Fragments – Berlin Wall

Perhaps the souvenir of a visit to Berlin during the 1990s was a piece of the Wall purchased from a vendor operating from a folding table somewhere between the Brandenburg Gate and the Potsdamer Platz construction site. Those fortunate enough to have been in the city in the months right after the Wall’s opening might have been able to chip away a piece of their own by renting a hammer and chisel from some entrepreneurial soul.

While I was in Berlin in the summer of 1990, I declined to either purchase a piece or knock one out myself (though I was staying with friends in the Lichtenrade district) whose backyard ran directly adjacent to the structure. No historical consciousness? Perhaps, but more likely no real understanding of the transitory nature of the situation. At any rate, I spent much of my time on that trip lining up at the Lichtenberg train station in the eastern part of town, trying to get my hands on one of the dirt cheap tickets for an East German train to Prague. Time which would’ve been well-spent had I succeeded . . .

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At any rate, over the intervening years, I have received gifts of Wall fragments from people who no longer knew what to do with theirs.

The first is the one in the slideshow above that comes in a velvet pouch and in a box with several certificates. This item was produced by an American company (surprise, surprise) which saw a demand and tried to fill it. One of the certificates included here is a “Document of Authenticity” and a reproduction of the lading paperwork. If it’s not real, someone went to a lot of trouble to leave the opposite impression, so full points for effort!

The second set of pieces (photographed on top of their plastic bag) I have are most certainly real as they were acquired by a friend of my aunt’s in the weeks immediately following the Wall’s opening. A native Berliner who had emigrated to Canada after World War II, this woman traveled to Berlin with her sister to take in the scene for themselves and to celebrate this momentous occasion. It’s this personal connection to the history that makes these my “favourites”.

The third set (small baggie with one piece removed) were bought by tourists part of a bus tour of Germany in the summer of 1990, most likely at the Brandenburg Gate, around the time that I was in the city. There’s little reason to doubt the authenticity of the pieces given the easy access the dealers had to the real thing at that time; as the years passed and demand for pieces of the Wall continued, it’s safe to assume that it became necessary to “manufacture” fragments from sources other than the actual Wall.

The final collection of pieces is interesting for their presentation alone: 24 individual pieces, each packaged in its own plastic box. I received this set from a professor friend and their provenance is unclear. Anyone have any leads?

Pieces of the Wall – Final Resting Places
In the years following the fall of the Wall, numerous pieces of the structure made there way around the world to be displayed in various locations as monuments to the Cold War, peace or a variety of other thematically relevant notions/ideas. Someone has been kind enough to compile a Wikipedia page with a list of where segments of the Berlin Wall have ended up. According to this list, pieces of the Wall are on display in five Canadian locations (start planning your vacations now!) including the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and a lovely piece at Montréal’s Centre de Commerce Mondial.

When visiting Winnipeg a number of years ago, we were travelling along an arterial road on the northern end of the city when we passed a used car dealership. Out of the corner of my eye, a flash of colour caught my attention. Matte and pale blue, it was one of the distinctive hues of a Trabant, the GDR’s most common/infamous passenger vehicle. I called for us to stop, and we turned around so I could go in and explore. Sure enough, parked in a corner of the lot was a Trabant 601! I entered the sales office to inquire and met the daughter of the owner. Apparently he was an émigré from the East in the 1950s and had returned to Germany immediately upon hearing of the Wall’s fall. Once here, he’d purchased the Trabbi and a segment of the fortifications used at the inner-German border. The Trabi had sat in the corner of the lot in the years since, but it was the fate of the piece of the Wall that is of relevance here.

The plan was to donate the piece to the University of Manitoba for display on campus as a monument to the Cold War. The university, however, had no interest. Neither did the University of Winnipeg. Or anywhere else in the city that he approached. So the piece was sitting in a garage, the owner having given up on finding a place for it.

I’ve heard anecdotes about similar donations being rebuffed by other universities (U. of Toronto for one) and cities. Not sure what I think of this. Insurance costs were one reason given to the would-be donor in Winnipeg and perhaps that’s a reasonable argument, but surely there is a value in having a relic of this crucial turning point in modern history on prominent display at an institution of higher learning?!

  1. Dan said:

    I liked your Berlin Wall fragments section. Do you think that the production of a market in chunks of an oppressive wall is interesting? I sometimes wonder how many of the fragments are actually bits of the wall, especially the chunks of concrete on sale now. The wall was not that long surely! How many times has the Berlin Wall been sold? The wall-ogie just seems weird since it was a symbol of totalitarian control.

  2. The idea that people wanted a piece of the Wall doesn’t strike me as that strange, but, anecdotally, I think that it was primarily people from the West who were interested in this. I think there is probably a sense of triumphalism for some, a symbol of the West’s victory in the Cold War. For many others though, I think the motivation is more benign and probably reflects a wish to possess a piece of one of the most-prevalent symbols of a specific time (Cold War). Either way, my sense is that the wish to have some of the Wall is primarily held by people from the Western side of the Cold War divide. Reflecting on it, I don’t believe I ever encountered anyone in the former-East who had a piece. Given that the Wall would have been a symbol of oppression for many of the Eastern side, I’m not sure I’d want a chunk of that on my mantle either were I an East German. As for how much of the Wall which has been hawked actually came from the “actual Wall”, well, I’d just say that if authenticity is an issue for you, you might want to steer clear from the vendors at Checkpoint Charlie at this point.

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