berlin again to visit Anke and continue working on a photo documentary. The Wall was an important component of the project and I was optimistic that there were at least some remnants of concrete still to be found. As I set out on my first hike, the sound of distant tap-tap-tapping was an encouraging sign that the once-guarded barrier was still putting up a fight.

When I arrived at the historic Reichstag building, a long section of the Wall could be seen behind it. The artful, bold colours of this graffiti-laden stretch presented the illusion of an enchanting, whimsical palace. More remarkable was the Wall’s physical condition. Except for the punishing scars left by the so-called “wall-peckers,” it stood defiantly tall.

Another friend, Mathias, joined me at this stage. Armed with a small chisel and hammer (and for good measure, a crowbar), we stood face to face with the massive structure. It gazed down at us like a mighty warrior — intimidating, sturdy and standing three and a half metres in height! I began my attack. I could almost hear the great beast laughing at me as I struck hammer to chisel in its backside. Its armoured shield fended off blows with ease and thwarted my desire to gain ground. Mathias explained that the Wall, known as Grenzmauer 75 (Border Wall 75), was assembled from thousands of separate sections of reinforced concrete. Built in 1975, it was the final and, indeed, most sophisticated version. Although heavily constructed with mesh fencing and thick wire, it didn’t stop the unwavering wall-peckers from discovering that the seams of each section were the penetrable weak spots.

I unleashed the crowbar and pried behind an exposed cable wire for better leverage. It was a little easier than the chisel but only provided a scattering of small pieces that attracted an audience of mostly young kids who scrambled to pick them up. After much determination, I was able to free some large chunks from my antagonist’s grasp. Suffering only minor injuries, our clash on the battlefield was over.

Mathias glanced over, smiling broadly. As a Berliner, he was no longer invigorated by the thrill of dismantling the Wall or the excitement it generated in the city, but he was cheerful enough to participate for my sake. I put down the weapons, picked up my gear and gave a nod of respect to our opponent.

The crowd grew, as did the noise level of the tapping, chipping and pounding. The Wall was now under siege, yet oddly, the atmosphere was eerily peaceful. Conscientious men, women and children worked diligently with tools in hand, appearing more like stonemasons at a job site. Those less committed sold stone fragments — many, of course, fake. For amusement, an imaginative hair stylist set up shop in front of the Wall, while an over-exuberant man dressed as Santa Claus hugged all in his path, bellowing, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Buzzing all around were wall-peckers like me and curious onlookers who either wanted to enjoy the entertainment, snag a keepsake or take a few pictures.

Later that day, my attention was drawn to a wreath placed near Brandenburg Gate to commemorate the brave residents who were killed trying to escape from the east. The last person shot down was Chris Gueffroy, who sadly, had he waited a mere nine months, could have danced freely across the damn barrier without fear of the bullets, guards, landmines or trenches that ultimately ended his life.

As the cool spring day ended, I was fortunate to capture an image of an East German guard standing watch from atop the Wall, a defining moment that evoked the close ties between place and politics. Alone and looking rather subdued in his new role as peacemaker, he embodies the consciousness of an emerging new world order. Caught in transition, he stares blankly out at the people below, who appear joyfully absorbed in their activities and unconcerned by his presence. Fittingly, his elevated posture is emblematic of repression and war teetering to inevitably crumble and fall.