BERLIN — The workers used the early morning darkness to obscure their secretive task: removing pieces of the longest-remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall.
When the wall fell in 1989, Berlin’s residents were eager to clear away the hated divider as quickly as they could. Now many of the people who fought to scrub it from the map are scrambling to preserve what remains. Recently, they came up against a developer determined to build on his property, situated in the former no-man’s land between East and West Berlin.
The conflict comes as Germany re-evaluates its relationship to a communist era it once couldn’t wait to forget. Berlin’s streets are scattered with memorials to Nazi-era atrocities. But until very recently, many here were happy to rid themselves of reminders of the post-World War II period when they were separated by political systems and an 86-mile reinforced concrete barrier that ringed the western half of the city.
At this mile-long stretch along the Spree River known as the East Side Gallery, artists painted exuberant murals on the wall in the months after East and West Berlin were reunited. Tourists have long flocked here to see a cheerful monument to peaceful revolution in a once out-of-the-way area.
But as the city has boomed in recent years, developers have targeted many of the empty spaces that were left by World War II bombings and communist neglect. Last week, workers removed a 25-foot concrete span of the landmark wall to make an access road for a planned 13-story luxury apartment building directly along the river. The move sparked immediate protest.
“There is a wider consciousness for the wall and its cultural significance,” said Axel Klausmeier, the director of the Berlin Wall Foundation. At the time of reunification “it was impossible to imagine thousands of people standing in front of the wall demonstrating to keep it. Now there is a completely different attitude.”
The construction, which started at the beginning of March but was temporarily halted after public protest, has galvanized opposition among a broad range of Berlin residents who fret that their city is forgetting its history and also losing what made it unique after 1989. Once upon a time, artists squatted in crumbling apartment buildings and were left alone to be creative. Musicians turned sprawling former industrial spaces into clubs.
But rent has skyrocketed in recent years. The old squatter houses have almost all been renovated. Many residents say Berlin feels more normal — and not in a good way.
“This wall being torn down is a symbol of what’s happening all over now,” said Hannes Kutza, 26, a doctoral candidate. “There are huge amounts of people who are interested in preserving this place.”
The concrete wall, first erected in 1961, was once the most visible international symbol of the Iron Curtain division between the capitalist West and the communist East.
East German authorities erected it overnight to halt a steady stream of defections. At least 136 people perished, most of them shot, as they tried to scale it to escape to the West.
Images of jubilant Berliners chipping away at the Wall with chisels and pickaxes that were broadcast around the world in November 1989 helped accelerate the downfall of the Soviet Union.
After reunification, many here had mixed feelings about preserving reminders of division. Some communist-era monuments, such as the gargantuan, bronze-colored Palace of the Republic, the former seat of the East German parliament, were torn down altogether. Others, such as Checkpoint Charlie, a famous border crossing between East and West Berlin, have been paved over with touristy food stands. In 2007, another portion of the East Side Gallery was removed with little protest to create a riverside park.
Now, though, a recent poll by the Forsa Institute found that 75 percent of Berliners want to preserve the wall. Many of those opposed to the developer’s plans fear that there will be little left to tell future generations what it meant to be divided.
“Ask a 12-year-old about East Germany today. They don’t know anything,” said Lothar Menkel, 55, an engineer who went to the wall this week to watch yellow Komatsu backhoes move piles of dirt.
The fight to keep the wall has some Berliners admitting that their 1989 selves would have been astonished.
“We were confronted with the wall everywhere” before it fell, said Gunter Ebeling, 65, a retired railway worker who has lived in the eastern half of Berlin since 1974 and still remembers the precise minute, 11:11 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1989, that he crossed freely into West Berlin for the first time. Now, he said, the wall “should remain.”
Construction would bring money to Berlin’s cash-strapped city government, leaving some top city officials with mixed feelings about fighting too hard against it. The apartment building would go up in a largely barren area between the former East and West Berlin that was restituted to pre-Nazi-era owners in the 1990s. Although temporary clubs have popped up along the banks of the Spree, large swaths of land have remained empty, as developers long deemed the area too unprofitable to build up.
The Berlin Wall is a landmark monument, meaning that it is usually protected against demolition and modification, but a loophole in building law gives the developer permission to remove up to 65 feet to build the access road. Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit held last-minute meetings with the developer, Maik Uwe Hinkel, hours after Hinkel’s workers moved the portion of the wall, but no final compromise was announced.
The controversy has even attracted the attention of David Hasselhoff, the American actor and musician, whose 1989 New Year’s Eve performance atop the Berlin Wall left him with an unusual and enduring cultural influence in Germany. This month, he visited Berlin to campaign to save the wall, turning out thousands.
“It’s a sad day as the bulldozers came & ripped out the memories of those imprisoned by the Wall and those who died,” he said on Twitter last week.