Chipping away at Berlin Wall souvenir myths
Berlin - The Local

Chipping away at Berlin Wall souvenir myths

The shelves of Berlin’s souvenir shops are filled with small pieces of concrete with spray-paint on one side mounted in plexiglass. It is enough to trigger anyone’s knee-jerk cynicism. Surely this is a scam too obvious to miss. Ben Knight traces the true relics of the Wall.

Read it in The Local

The spray-paint is not real, for a start. This much is an open secret in Berlin’s souvenir industry, and the revelation must be relieving to the put-upon shop assistants pestered by tourists that scrutinise the suspiciously similar combination of primary colours on every chip. The fakeness of the paint counter-intuitively underlines the authenticity of the concrete.

The paint is added in the workshop of Volker Pawlowski’s Berlin Shop company, in the northern Berlin district of Reinickendorf. Berlin Shop is the main supplier of Wall parts– around 90 percent of pieces in Berlin’s souvenir shops come from Pawlowski’s workshop.

That authenticity is confined to the concrete does not bother Pawlowski. “The East Side Gallery isn’t real either, is it? That’s being re-painted too. It’s important that the concrete is from the Wall.” he says, referring to the kilometre-long stretch of Wall that has been preserved as an art gallery. Dubious though this comparison might be, in Pawlowski’s mind there is a clear line between history and aesthetics, and the success of his little painted Wall pieces relies on conferring both with equal value. People are more likely to buy pieces of the Berlin Wall if they’ve been coloured. For the discerning tourist, some of the pieces come with a small certificate of authenticity, rather misleadingly embossed with the seal of the communist German Democratic Republic.

Pawlowski, a West Berlin building worker, had the idea of selling the Berlin Wall sometime in 1991. His entrepreneurial vigour was awakened by the hundreds of Wall-sellers that populated the city in the early 90’s. “I’m the last fossil of those times,” Pawlowski mutters. Instead of contenting himself with a street-corner stall, he toured various recycling plants, where most of the Wall had ended up after its removal, and eventually bought around a hundred individual segments of the wall, 2.75 tonnes and 3.6 metres each. Though he now refuses to mention the price he paid for them, the going rate at the time ranged from between 1,000 and 2,000 Deutschmarks, (between €500 and €1,000 per segment). Pawlowski will now let you have one for €3,900.

Not that the Wall is likely to run out soon – he still has around 40 segments left, easily enough to sell for the rest of his life. As holy relics go, the Berlin Wall offers a lot more raw material than, say, Christ’s cross. There were 184 kilometres (114 miles) of concrete, or 45,000 individual segments, and its commercial value was recognised early. Showing a notable capitalist instinct, ministers of the provisional GDR government passed a resolution to take commercial advantage of the Berlin Wall on December 29, 1989, before official demolition even began.

An East German foreign trade company, Limex-Bau, received the job of marketing the individual segments, which it apparently did with some success. 360 segments were taken for their artistic value and sold all over the world for prices as high as 40,000 DM. There are segments in Las Vegas casinos, Korean parks and on Caribbean islands. The city of Berlin has also kept a few dozen segments to give away as ceremonial state gifts.

Until the official reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990, the profits from the Limex-Bau sales went into East Germany’s state treasury. This caused much anger in the East German population, and the funds were then distributed to public health services and historical preservation.

Official demolition of the Wall began in the first months of 1990, and was carried out by the Pioneers of the NVA (National People’s Army) and border troops of the GDR, with the help of various construction firms. Some of these firms, many of which worked for free, received segments of the Wall in gratitude, each with authentification certificates from Limex-Bau.

These certificates, issued by a defunct trading company, are the only official authentifications of Wall pieces ever produced, and the little souvenir certificates embossed with an East German hammer that Pawlowski attaches to his tiny chips, meaningless though they are, are their only descendents.

For anyone seeking to find assurance that their lump of concrete is the real thing, the best authority is Pawlowski. “If you put twenty rocks in front of me, I think I could pick out the two or three real ones. The concrete has a unique structure,” he boasts, before adding, “Okay, not mini-pieces, like the size of fingernails, but if you gave me some good-size pieces, let’s say pieces 25 centimetres by 30 centimetres, I think I could pick the right ones.”

“With complete segments it’s really easy,” he continues enthusiastically, “They have characteristic marks on them. For example, they have iron in them, with two holes drilled into the top, usually plastered over. Those holes have a certain arrangement that was unique to the Wall.”

Pawlowski gets quite passionate now: “If you’d worked with the Berlin Wall every day for 20 years, actually held it in your hands every day for 20 years, then you’d know it. You get a feel for it, you know.”

Though he opens up when describing the structure of reinforced ferro-concrete, Pawlowski is tight-lipped when it comes to how much of the Wall is left, and where it is. He admits that there is a lot of it around the city and he has his sources. After the fall, many Wall parts were simply used to construct livestock sheds or makeshift containers. The individual segments are still visible, without being recognisable to the layman.

Another Wall expert, historian Ronny Heidenreich who has traced parts of it around the world, says that the city is filled with traces of the Wall. It was used in road construction, and it is buried in cellars. “Last week, I saw around a hundred segments used to make various rough containers in an inner city construction site in Neukölln. I’ve no idea if anyone knows what it is.”

For the rest of us, our only resource is the souvenir shop, and we at least have a 90 percent chance of getting one of Pawlowski’s painted pieces. In the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse, there are also some pieces for sale with original paint on them. But maybe for the ultimate Berlin Wall authenticity, you can spend a night at a certain five-star hotel in central Berlin that has offers guests the opportunity to chip away their very own piece from their own Wall segment. Maybe the best souvenir is the interactive kind.

Filed under: Berlin - The Local
Tagged with: