10,315 x 2: the days of and after the Berlin Wall
5 February 2018 marks a curious anniversary: the date on which the Berlin Wall has been down for as long it stood. There were 10,315 days between 13 August 1961, when the first breezeblock-and-barbed-wire barriers appeared, and 9 November 1989 when crossing-points were opened and hundreds of East Berliners headed into the west of the city. Of course, the wall did not completely disappear until some months later, but after 9 November it would never again divide the city as it had for 28 years.
The British Library’s collections reflect the history of the Wall from its first appearance to its fall and its legacy, in academic studies, fiction and popular non-fiction, pictorial works, and more. We have a copy of one of the earliest collections of documentary photographs, Wolfdietrich Schurre’s Die Mauer des 13. August (Berlin, 1962; YA.1991.b.7307). This already shows the human cost of the Wall: families attempting to communicate across ever-rising barriers, and people climbing or leaping from houses on the eastern side to reach the west.
Headline from the official East German newspaper Neues Deutschland, 14 August 1961, (MFM.MF538H) describing the erection of the initial barriers the previous day as ‘measures for the protecion of peace and the security of the German Democratic Republic’
The Wall’s early years are also captured in the 2011 exhibition catalogue, Aus anderer Sicht, which contains official photographs taken for the East German authorities. Some are accompanied by short excerpts from the logbooks of East German border guards, ranging from the almost comical (such as a drunken westerner yelling ‘Happy Christmas’ from a viewing platform) to the grim and tragic: the deaths of would-be escapees.
The death toll at the Wall was notorious. A 1962 West German government report on the ‘violations of human rights, illegal acts and incidents’ in Berlin since the building of the wall already contains a long list of ‘homicidal crimes’ and other ‘deaths caused by the sealing-off measures’. A recent biographical handbook, The Victims at the Berlin Wall (Berlin, 2011; YC.2012.a.10023) links 136 deaths directly to the Wall – those killed or fatally wounded at or near the actual structure. But the editors point out that other deaths can also be connected more indirectly to the Wall, including many people who suffered fatal heart attacks during interrogation at checkpoints.
Map of Berlin showing the year-old wall and the places where related deaths had occurred since 13 August 1961, from Violations of human rights, illegal acts and incidents at the Sector border in Berlin since the building of the wall ... (Bonn, 1962) SF.583/444
To set against the terrible stories of the Wall’s dead, western writers were also keen to present a more optimistic narrative of successful escapes from East Berlin. Again, this began early: in their 1962 book The Berlin Wall, which otherwise emphasises the horrors of the situation, Deane and David Heller include stories and pictures of people who had managed to flee to the west.
In the east, escape stories were officially spun very differently (if they were mentioned at all), as betrayals of the state. But they also circulated underground in their western guise as tales of hope, as illustrated by a Polish samizdat edition of a collection of true escape stories originally published in the UK.
As well as dramatic true stories, there was plenty of fiction set around the Wall. German writers on both sides looked at the personal and social implications of a divided city in works such as Christa Wolf’s Der geteilte Himmel (Berlin, 1964; X.908/7267) or Peter Schneider’s Der Mauerspringer (Darmstadt, 1982; X.950/22618). In the English-speaking world, the Wall was more often a backdrop for tales of international espionage and Cold War tensions, as in the works of John le Carré and Len Deighton.
On its western side the Wall became a canvas for numerous graffiti artists, and as graffiti became more recognised as an art form, photographic books about ‘wall art’ began to appear, as well as books of art inspired by the Wall such as Maler interpretieren die Mauer (Berlin, 1985; YA.1994.b.1134) based on the collections of the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum, or Peter Klasen’s Le mur de Berlin (Angers, 1988; LB.37.a.30).
Graffiti on the western side of the Wall, 1986. (Picture by Nancy Wong from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0])
The fall of the Wall and the rapid political and social changes that followed led to a wave of celebratory publications, most of them richly illustrated. Perhaps the most fascinating, though far from the most lavish, in our collections is an A4 pamphlet of short pieces by pupils from a West Berlin school, describing their memories of 9-12 November 1989 and illustrated with photographs taken around Berlin later in the month. Although the individual texts and pictures are unattributed, the children’s signed forenames are reproduced on the back cover.
The initial desire of Berliners after 1989 was to destroy the Wall completely. Few traces remain today, and in many places the landscape has changed so much that it is impossible to tell where the border once lay. More recently attitudes have changed and attempts have been made to preserve surviving traces and to create memorials to the Wall, its victims and the suffering it caused. Meanwhile, small fragments of the Wall (of increasingly dubious authenticity 28 years on) are still sold to tourists in Berlin, and large sections are preserved all over the world. The book Where in the World is the Berlin Wall? (Berlin, 2014; YD.2015.a.252) lists their locations.
Our fascination with the Berlin Wall has long outlasted the structure itself. Books of all kinds continue to appear about it, and every anniversary of its rise or fall creates new interest and brings new publications. Our collections will no doubt continue to grow accordingly.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
To discover more about our collections relating to the Berlin Wall, see our online catalogue.