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SPECIAL REPORT

Thirty years after its fall, part of the Berlin Wall still stands

Amateur historian Christian Bormann waited 19 years to tell the world about an 80-metre stretch of the Berlin Wall he discovered.
Amateur historian Christian Bormann waited 19 years to tell the world about an 80-metre stretch of the Berlin Wall he discovered. FRANCE 24

Far from the vibrant energy of central Berlin, in an overlooked wasteland strewn with weeds, a small part of the Berlin Wall still stands. Three decades after that notorious symbol of the Iron Curtain came crashing down, FRANCE 24 met Christian Bormann, the man who discovered this remnant of the Cold War and kept it hidden for 19 years.

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Ahead of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, Christian Bormann is the last witness to an infamous edifice “put up in a hurry, on the night of August 13, 1961, with the East Germans using anything they could find as building material”, as he recounted. Shortly after throwing up this wall to block the flow of emigrants to West Germany, the East replaced it with a second, “prettier” wall, “the one everyone knows”.

A keen amateur historian, passionate about his city’s rich past, Bormann waited 19 years to tell the world about this 80-metre stretch of the Wall. “When I discovered it in 1999, I knew that it would have quickly been destroyed if I spoke about it, because at that point people wanted to eradicate every last trace of the Wall so that Berlin would look like a unified city,” he said.

But in 2018, this small historical treasure was on the verge of collapsing, so Bormann informed the authorities of its existence in order to ensure its preservation.

By that point, Germany was more at ease with its reunification. “My discovery became an immediate international sensation; I did about fifty interviews in three days,” recalled the man the American media dubbed “the German Indiana Jones”.

To start with, he wasn’t taken seriously: “It was like I said I’d discovered another Egyptian pyramid! People said it was impossible; that everything had already been found.” But this forgotten morsel of the Berlin Wall was soon authenticated.

A love story and an accident of history

This all prompted the inevitable question: how was it possible for 80 metres of such a well-known historical symbol to stay hidden, tucked away in a forgotten corner of a major global city? The answer, Bormann said, lies in both a love story and an accident of history.

“A bit further along, there was a tunnel under the wall that allowed a woman in the East to flee to join her husband, who lived in the West,” he said. “After the communist authorities discovered this tunnel, they decided to put the new wall they built in a slightly different place – and this meant that a sliver of the old one stayed there. You couldn’t see it from the Western side of the city, so the communists decided that demolishing it wouldn’t be worth the money.”

Then in 1987, an impecunious East Germany sold the land to the West – and, after the euphoria of reunification, no one was interested in finding remnants of that old manifestation of the Iron Curtain.

The except that proved this rule was – of course – Christian Bormann. He was seven years old when elated East Germans tore down the Wall in those heady moments three decades ago – and he remains a tireless explorer of the neighbourhood where he was born.

“A significant proportion of the population here is still the same as it was before the fall of communism,” Bormann noted. “The buildings still look pretty much the same; the only difference is that the facades have been repainted to get rid of that grey look, which symbolised life under communism.”

‘The dust of history’

Pankow may lack the iconic aura of Berlin’s Mitte district, where Checkpoint Charlie was located – but it contains a lot of overlooked remnants of East Germany and the reunification process.

Another example is the grave of Maria Liedtke, near the old border between the two Berlins. It was behind her burial place that the so-called tunnel of love opened in 1961, allowing the Niebanks – a young married couple – to reunite. On August 13, they went to visit Mrs Niebanks’s family in East Berlin. But when the two newlyweds wanted to return to their apartment in the West, only the husband was allowed through.

“They were told that it was normal for couples to be separated in times of war,” Bormann said. This was unthinkable for Mr Niebanks, who spent several months digging a tunnel under the border to allow his beloved to join him back in the West.

If you travel just a bit further up the road that runs beside the cemetery – which was all “no-man’s land” before 1989 – you end up at a park. These days, families go there for picnics; people walk their dogs in this verdant haven from the bustle of the city. “No one seems to remember this today, but it was here that 155 km of the Berlin Wall was destroyed, except for 500 pieces that the government sold,” Bormann said.

He remembers that, as a kid, he used to play amongst the big blocks of stone while a giant machine nearby pulverised them into dust. “They called it the green monster because it was so big and made such a horrible racket,” Bormann remembered. “For two years, people lived with this incessant din, and every day when they opened their windows, they got dust in their mouths. They called it the dust of history.”

The remains of the Wall have since been recycled. The 155 km barrier was converted into the pavement for new roads. So when you take the motorway exit out of Pankow, in effect you are driving on top of the Berlin Wall.

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