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The WD Interview – Axel Klausmeier, Director Berlin Wall Foundation

March 26th, 2010 · No Comments · Arts & Culture, Berlin, General, The WD Interview

It seems appropriate that Axel Klausmeier’s office overlooks one of the most famous former crossing points of the Berlin Wall in central Berlin in Bernauer Strasse. In the 28 year history of the Wall, this section is perhaps the most symbolic and emotional.

It was here that mass escapes took place. Iconic photographs such as the soldier jumping over the barbed wire fence were taken here and today it is the most complete remaining part of Berlin’s former division.

And it seems also fitting that the Watchtower that faces Klausmeier’s office window is of rather dubious provenance. “We hesitated a long time before we agreed to put it (back) there – it’s not the original tower,” explains Axel Klausmeier. “I bought this one on eBay for a small four figure sum.”

Authenticity, Monty Pythonesque internet trading in historical artefacts, and being face to face with Berlin’s most famous monument seem to neatly sum up the lunacy of this particular period of German-German history.

Axel Klausmeier has been Director of the Stiftung Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Foundation) since January 2009 and is charged with the building of a memorial. While everyone was busy tearing down the Wall in the first heady days of this peaceful revolution, its remains have taken on a different meaning 20 years after the historic event. “One of the main objectives is to preserve the locations of the Wall from a monument point of view, to preserve its authentic substance, to research and document its history and impart this history,” says Klausmeier, adding: “Finally – and this is a very important point – to enable a worthy remembrance of the victims.”

While this summary sounds rather dry and his critics have pointed out that Klausmeier lacks the experience and know-how for the task, talking to him it seems hard to imagine anyone more suited for the job.

Klausmeier has been occupied with the Wall without interruption since 2001, first for a research project sponsored by the Berlin Senate. “We were given the brief to document rest parts of the Berlin city part of the Wall,” says Klausmeier.

The resulting book “Mauerreste – Mauerspuren” (Wall Remnants – Wall Traces) published in 2004 documents 42 km of the remnants of the Wall. Its photos came to have a documentary value since a lot of the Wall had disappeared.

When he returned for a second research project (documenting the Wall through Germany) shortly afterwards, 35% of what had been recorded in 2004 had already disappeared – at that time the Wall did not have landmark status. “After completion of the project about 12 pieces of the Wall had landmark status,” says Klausmeier. “As a result of the project today it’s 28 pieces in Berlin.”

The second project brought Klausmeier into close contact with military historians: “This border is foremost a military issue. Of course it’s political without question, but first and foremost it’s a military issue, something we weren’t really aware of when we started – that wasn’t really our brief at that time.”

Some figures; in the 1970s 12,500 -13,000 East German soldiers were deployed in Berlin to guard the Wall, the so-called “Grenzkommande Mitte”. These soldiers had two briefs: one was a police function, to arrest people at the border and to “destroy” where appropriate “Grenzverletzer” (violators of the border) i.e. people fleeing the East or those who for whatever reason found themselves in the Grenzstreifen, in the border strip.

The second brief was of a military nature. The border troops were in effect a sub brigade division of the East German army, the Nationale Volksarmee (NVA), and as such are part of the Warsaw Pact. This meant that as part of their training they practiced the defence of the border, but also looked at how to improve and strengthen it.

Another figure; at the Militärarchiv in Freiburg Klausmeier researched 3 kilometres of files for the part of the Wall that was guarded in section called GA 33, the centre of Berlin. “Every single day is documented – everything – every tiniest detail with German thoroughness,” says Klausmeier. “This German thoroughness has a long tradition with the military, the soldiers weren’t all flawless communists, and some of them had been in the Wehrmacht.”

But the 3 kilometres of files reveal most of all the individual fates of those who lived on the other side of the border.

Researching the files, Klausmeier met former military, former Stasi members. How would he describe such encounters? “Well, for the military, it’s military, for them it’s a service – but it’s true, there are differences. For example, last year we had a long debate about the people who died at the Wall,” he says. “Amongst the 136 ‘scientifically’ proven dead who died at the Wall, there are eight border soldiers who die in the line of duty – in very different ways,” says Klausmeier and goes on to explain. “Amongst those we have die-hard communists and we have people who are there doing their military duty, 20-year-olds who have to go there – it’s true everyone was conscripted, but not everyone had to go to the border.”

Was it a punishment to be stationed at the border? “It wasn’t a punishment, but the most hated posting, because everyone knew that there was shooting at the border.”

Klausmeier points out that being stationed at the Wall was a very different type of military service compared to other postings within East Germany. The threat of being on duty when someone was trying to escape put enormous pressure on the soldiers who had to decide whether to shoot or not.

“You didn’t have to shoot,” explains Klausmeier. “You had the order to shoot, but you could also just shoot into the air. You could, as part of the training for shooting, always miss the target to prove that you were a bad shot.”

