The front tyre skids on some sleek, black ice. I throw my foot down to prevent a fall as the tyre slips out from under me – just in time. I steady the bicycle and pedal off again, gingerly, for the patches of ice are everywhere. I know I am chancing my luck on this ride, without winter tyres and with the first snows on winter on the ground and more, much more threatening in the clouds above. But I cannot resist.
In Berlin with some time on my hands, I buy a second-hand bicycle, do some repairs and adjustments, and am keen to head out despite the December weather. And what better ride than the Mauerweg, a bicycle path that largely traces the maintenance track of what has become known as the ‘Berlin Wall’. At first sight, the finality of the wall’s fall is marked by a double-row of bricks – cutting across roads, footpaths and intersections – that traces the path of the former wall. Bronze plaques appear regularly, at least through the city: ‘Berliner Mauer, 1961-1989’. Contained, interpreted, neatly packaged – all in order to present the perspective of the supposed ‘winners’. Yet at nearly every point along the former wall, one finds more ambiguous dimensions of a memory and a project that cannot so easily be contained in this fashion. I want to see for myself.
Soon enough, some facts emerge from the mists of that narrative. First, the wall does not cut the city in ‘half’, between a communist east and a capitalist west. It actually circles the whole of west Berlin, covering some 155 kilometres that includes canals and water courses as part of its circumvallation. Second, the centre of Berlin is mostly in the east, with the suburban rump of the western part left to the occupying American, British and French forces after the Second World War – a deal to which Stalin had graciously agreed even though the Red Army had captured Berlin. Third, its proper name is not the ‘Berlin Wall’ but the ‘Antifaschistischer Schutzwall’, the Anti-Fascist Security Rampart. That name says much more about its history, which I am to discover on the ride.
I ride the route in sections, punctuated by stops on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn systems. Located at the fingertips of the spreading hand of the Berlin rail network, these stops occur at anywhere between 10 and 45 kilometres apart along the bike path. And I ride it in early winter, at times when the mercury dips below zero and ice slicks appear, when I leave tyre-tracks through the first snows, when there is no-one but me tracing the route.
The infamous city section cuts past the Reichstag with its colourful history and the dome climbed in victory by the Red Army, hugging the Brandenburg Gate, through the middle of Potsdamer Platz and then out to Friedrichshain along the Spree. But this is barely 15 kilometres of the ride.
With some relief from the Christmas crowds, I find myself in quieter spaces. Along busy roads and populous quarters it passes, but also through areas of ‘no-man’s land’, spaces that some have appropriated for themselves for those characteristic gardens and their huts, or for letting a dog run free for a while. Much of the no-man’s land remains vacant. More than two decades after the ‘fall’, people seem reluctant to build and buy in that space. Thus, even on prime real estate around the city core, weed-infested blocks sit empty beside apartments for the fashionable inner-city types.
But the path also runs along railway lines and canals, around villages on the Brandenburg border, through fields and vast forests. Far from the grim black-and-white pictures purveyed by the ‘official’ history of the wall, towards the south-west it skirts the holiday playground of the Wannsee. Here inland beaches where nudists still frolic in summer – for nudism was fostered in the DDR – sit cheek by jowl with extensive forests and their tracks. I imagine the pleasure of the builders as they cut through the areas where mansions of the rich and famous are found, turning them into places for all to visit, subsidised by the government (although too often government leaders reserved some for themselves). And to add to the thrill, the path becomes a ferry for crossing the Wannsee itself.
Germans have rather liberal understandings of what constitutes a fahrradweg. It may be a wide, smooth path, clearly signposted. It may be a peaceful forest path that you have entirely to yourself, with perhaps a deer or a hare around the next bend. It may be a road with no shoulder, which one shares with trucks and buses and cars. It may be a cobbled street, or perhaps a rough farm track that rattles the teeth out of your jaw. It may be a dog-run, bespattered with turds that the locals obviously believe assist with fertilisation and preserve tyre rubber. And it may be narrow, muddy wheel furrow that had been made by riders themselves desperate to find a way through. Add to that the frozen puddles upon which I constantly skid, the snow that threatens to drift over the path, and the wind that bears the promise of more bitter temperatures, all beneath the lowering December clouds. At least they cannot be accused of lack of variety or challenge.
Along the way, I come across a man quietly exploring the wall in the midst of an isolated cluster of trees. Does he seek some pieces to take home? Does he want to find the spot where a friend slipped through? Or does he lament the wall’s passing, or rather the project it sought to protect from a more powerful West? I pedal past a collection of patched caravan-trailers, which you can imagine would just as easily be hauled by a horse as by a slow combustion engine. A diminutive pony grazes nearby, scruffy kids kick a ball around, fire smoke curls into the sky – gypsies making the most of the free space left around the path of the wall. Beneath a railway bridge, I glide past shuffling characters with impossibly lined faces. Not so old but with faded backpacks, they have big smiles and give one another elaborate handshakes. I opt not to stop, to ask them for a photograph or perhaps what wares they are hawking. On a quiet stretch by the Teltow Canal I finally have to walk a few kilometres, slipping and hauling the bicycle, for the ice is too firmly set for rubber tyres to gain grip.
Often the rampart is merely a canal or watercourse, deploying the ancient and well-tried practice of using water in such a fashion. Easy to guard and with good sight-lines, a watercourse – like a freeway these days – is a very useful defence line. But by far the most fascinating are the parts of the wall that remain. I mean not the tourist strips in the city, whether in the Mauerpark with its museum, or over the underground chambers where the SS tortured its victims (and which the victors’ narrative attempts to connect with the DDR), or even the ‘East Side Gallery’ with its murals – all for tourists and their cameras.
I mean the sections standing in open fields, away from the madding crowds. Crumbling a little, with holes punched through, they are surrounded by weeds and barely noticed by the odd passer-by. Here I stop, walk around and ponder. Representations of the wall present it as once a massive fortification to keep a fearful people from escaping to a desired land flowing with milk and honey. The ‘Wall of Shame’ it was called by Willi Brandt, erstwhile chancellor of West Germany. It came to embody what Winston Churchill had dubbed the ‘Iron Curtain’.
But the reality is somewhat different than the propaganda. It find out that it was built as a response to the enthusiastic enlistment of ‘former’ Nazis by the American, English and French occupation forces after the Second World War – in contrast to the systematic and at times brutal ‘denazification’ in the east. While the Americans shipped out the leading Nazi nuclear scientists, ‘intelligence’ officers and whatnot, in order to bolster their struggle against the ‘evil empire’, the British and French employed large numbers of these avowed anti-communists. Then in the 1950s, the Adenauer regime in West Germany passed a law concerning ‘Anti-Democratic Activities by Public Employees’ – a McCarthyist code for anyone who was vaguely left. Actually, anyone who was not openly and vocally anti-communist was subjected to defamation and discrimination. In one measure after another, ‘former’ Nazis were released from prisons and pardoned, including those responsible for dragging people off to prison, for shootings, executions, causing bodily injury and so on. Above all, ‘article 31’ removed restrictions on persons ‘incriminated’ by actively working with the Third Reich, since they had suffered so much since the end of the war. They were given favoured treatment above more qualified candidates for government, educational, medical and many other positions. Meanwhile, the same regime systematically prevented large groups and organisations of young people – of over 10,000, from visiting the east to seek a common way forward for a united Germany – blocking the border, detaining them, shooting, etc. You do not find such history in the official narrative of the wall, but it begins to make some sense of its original name, the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. Of course, the later restrictions on travel by East Germans were, to my mind, a mistake, for that only enhances the desire to cross the border. Far better to be a little more confident in the strength of one’s own project.
What about the actual wall, the sections I visit? I am struck: ‘how low and how thin!’ They are no more than two metres high and perhaps 20 cm thick, a rather flimsy construction that may be read in terms of the fragile effort to construct socialism in the face of concerted capitalist efforts to tear it down. With this new impression in mind, I am therefore surprised at the foundations that had been too difficult to remove, that are now used as the basis for other constructions. I come across unexpected slabs of concrete, a twisted piece of cement reinforcement, a run of foundation blocks. In some cases, the line of bricks and concrete at ground level merge into a newer wall that has been built – for a yard behind an apartment block, for a warehouse on the outskirts, for a car park that appreciates the levelling that had been required for the wall’s building, for a house that needs some good grounding. Solid foundations it would seem, which can still be used in order to build again. Perhaps that effort at socialism was not so fragile after all, its foundations running deeper than one might expect.