The Berlin Wall 1961-1989: Photographs from the stock of the Archives of the Land of Berlin


I visited Berlin in the summer of 2010 and picked up four books about the Berlin Wall. While they were fascinating reads as I perused them in the bookstores, I didn’t read any of them cover to cover until now. In general, when I have multiple books about the same subject, I read the slimmest volumes first, working my way up to the longest and most detailed. Thus I begin my Berlin Wall project with The Berlin Wall 1961-1989: Photographs from the stock of the Archives of the Land of Berlin, a collection of black and white photographs selected and commented on by Volker Viergutz and translated by E. F. S. Zbikowski. The book is divided into fifteen chapters outlining the history of the Berlin Wall from its creation to demolition. Each chapter was preceded by a lengthy commentary and all the photos had detailed captions. For a compilation of photographs, it was not slight on the text and as such took me two days to read its 128 pages, for each photo demanded my attention. One cannot simply pass one’s gaze over photos such as that of Günter Litfin being dragged out of the Humboldt-Hafen after he was shot trying to swim to West Berlin. I spent a lengthy minute or so on each photo before moving on to the next.

Border freaks like me are particularly interested in the state of West Berlin, for the city also comprised twelve tiny parcels of land that lay outside of the Wall within East Germany. I visited one such former exclave, Steinstücken, on a fascinating walking tour on a day trip that also included Potsdam. The Berlin Wall had a chapter on the exclaves and included a photo of Steinstücken. The Wall also cut through farmland, giving those that owned the land a diplomatic nightmare. One fact that I did not know was that the border between East and West Berlin in the heart of the city was often the sidewalk, while the block of buildings adjacent to the sidewalk was across the border. Berliners would step off the sidewalk from East Berlin into their homes in the West. This created a dilemma for those who erected the Wall. Thus the Wall was built several metres inside East German territory, leaving a thin strip of East German territory on the other side. A border-hugging snake of East German land lay accessible only to those who lived in West Berlin.

The translation was awkward in places, especially when street names were mentioned. The translator sometimes used the English definite article before German street names. The Berlin Wall also came with a 50-minute DVD which I have watched several times and shown to others. It was a remarkable history of the Wall, which will mark the 25th anniversary of its fall later this year.

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