Historian Collects 'Forgotten' Relics from One of the Most Poignant Symbols of the Cold War

berlin wall history
One of the most daring escapes over the Berlin Wall was by an East German border guard, Conrad Schumann, in 1962. (Image credit: Chronos Media GmbH/Ullstein bild/Getty)

Rusting rolls of barbed wire, a dismantled watchtower, parts of a movable military gate … these historic relics of the Berlin Wall may not look like much at first glance, but they represent a city split for almost 30 years by a deadly physical barrier that reflected the deep ideological divisions of the Cold War.

Now, a German historian is collecting these Berlin Wall artifacts, before the structure they came from fades from living memory.

"My goal is to connect these objects to stories they are bound to, which tell you about the building and bringing down the Wall, but also the daily life with it: How Berliners got used to it, how people dealt with the division of families [and] friends," said Manfred Wichmann, the museum curator for the Berlin Wall Foundation. [In Photos: The Berlin Wall Through Time]

The foundation researches and documents historical aspects of the wall and maintains the Berlin Wall Memorial in a park along the former inner-city border, an open-air exhibition that features some of the thick concrete slabs that made up much of the 100-mile-long (160 kilometers) barrier, which stood until 1989.

Wichmann keeps key artifacts from the foundation's collection in the museum building nearby, but he also collects larger relics of the Berlin Wall in a closed-off area near the Berlin Wall Memorial he calls the "lapidarium" — a place where stone monuments and sculptures are collected.

Among more than 300 objects, Wichmann's Berlin Wall lapidarium holds light towers, border signs and markings, concrete foundations and the large plates of steel that made up about 30 miles of the outskirts of the city's internal border.

Divided City

The Berlin Wall was put in place in 1961 by East Germany, which was controlled by the Soviet Union — one of the four nations that governed the former capital city after Germany was defeated in World War II.

As the post-war peace developed into the Cold War, in 1951, the internal border between the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) — as West Germany was called then — and the eastern German Democratic Republic (GDR) was closed.

But Berlin stayed open, and the city became the main route used by East Germans to leave the GDR — an estimated 3.5 million people by 1961.

In response, East German police and soldiers put the Berlin Wall in place on Aug. 13, 1961. East Germany claimed it was built to stop Western cultural influences, but around 80 people trying to cross the Berlin Wall from east to west were shot and killed by East German border guards during the years that it stood.

The wall stood until Nov. 9, 1989, when it was torn down by celebrating crowds after East Germany lifted its travel restrictions to the West.

Wichmann explained that the barrier took different physical forms over the 28 years that it divided the city.

"There has never been 'the' Berlin Wall," he told Live Science in an email. "It was an ever-changing, dynamic system of fortification elements, control systems and military infrastructure … Its appearance depended highly on the specific place and time."

He noted that much of the wall wasn't made from the concrete slabs that have come to characterize it. "One-third of the sector border [was] seas, canals or rivers," he said. "By showing and explaining its various elements, people will get to know that it was not just a wall."

Wichmann's collection reflects how the wall changed, yet always remained a physical and ideological barrier. "I intend to show the different aspects of the border fortifications and how they were used to strengthen the impression of a border not possible to cross by any means," he said.

'Tear down this wall'

The collection will also highlight the human and cultural sides of the wall. It didn't just divide the city into two parts. West Berlin was completely closed off from the rest of the city and from the surrounding parts of East Germany — making it effectively an island in a hostile political sea.

The wall became a symbol of Europe's ideological divisions, and it was a prominent feature in Western efforts to bring the Cold War to an end: The U.S. President Ronald Reagan called on his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "tear down this wall" in a speech in West Berlin in 1987.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany was reunified and East Germany cast off its links to the crumbling Soviet Union.

For now, Wichmann's lapidarium of Berlin Wall relics is only occasionally open for guided tours, but he hopes to get the artifacts into a state where they can be permanently displayed. He also hopes to have the collection rendered as digital three-dimensional models that can be viewed online by anyone.

Among his main interests, he said, are the "special checkpoints" of the Berlin Wall where trains, ships and even garbage trucks were allowed to cross. Such gateways were separate from the vehicle crossings, like the famous "Checkpoint Charlie."

"These passages through the Wall were, from the GDR's view, dangerous, as there had to be very strict and constant controls, but on the other hand, they were necessary, as they also guaranteed the collecting of foreign currency," he said.

He is also interested in artifacts that show the activities of East German soldiers stationed along the wall. "We should regard the members of the border troops as an integral part of the Berlin Wall, but on the other hand, as people within the East German society, also during their duty," he said.

"This 'human factor' of the Berlin Wall should never be forgotten at all, and in the end, it was the autonomous decision of an officer at the border that finally opened up the Wall on Nov. 9 in 1989," Wichmann said.

Original article on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.