I’m sure I would’ve immersed myself in European history and languages, had I not studied physics or astronomy. After two years of working in Germany, I developed a deep interest for language and her people. Even after having left the country in 2003, I’ve been fortunate to return once or twice each year.
I had read about one of the few remaining DDR-Wachtürme (East German Watchtowers) in Berlin. On a December afternoon, light snowfall in the German capital city seemed to slow both human and mechanized activity. I wandered slowly into Berlin Mitte to check out the location of an old East German watchtower that’s been listed as a historical monument since 2001.
BT-11 on Erna-Berger-Strasse
I took the underground train to Potsdamer Platz station, and made my way to the end of Erna-Berger-Strasse, a small street to the southeast of Potsdamer Platz.
The BT-11 watchtower stood tall but out of place at the end of the street. Surrounding the watchtower now are newer buildings including the Abgeordnetenhaus (“House of Representatives”), the parliament for the city-state of Berlin. “Hello, democracy; goodbye, totalitarianism …”
The tower appeared in relatively good shape. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to enter and ascend to the top, although the pried corner of the door at the tower’s base was indication by someone who gave it a go.
Over twenty years ago on the spot where I stood was the Berlin Wall. At the height of East German rule with Berlin firmly divided in two, the watchtower’s surroundings would have been empty space for easy monitoring. Although this particular tower was initially placed outside of the “Todesstreife” (death strip), the 360-degree panoramic view at the top afforded guards a complete view, especially for anyone approaching the wall from the east. Anyone caught in “no man’s land” without authorization would have been shot upon detection.
Reasons for interest
Potsdamer Platz today is an example of open contemporary urban renewal and design to bring people back to and have people gather in this square. This important square saw its hey-day as hub for transport and nightlife before wartime destruction and deliberate clearing of the area between West- and East-Berlin turned the square into a wasteland. The breathtaking speed by which reconstruction began after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and subsequent reunification of the two Germanys in 1990 has seen a rise not only in towers but also in activity at this historical location.
2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the initial construction of the Berlin Wall. On June 15, 1961, Walter Ulbricht, leader of East Germany, famously said: “Niemand hat die Absicht, ein Mauer zu errichten!” (Nobody intends to build a wall!). Two months later on August 13th, construction of the Wall began.
For the “common good and security of the state”, policies and processes were created and maintained to keep the East German/East Berlin people within the borders, to control and monitor people, to curtail freedoms, and to detain people for infractions against the state.
Have lessons been learned and remembered? Are we doomed to repeat by skipping generations with forgetfulness and returning to the backyards of past mistakes?
I view Berlin as a great example of a city striving forward, but it’s also a city clearly recognizing, documenting, and maintaining memorials to stay within reach of the lessons of the past. It’s often been said one cannot have light without dark and in many ways, my encounters with Berlin have continually provided reminders of this duality.
- Federal city state of Berlin
- 50th anniversary in 2011 of the Wall’s initial construction
- Erna Berger was a well-known soprano in the early 20th-century; the rest of her biography in German is here.
- Richard Carter’s “Journey to Berlin” also provides an alternate description.
- Another surviving example of the BT-11 watchtower stands on the Baltic Sea coast in Kühlungsborn.
- Two examples of photographic galleries of the fall of the Wall can be seen at The Big Picture (Boston Globe) and at The New York Times.
I made the four photos above on 27 December 2010. Initially published 24 April 2011 on Posterous, this post is at fotoeins DOT com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-O.