In Berlin, it's memory vs. money

Sun Journal

Wall: Potsdamer Platz, once a wasteland separating East and West, is Europe's biggest redevelopment project. Blocking part of it is a 30-yard remnant of the wall and its stubborn owner.

February 04, 1999|By Lori Montgomery | Lori Montgomery,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BERLIN -- Ten years ago, the people of Germany toppled the Berlin Wall. Now the city building department is trying to finish the job.

Berlin wants to tear down one of the last remaining bits of the wall to make way for a road. The plan has outraged preservationists, artists and human rights activists, who are flocking to the aid of the wall's owner, an eccentric entrepreneur who is fighting back in court.

"This is the most historic place in Germany, and there's nothing left of history in this place," says Erich Stanke, 39, who has owned the chunk of the wall since an East German military commander handed it over to him in 1990.

Says Alexander Longolius, a local preservationist: "Too much history has been destroyed in Berlin. We should at least preserve the rest. It makes me sick that places of memory are being sacrificed in the interest of making money."

If the wall was a potent symbol of the old Berlin, divided between communism and democracy, the battle over this remnant is characteristic of the new Berlin, united by capitalism's all-too-visible hand.

At issue are perhaps 30 yards of wall on the edge of Potsdamer Platz in central Berlin. It is the last remaining stretch of the wall in the infamous "death strip," the barren no man's land of watchtowers and machine guns that separated East and West Berlin from 1961 until the wall fell Nov. 9, 1989.

After the wall fell, investors flocked to Potsdamer Platz, eager to help reunite Berlin. Today, the former wasteland is the biggest construction site in Europe -- a $5 billion redevelopment project that covers 10 acres and includes government buildings, shopping malls, apartment towers and sleek new high-rise headquarters for major corporations such as DaimlerChrysler and Sony.

The city claims that the remaining bit of wall -- now painted with bright murals celebrating peace -- blocks access from Potsdamer Platz to a nearby property that Sony and other investors are eager to develop. The city is proposing to dismantle Stanke's piece of the wall and move it to a nearby park.

"The investors are complaining that they can't access their land," says Wilhelm Gehrke, a senior official in the Berlin Building Administration. "Berlin as a city is interested in attracting investors who can provide jobs. The media should not interfere in this process."

But Stanke and others say the wall is an important part of Berlin's history and should stay where it is.

"It's not the concrete that makes it historic. It's this place," Stanke says.

The debate has become especially vitriolic because, in the onslaught of development, Berlin has preserved very little of the wall, which many Berliners consider the single most important feature of their lives.

There's an official memorial wall far north of the city center on Bernauer Strasse and a sort of museum, the East Side Gallery, farther east. But in the center of town near the former Reichstag building and the Brandenburg Gate, there's virtually nothing left.

Checkpoint Charlie -- made famous by dozens of Cold War spy movies and known for its chilling sign: "You are now leaving the American Sector" -- was bulldozed to make way for the Checkpoint Charlie Office Park. The city left the famous sign, but it was stolen last year.

"This city doesn't care to preserve memory for the following generations," says Michael Arndt, a deputy in the Berlin city parliament. "There's an inability to mourn, a feeling that it's better to remove history in the name of progress than to confront it. It's an attempt to simply wipe out the dark times."

For much of the past decade, the fragment of wall that remains on Potsdamer Platz seems to have been overlooked by everyone except Stanke. How this piece of history fell into his hands is a story in itself.

When the wall fell in 1989, Stanke was a budding entrepreneur from the West looking to make a buck off the march of history. He was one of the first West Germans to cross the border, and he quickly opened a driving school and a moving company in East Berlin.

There, Stanke made the acquaintance of the East German soldiers who continued to guard what remained of the wall. Their country was to reunite with West Germany in October 1990. When the border disappeared, they would be out of work.

Aware that the guards would abandon their posts Sept. 1, Stanke offered to buy their barracks. Their commander, Lt. Col. Harry Fleck, told Stanke that if he helped the guards find work, he could have the border properties for nothing. So Stanke hired 23 guards and Fleck turned over 212 keys -- one for every door, drawer and guard post on Potsdamer Platz.

Stanke thought he had the keys to a gold mine.

Asked why he wanted to buy the border, Stanke replies, "Geld! Money! It's the most famous place on earth. You could make a fortune."

He set up a bungee-jumping concession where daredevils could dive off a crane into the former death strip. And he briefly operated an underground disco in the vast old public toilets that served Potsdamer Platz in its 1920s heyday.

Stanke even tried to sell the wall, but he rejected an offer of $350,000 in 1993. After that, "the price of the wall went down," he says.

While Stanke had the keys to the border properties, he didn't have a deed. The city, which owned the land under the properties, destroyed them one by one to make way for development.

Stanke went to court, and last fall a Berlin judge recognized his claim. By then, all that remained was the little stretch of wall. Now, instead of trying to cash in, Stanke is determined to defend it.

"Money is OK and good," he says, "but now I see that other things can be important, too."

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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