Wall still casts unwelcome shadow on some in Berlin

August 17, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN — Theo Eckert looks up from working on his flower bed and snorts his disapproval at the sight before him.

"It's still there. Exactly 30 years and the wall hasn't budged," he complains.

The wall in front of Mr. Eckert's garden is the Berlin Wall, the 100-mile symbol of the Cold War that was built 30 years ago to stop East Germans from fleeing to the West.

Most of the world thinks it was all torn down at the end of 1989. But more than 10 miles of it remain as officials from Berlin and the neighboring state of Brandenburg argue over how to finance the remaining demolition.

Mr. Eckert is not alone in his disgust. Most Berliners on the western border of the city want the rest of the wall to disappear.

The wall is also causing controversy in the city center, near Bernauer Street, where officials want to keep a segment of it standing as a memorial to the 78 people who died trying to cross from East to West and, not least, as a tourist site for a city that is losing what was once a prime attraction.

Two years ago, the wall still encircled West Berlin, isolating from East Germany the part of the city run by Britain, France and the United States since World War II. The Communists put up the wall in 1961 after more than 2.7 million East Germans fled the Stalinist state for the West, many by simply taking the subway or commuter train to West Berlin, where they either stayed or flew on to West Germany.

But as East Germany's Communist government fell in the autumn of 1989, the wall was opened. The next spring, work started on its removal. The goal was to have it all cleared away by the wall's 30th anniversary Tuesday.

But these plans went awry, and no one knows when the wall will be torn down or how much of it will remain.

"I can't call the process satisfying," said Helmut Trotnow of the German Historical Museum, which has worked to preserve a part of the wall as a memorial.

The city government has approved the memorial but also said a four-lane road should be built in the same vicinity, leaving little room for the memorial, Mr. Trotnow said. And with much of the wall destroyed by souvenir hunters, most of what visitors will see would have to be replicated, he said.

"Most of the wall will have to be restored because people have chipped away at it. We will also have to rebuild at least one watchtower, which was thoughtlessly pulled down last year," Mr. Trotnow said.

The 100-yard stretch of wall in the center city is now encircled by a high fence to keep ravenous "wall peckers" from finishing it off.

Two stretches of the wall that were to be preserved are so badly damaged that they will probably be removed, he said.

At the other end of town, the situation is reversed.

Out on the western border of the city and the countryside, near Mr. Eckert's house, long stretches of wall are still standing, and no one can agree on how to get rid of them.

The work was supposed to have been carried out by former East German army units, but soldiers from the army's engineering corps have been quitting in such numbers that work has slowed to a snail's pace, Maj. Johann Wiesinger said.

"What was paved over in 30 years can't be pulled down in one," he said.

Major Wiesinger's 300-member unit and another 600-strong forceare to be disbanded at the end of the month, and unless city and state officials agree on a way to finance further demolition work, the wall could remain standing on the city's outskirts indefinitely. The best hope is that the German Defense Ministry will not disband the unit and will instead allow it to work for the further year that Major Wiesinger believes is necessary to complete the task.

Meanwhile the souvenir pieces of knocked-down wall, which city officials had hoped would be a large source of revenue, are not selling anymore.

After a spree last year in which buyers from around the world bought wall segments for up to $120,000 each, pieces are now stacking up and can be had for as little as $6,000 each, said Luise Henk, a saleswoman with the Bau trading company, the firm that handles wall sales for the city.

"Only once in a while does an American come by to get a piece of the wall. We don't know what to do with the rest," Mrs. Henk said.

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