On May 5, 1987, Hans Bornträger wrote an audacious letter to Erich Honecker, the dour leader of East Germany’s communist regime. Bornträger, who had fled the East in 1953, (the year a major workers’ uprising was brutally crushed), had since become owner of a successful West German construction company that had worked on projects including the Düsseldorf underground system.
Though construction was his métier, Bornträger had an act of destruction on his mind. “With our new demolition technology, KROKODIL, we offer you today the unique, excellent and historical opportunity to immediately tear down the Berlin Wall, so that you set an international gesture of understanding, which will positively affect the efforts between EAST and WEST in the struggle for disarmament and peace,” he wrote.
“A truly historical deed for the 750th birthday of Berlin could not be surpassed by any celebration or gift,” Bornträger concluded.
The General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) of the German Democratic Republic was not amused. The “anti-fascist wall,” as the regime of the German Democratic Republic called it, was purported to protect East Berlin from the dangers of an aggressive and imperialist West, though anyone with eyes to see knew this was a lie.
The wall was built to keep people trapped inside, not to prevent outsiders from entering. Honecker’s predecessor, Walter Ubricht, had ordered its construction 26 years earlier to stem the tide of East Germans streaming into the democratic West, a steady trickle that had grown into a flood and which represented an embarrassment to communists and their pretensions of presiding over a workers’ paradise.
On August 12, 1961, in the dead of night, East German guards closed the borders of the Soviet-controlled sector of the city and put up barbed-wire entanglements and fences, the rudimentary elements of what would soon become a concrete wall spanning the 26 miles dividing East and West, as well as the 70 miles required to encircle the borders of West Berlin and seal it off from surrounding GDR territory.
Over its near-thirty-year existence, some 140 people died trying to cross the wall, which was patrolled by a heavily armed border guard.
Honecker, needless to say, never responded to Bornträger’s letter, which was placed in a file at the headquarters of the GDR’s fearsome intelligence service, the Stasi, identifying him from that point forward as a traitor.
Coincidentally, just a month after Bornträger sent off his missive to Honecker, President Ronald Reagan would publicly echo the West German construction manager’s plea. In his world-famous speech before Berlin’s central Brandenburg Gate, Reagan demanded that then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.”
Two years later, on the night of November 9th, 1989, months of protests culminated in the peaceful collapse of the wall and the opening of the border between the two Germanies.
Twenty-five years after the fall, according to the German government’s Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship, more pieces of the structure are located in spots around the world than in Berlin. They are scattered in places ranging from, appropriately enough, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, California, to the Polish village of Sosnovka, where a dentist dubbed by the German media as “The Wall Collector” has amassed the largest assortment of the 2.6 ton slabs (nearly 40) outside of Germany.
All told, about 54,000 such blocks, measuring over 10 feet high and 4 feet wide, were used to construct the Berlin Wall, which actually consisted of two walls, an inner and outer partition, with a “death strip” in between. Though the wall stopped serving its divisive purpose on the evening of November 9th, 1989, it was not until June of the following year that the East German government officially began taking it down, finishing the work that had been begun by citizens on their own initiative. Dubbed mauerspechte (“wall-peckers”), they began chipping exuberantly away at the wall with household tools almost immediately after Günther Schabowski, an East German official, delivered a convoluted statement regarding the liberalization of travel restrictions at a press conference.
Asked when the new procedures were to take effect, Schabowski, who had not been given a specific timeline, replied, “As far as I know, effective immediately, without delay.” The rest, as they say is history.
The majority of the slabs that constituted the wall were demolished and used for highway gravel. In January 1990, the transitional East German government (soon to be reunited with, and absorbed into, the Federal Republic) passed a measure allowing for the “commercial use of complete segments” of the wall. In a delicious irony, the remaining pieces of the structure built by committed Marxist-Leninists to safeguard their socialist experiment from the ravages of capitalism are now considered prized commodities, with tiny chunks sold to tourists for as little as $3.50 and whole slabs selling at auction for tens of thousands of dollars.
A new book released by the Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship, “Where in the World is the Berlin Wall,” tracked down over 240 sections of the wall on all six continents, where they are included in over 140 memorials.
Unsurprisingly, the Foundation lists only one slab in Russia, the former East Germany’s erstwhile occupier. Nearly 100 can be found in the United States. The longest existing stretch of the wall is the EastSide Gallery along the River Spree, a de facto open-air museum where artists from around the world have covered it with paintings addressing themes of division and unity.
The most famous of these is “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” a rendering of a 1979 photograph depicting former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev locking lips with Honecker at the 30th anniversary of East Germany’s creation as a communist state.
Another irony of the wall is how this barrier to freedom, whose destruction was desired by so many people over the world, today counts many advocates for its preservation. Last year, when construction of a new luxury condominium complex threatened to tear down a section of the EastSide Gallery to make room for a driveway, David Hasselhoff, who had wowed over a million Germans from both sides of the wall with a New Year’s Eve concert in 1989, joined protestors in demanding that the wall stay up.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall, the city of Berlin has devised an inspiring and meaningful public art event: 8,000 lighted balloons have been placed along the wall’s former route, forming a lichtgrenze, or “light border.” Each has been assigned a “patron,” ranging from civic associations to former East German dissidents, who will write a message on a card and attach it to the balloon. This evening, to the music of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the glowing orbs will be released into the sky, symbolizing the peaceful collapse of a dictatorship and the reunification of a country and a continent.