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August 2017
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How Berlin’s Wall Started To Crumble

What sparked more than 100 West Berliners to climb over the wall to the Communist East was a dispute over the fate of the Lene Dreieck, 40,000 square meters of mud and shrubs directly bordering the wall in the one-time center of pre-war Berlin. In the 1920s this area near the Potsdamer Platz was one of the most frenzied parts of Berlin, with packed cafes that housed much of the literary community in winters when coal was short. Nearby was the bunker where Hitler took his life on April 30, 1945. Technically a part of the Soviet sector, the razed, overgrown area was one of the many chunks of land that the masons of East Berlin didn’t manage to wrap in when the wall went up on August 13, 1961. Like leftover pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the bits lay unclaimed and unused until a land barter deal earlier this year between East and West.

The old wall – so much to answer for.

The land was not scheduled to change hands officially until July 1. But before West Berlin’s city fathers could even dust off their plans for a superhighway on the site, a motley group of West Berlin ecologists and anarchists “occupied” the Lene Dreieck. Declaring the area to be a “liberated zone,” dreamy-eyed hippies, ragged punks, and assorted others with time on their hands erected a small village of tents and huts. The West Berlin police were forbidden by law from entering East Germany territory. The East German border guards, after a few hails over the wall, decided to let the settlers remain. And so the village grew, the citizens of no man’s land bathed naked in the sun, and the tourist hordes that came daily to peer over the wall were treated to a new attraction.

If there is anything the West Berlin police don’t like, it’s the thought of an area beyond the reach of the law. During the early 1980s, efforts by the police to dislodge illegal squatters from their homes led to week-long riots. Since then the police have vigorously maintained the “Berlin Line,” clearing any occupied buildings or streets without hesitation, using whatever force is required. Last year the city created special squads for just that task, picked out for their physical size and fierceness and armed with four-foot-long clubs. Caught up in the heat of the chase during a demonstration last May, they cudgeled anyone within club’s reach, including journalists and some of their own officers. Now the riot troops posted around the encampment were forced to look on helplessly as their arch enemies, the “Chaoten” (chaotic), painted “Cop-Free Zone” and “anarchy is possible” on the wall and hurled curses, spit, and occasional beer bottles in their direction.

BUT THE ecologist-anarchist front was experiencing its own inner angst, having split into two factions known as “Muslies” (after an indigestible mixture of grain and corn they liked to eat with milk for breakfast) and “Mollies” (after the Molotov cocktails they liked to heave at policemen). The Muslies sport long hair, beards, heavy wool clothing, and Birkenstock sandals, and like to count the species of plant life in abandoned lots and quote pantheistic poetry. The Mollies prefer proto-military boots and pants, shaved and dyed patterns of hair on their skulls, and black leather jackets with stenciled slogans like “Eat-Fuck-Kill.” While the Muslies wanted to negotiate a settlement with the authorities and win popular support, the Mollies took to wearing face masks at all hours of the day to prevent identification, carried wooden clubs over their shoulders, and stockpiled projectiles for the eventual confrontation. When the Muslies questioned their commitment to ecological issues, they replied, “The world is going to hell no matter what we do, at least we want to have some action!” Factional strife threatened to destroy the fragile alliance until someone arrived at a novel alternative: Rather than fight or surrender, why not jump the wall?

A brilliant inspiration that begged a few technical questions. People who cross the wall from East to West tend to get shot or blown up. Would the border guards from the East be any friendlier to those coming from West to East? And once you get in, can you get back out? The GDR soldiers peering down at the village plenum offered no clues.

As the Prussian dusk faded to darkness on the night of June 29, the eve of the formal Anschluss, the curious and sympathetic had swollen the crowd at the Dreieck to over a thousand. The whole-grain families with their barefoot, shaggy-haired children had largely disappeared. Their leather-jacketed comrades appeared to have invested the gains of a day’s panhandling in cases of beer, firing their courage for the coming battle, and listing precariously as they moved through the crowd. An atypically eloquent demonstrator mounted a propaganda offensive with a megaphone, demanding immediate negotiations and comparing the special riot division to the SA and the SS. After about half an hour of harangue the police bullhorn finally crackled: “Please report your bullshit in another direction.”

At midnight the mob fell silent. Every ear strained for the sound of approaching sirens. When the Valkyries failed to descend, the crowd found other means to release their combative energies. A bonfire filled the square with flickering light. To the beat of drums and a trash container of galvanized steel struck with bricks and metal rods, bodies broke into dance. Ares had vanished and Dionysus had descended.

IT WAS, needless to say, merely a strategic delay on the police’s part. At 5 a.m., after allowing most of the crowd to stagger home or sink into dreams of anarchistic utopia, and with the necessary Dammerung to enable photographic records of any who attempted to resist, 800 green-clad policemen in full riot gear descended on the sleepy village. The remaining demonstrators groggily retreated to the nine-foot strip of land at the edge of the wall that still belonged to East Germany. The police advanced without the slightest resistance. Defeat seemed inevitable.

Suddenly a woman perched on the coping of the wall turned from speaking with a border guard and announced, “It’s fine. They say that we can all come over.” Within a few minutes 180 demonstrators had scaled up makeshift ladders and upturned sections of police fencing and clambered into the waiting East German military wagons on the other side of the wall. Those who sought “temporary asylum” were treated to a large breakfast of sandwiches and tea, politely asked if they would like to take up permanent residence in the socialist system (an offer that no one accepted), and then allowed to filter back into the West in small groups at various border crossings.

The outcome seemed to please all concerned. Christian Democrat Senator Kewenig could fluff his feathers in front of a captured hoard of bottles and slingshot ammunition and reproach the East Germans for neglecting their responsibilities as “decent businessmen” to turn over a clean parcel of land. The Communist Party broadsheet Neues Deutschland managed to publish a heart wrenching account of the flight without once mentioning the wall itself. Of the breakfast scene the correspondent wrote, “One had a warm feeling in the stomach. Even when one knew that the village of huts would soon be ripped down. But one had won new friends. And new comrades . . .” The West German police union urged the Chaoten to remain in the East. Even the demonstrators seemed satisfied. They returned as heroes, having dealt the “police state” (West Berlin) a monumental black eye and proved that it is possible, at least this once, to visit East Berlin for the day without the customary currency exchange.

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