Building Hope, Not Walls

One of the most historical events of the 20th century was the fall of the Berlin Wall. The concrete dust has long settled, but the residue of this military barrier will permeate for years to come.

Life has a way of kicking one down, picking one up and abruptly transporting one to the next chapter in one’s journey. This is what happened to me in 1988. I suddenly found myself in Berlin for the first time in the autumn of that year. It was a trip that would have been wildly unrealistic just months earlier. My mother had recently died after a short illness and I was recovering from an accident with a broken jaw. After recovery, I unexpectedly met a German woman who had been working in Toronto as a liaison with a German clothier, and who later moved back to Germany to continue her education. By coincidence - or good fortune - she decided on Berlin. A year later, the Cold War was over and Germany began the process of reunification.

In 1990 - seven months after the “border opening” - I landed in Berlin again to build on a photo documentary …and possibly a relationship. It was June, the weather was pleasant and the city seemed ominously quiet as I ventured out on my first explore. Only the orchestrated sounds of distant tap-tap-tapping stirred my anticipation. When I arrived at the Reichstag building, a long section of the Wall could be seen bordering behind this historic edifice. The artful, bold colours of the graffiti-laden stretch gave one the illusion of viewing a well-guarded whimsical palace. Nearing the Wall, it amazed me of its preserved state. Except for the many scars left by the so-called “wall-peckers”, it was still holding up nicely. This was surprising, considering that it stood completely vulnerable for anyone wishing to pound, grind or bulldoze it over. (Of course, it did concede defeat in the end. The official dismantling of the Wall began around the time of this visit.)

My friend Mathias had joined me at this stage and armed me with a small chisel and hammer (and for good measure, a crowbar). Imagine if you will. The Wall - this massive structure - gazed down at us like a mighty warrior; intimidating, sturdy and standing three and a half meters in height. As I struck hammer to chisel in its backside, I could almost hear the great beast laughing at me. Its armoured shield fended off blows with ease. A new tactic was needed.

Moving away from our position, I noticed a row of vertically chiselled areas equally spaced apart. Mathias explained that the Wall was put together by thousands of sections of reinforced concrete, known as “Grenzmauer 75” (Border Wall ‘75). Built in 1975, it was the final, and indeed, most sophisticated version. Although heavily constructed with mesh fencing and cable wire, it didn’t stop the unwavering wall-peckers from discovering that the seams of each section were the penetrable weak spot.

I unleashed the crowbar and pried behind an exposed cable wire for better leverage. A little easier than the chisel, but it only provided a scattering of small fragments that attracted an audience of mostly young kids who scrambled to pick them up. After much determination, I was able to free some large pieces from my antagonist’s grasp. I then resigned from duty. I replaced weapons with camera gear and carried on to document the curious excitement all around.

Oddly, I had expected people to be more enraged, or at least euphoric. Or perhaps most had already exhausted their intense feelings by this time. Nonetheless, I was struck by their orderly, if not dutiful behaviour. Men, women and children worked diligently with tools in hand, appearing more like stonemasons at a job site. Entertained onlookers dodged in and around to get the best view. There were of course your hackers and profiteers selling fake stone fragments, but overall, it played out peacefully like a sacrificial ritual, as if to say: “Destroy that which destroyed us, but never be forgotten”.

Later on that day, the atmosphere became increasingly spirited as the crowds grew. It ranged from a man dressed up as Santa Claus bellowing “ho,ho,ho!” and hugging all in his path to that of an imaginative hair stylist who set up shop in front of the Wall. (We later learned that this former East German was providing free haircuts to gain experience for his new life in the west.) My attention was then drawn to a wreath placed near the Bradenburg Gate. It commemorated those who were killed trying to escape. The last person to go down was Chris Gueffroy. Sadly, if he had waited a mere nine months, he could have danced freely across the damn barrier without fear of the bullets, guards, mines and trenches that ultimately ended his life.

If it was required to best describe an overall account of my experience, it would be summarised with an image of an East German guard standing watch from atop the Wall. Alone and looking rather despondent in his new role as peacemaker, he embodied the consciousness of an emerging new world order. A defeated, outdated regime held captive in its own barricade, if you will. His elevated gesture was emblematic of repression and war, teetering undeniably to crumble and fall.

Yes, the concrete dust has long settled. As for building on the relationship...well, it didn’t quite work out. Even more unfortunate was the fact that some of my film got damaged after this visit. More importantly, however - as an unofficial wall-pecker - it gives me greater satisfaction to regard the historical importance of the fall of the Wall as recognition for building hope.