And did soldiers miss deliberately? “Yes,” says Klausmeier and relates the experiences of a colleague: “He woke up one morning and told his officer: ‘I am not going to shoot.’ Of course for the rest of the time, he was bullied. He found himself peeling potatoes, people would wake him up at night to tell him that he had no mail, but he didn’t have to serve at the border anymore.”

Klausmeier talks about the soldier who shot the last person, Chris Gueffroy, and says he had already been decommissioned, but did everything in to get back to serve at the Wall: “And Gueffroy encountered this soldier of all people, who fired a whole round of shots of 70 cartridges at a defenceless 19-year-old who was running away.”

The foundation was formed 17th September 2008 is being funded by the Land Berlin and the German State (Bund). Apart from the development of a central memorial in Berlin Mitte, it will also help to develop a smaller exhibition at Marienfelde, the West German Government refugee camp, where many of the East Germans were first welcomed.

The main challenge is to communicate this unique German – German experience of the country’s history. “We are the central location of this concept of a central memorial – the focus is on the Bernauer Strasse,” says Klausmeier. “Part of the concept of the development of the memorial is to tie the history/histories which still exist back to their original location. For example, we are going to tell the story of Konrad Schumann, the soldier who jumped over the barbed wire on Aug 15th 1961 – the icon of the Cold War – at the Ruppiner Strasse, the location where he jumped.”

This approach serves to highlight the wider meaning of what went on. “At these authentic locations we can explain the principles of this inhuman system and this is represented by how the Wall worked and functioned,” explains Klausmeier further. “We can explain the whole system with its military effects but we can also tell the individual human stories at the relevant historical locations.”

Klausmeier feels very strongly about how these stories are going to be told: “We are very consciously telling the story of the Wall from the point of view of the East – the Western experience is much more limited. Everyone who comes to visit comes with the image of the Wall from this side (the West).”

Klausmeier refers the film “Eingemauert”, a computer-animated view of the Wall at the beginning of the 1980s that documents the border at Bernauer Strasse driving towards it from the East. “This was a point that was very important to us – which way is the border facing?” elaborates Klausmeier. “What’s unique about this Wall that it was built so no one can escape not to keep others from coming in, which is the case with other walls such as the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall, the Wall of Jerusalem, or whatever. Here, the Wall functioned very differently and it’s our special brief to show that.”

Since historical accuracy is key and there are no plans to reconstruct anything along this 2-kilometre stretch, iron rods will be used to outline the location of the now missing parts of the Wall.

The key part of the development will include the so-called Window of Remembrance – the memorial to the victims, which will be located outside. In addition, there will be a more in-depth exhibition inside.

Klausmeier says he is “very, very relieved” that he is part of a board that has to make some tough decisions. Case in point: the Window of Remembrance. “Question: ‘Should the eight East German border soldier who died included in this memorial or not?’” explains Klausmeier. “I was very relieved to not have had to make that decision by myself. They are not included in the memorial, but they are remembered in the exhibition, since a memorial also legitimises someone’s actions.”

While it’s easy to condemn a dictatorial state, people’s lives are harder to assess.”“Once you start reading the stories of the 98 classic refugees who fled the East and are shot you realise they are not morally positive people – they also have skeletons in their closets,” says Klausmeier. “There is one who raped a woman and wants to avoid the courts in the East. Another left his family in the East. He is not the hero of freedom. He is not the idealised refugee that we imagine in the West.”

On the other hand, he points out that amongst the soldiers there was one, Ulrich Steinhauer, who wrote three days before his death: “Only 147 days to go – I just want to leave.”  Adds Klausmeier: “A refugee comes and wants to flee and shoots him. Two seconds later another soldier shoots the refugee. The soldier Steinhauer is dead – innocently – he is far from being a die-hard communist. Steinhauer, the reluctant soldier is not included in the memorial and the refugee who shot him is.”

In the larger framework, the Foundation will explore the people who built the Wall, to understand their background and how their minds worked. Klausmeier says that most of them experienced extreme forms of violence in their youth – at home, but also because they grew up in dictatorships. “In light of their background it’s even more miraculous that the Wall came down peacefully.”

The other task is to keep the lessons of the Berlin Wall alive for future generations. As Klausmeier explains: “If I ask a 15-year-old about the Wall, he will talk about the Jerusalem Wall, not the Berlin Wall.” He points out that from a technical point of view, the Wall in Jerusalem is based on a Stasi blueprint found in their files, the so-called Mauer 2000. It was to be a much higher, up-to-date version with video surveillance and the Wall in Gaza has many of the same characteristics.

Klausmeier is also part of an advisory board that is in the process of developing a concept for a Museum of the Cold War, in the central location of Checkpoint Charlie.

Looking out on the remains of the concrete strip that separated families and tore into a nation, Klausmeier concludes: “If I know a State bases his legitimacy on the building of a Wall, this state has no chance of survival in the long-term.”

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