he Berlin Wall was a powerful symbol for me of the rottenness of Marxist regimes as I grew up in the 1980s. After all, no country in the capitalist West ever built a wall to keep its inhabitants from escaping. Thus when I first visited the city in the late 1990s, one of the first things I did was visit the East Side Gallery of graffiti art, sprayed on a surviving stretch of the Wall.
I remember being surprised by two things: how bad a lot of the art was and the terrible condition it was in. Even the famous images by Keith Haring, Gerald Scarfe and that picture of Leonid Brezhnev kissing Erich Honecker were peeling away. “Hell,” I thought, “even if the Germans want to forget the DDR, they should at least take care of the Wall to keep the tourist dollars flowing in…”
Still, I never thought I’d see a news report about a developer trying to tear down a chunk of the Wall so that he could build some apartments for rich people. But that’s what happened last week, until a crowd of protestors showed up to stop it from happening.
I was shocked by this act of historical vandalism because the Germans are – for obvious reasons – probably the most history conscious people on the planet. They don’t take their past lightly. Also, Germany is a very stable and orderly place, whereas razing historical sites to make way for luxury developments happens more often in authoritarian and developing countries, where personal relations between the elites frequently override the rule of law.
Moscow under ex-Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is a prime example of this. I lived downtown in the early to mid-2000s and remember watching in amazement as Luzhkov tore down one historical building after another, replacing them with bland, shiny hotels/office complexes/luxury apartment blocks/shopping malls. By an astonishing coincidence, a lot of these contracts went to his wife’s construction firm, making her a billionaire in the process.
Initially, Luzhkov concentrated on buildings that were in pretty bad shape, and it’s not wrong to demolish old rubbish – too much heritage worship and you wind up living in a tedious museum like Prague. But then he went hog wild, reaching the apotheosis of pointlessness when he tore down the ugly Stalinist Moskva hotel to build an even uglier not-quite replica. Of course, I say pointlessness, but it wasn’t really, not when folk were getting rich.
Istanbul I know less well than Moscow, but on a visit last summer I witnessed a similar phenomenon, as demolition crews were tearing down the old historic neighborhoods in the city center. Actually, I exaggerate: they were only tearing down the historic areas inhabited by poor people. Those occupied by the wealthy went mysteriously untouched by the wrecker’s ball.
Worse still is the situation in Saudi Arabia where, according to the United States-based Gulf Institute, the royal family has destroyed 95 percent of the ancient sacred sites in Mecca and Medina over the last 20 years. Current plans to build the largest mosque in the world could result in the destruction of Mohammed’s tomb, while the house of his first wife Khadijah has already been replaced with a public toilet. The Saudis say they have to do it to make room for pilgrims; last year, however, Dr. Irfan al Alawai of the Islamic Heritage Foundation told RT they were primarily interested in making money off the rich ones.
Thus greed threatens historical sites around the world. But is that all there is to it? I don’t think so. Look at the collections of the world’s great galleries and you’ll see that greedy rich people often had exquisite taste. No, it’s not enough to be greedy – you need to be a philistine also.
And that perhaps is why it’s so shocking to see this kind of thing happening in Berlin, where there are more bourgeois Bohemians and trendy galleries than you can shake a bratwurst at. Perhaps, though, the truth is more complex. First of all, Mark Uwe Hinkel, the developer responsible, intended to remove only 22 meters of a 1.3-kilometer stretch. He added that it was not his idea, but that of the authorities, who wanted him to improve road access for the rich. And who are the local authorities? Why, it’s the caring, sharing Green Party – not normally the handmaidens of oligarchy.
As it is, the East Side Gallery has already been modified several times. In July 2006, 40 meters of wall were moved to improve access to the river from a nearby stadium, where Kylie Minogue once played. When the paintings were “restored” in 2008, some images were completely destroyed.
Perhaps this is why the Greens thought it wasn’t such a big deal. But perhaps this is also why Berliners are suddenly aware of how close they are to losing this piece of history. Fortunately, the protests seem to be having an effect – the mayor of Berlin has spoken up in support of keeping the Wall. And in that regard, perhaps Germany still is unlike those other places where history is so easily erased in pursuit of profit.