Open Space: Berlin After Reunification

Provocative works of public art exploring memory, history, politics, and identity.

During the Cold War, East and West exchanged their captured spies on Glienicker Brücke, the so-called bridge of spies. Crossing into East Germany from West Berlin, you were limited to just a few transit routes, for a specified period of time, and you couldn’t leave the track and couldn’t visit anyone in the East without a permit.

West Berliners led a free life, in a part of a city surrounded by a wall. East Berliners were imprisoned inside the Eastern Bloc, and because they couldn’t travel anywhere they wanted to, they were disconnected from the constant flow of information, exchange and influences. This explains why Westerners and Easterners have different collective memories; they even speak the same language in a different way.

In November 1989 the wall came down, and West and East Germans began rediscovering each other; but the socialist and capitalist cultures have been slow to merge. Since reunification Germany has been searching for new patterns of self-recognition. Until the World Soccer Games — in 2006 — Germans felt unable to wave their flag — part of the burden of Germany’s inglorious past, recalling the darkest epoch in European history, the Holocaust and World War II. The past remains present. History and memory are kept alive in schools, research centers and memorials, and also by Germany’s public and private media. The debates about the Holocaust Memorial ended in concrete, and the traces of the wall that once ruled the lives of Berliners are mostly erased. It’s a delicate balance, to retell the complex story it symbolized.

Throughout Berlin the histories of sites, people and buildings create multiple overlays; street names are changed overnight, structures are reshaped and reborn. Newcomers find the empty spaces inviting, ready to be conquered. What they cannot know is the fantastic feeling of freedom that you once had when driving down the Avus into West Berlin after crossing the border. Young men came to West Berlin to avoid being drafted; many citizens moved to that enclosed island to get far away from their small-town families, hungry for knowledge, art, music, literature, theatre, movies, sex and nights at the Jungle club. The former stronghold of the student revolution has been turned into a capital for punks, who listened to the band Einstürzende Neubauten — Collapsing New Buildings — while the union-owned real estate company Neue Heimat tore down entire blocks to reshape parts of the West to look like prefabricated socialist housing in the East. When the federal government moved from Bonn to the new/old capital, another building boom started, and the new arrivals transformed the gray tristesse of the East into a hip place for young baby boomers, just like at home in Cologne or Stuttgart. But the reunified Berlin is still big enough to absorb a lot. It still provides open spaces for everybody — places without borders — “chacun a son gout,” in the spirit of Frederick the Great.

Frieder Schnock & Renata Stih, “Open Space: Berlin After Reunification,” Places Journal, November 2009. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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  • john massengale

    11.11.2009 at 11:40

    I was in Berlin the weekend after the wall came down. I had never been to Berlin, and on my first day I went to see Schinkel's Kleine Glienecke — by the Glienecke bridge, which had a constant stream of East Germans walking into West Berlin. It was quite a sight.

    On Sunday, we went to a cafe which had a famous all-you-can-eat buffet. The West Germans and tourists were diving in, but the East Germans made a circle around the buffet tables, standing 2 meters away from the tables. They had paid for the meal with the allowance they got when they entered West Berlin, but seemingly couldn't believe they were allowed to partake.

    Easily noticeable was that many of the young men had spent a large portion of their stipends on pornographic magazines. Ah, the wonderful West.

    I made my way back to Munich by train via Potsdam, Leipzig and Weimar. I had to go into East Berlin by subway to get a visa for the trip. When you got off the train, the station was shabby, dirty and poorly lit. Soldiers in gray uniforms stood around with machine guns and German Shepherds, watching the crowd. It was a grim and depressing introduction to what humans are willing to do to each other in the name of "equality."

    The next day I went back to visit Potsdam. Potsdam is at one end of the Glienecke bridge, but I had to go to a central station and then to a railroad that rings the city, transforming a potentially short walk into a trip that took a few hours.

    The trains were again shabby and poorly lit. Without announcement, we would pull into badly marked stations and people would run to and fro, exiting and entering trains on adjacent tracks. Luckily, I saw a sign for Potsdam and got off the train. Other trains pulled out, and I was left standing on an empty platform.

    I walked into the station building, which had temporary construction walls that looked like they had been left untouched for a decade. A man walked out of the gloom in one corner of the station and asked me in English if I wanted a taxi. I was too dumb to say "yes," and went to the ticket window to find out how to get to my hotel.

    I had been living in Munich for a few months and knew some German, but I got nowhere with the ticket seller. He pointed to a sign for trams to the center of the town, but when I telephoned my hotel — the best in Potsdam — to find out how to get from the tram to the hotel, no one answered the phone at the hotel.

    I went to a taxi stand. Every time a taxi pulled in, a rugby scrum would run to the driver and yell things at him. He would point to a few people, they would get in the taxi, the taxi would leave and the scrum would disperse.

    Down the street, I spotted a some parked taxis. The drivers of those taxis were having dinner and weren't interested in communicating. I went back to the taxi stand and eventually realized that dollar bills would probably get me a private taxi. The driver may have grossly overcharged me, but since I only gave him $2 I wasn't concerned.

    As we drove into Potsdam, it was dark. Few streetlights were lit, and most houses had their shutters drawn against the cold. Almost all the buildings still had what seemed to be bomb marks from World War II, and the stench of coal was overwhelming. I later learned that coal was the main source of power and heat for most things, including cars, and that it was a particularly noxious and toxic coal.

    The hotel was a beautiful if somewhat grim English country in a park, designed for a Crown Prince by Muthesius. But even after several hours in Potsdam, when I woke up in the middle of the night in my beautiful and comfortable room, my first thought was "the coal stinks."

    When I got away from Potsdam to Leipzig and Weimar, it was hard to tell that anything had changed in East Germany. No one was willing to talk to me about what was going on in Berlin, with the exception of a very old couple in Weimar, whom I guessed thought they were too old to get into trouble.

  • brittany Kent

    11.12.2009 at 19:37

    Love this imagery