Through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the minimalist room in which the memorial stands I look across a bend in the River Spree towards the neo-baroque facade of the Reichstag building. A packed sightseeing cruise sails by, along a stretch of water that was closed to tourists 25 years ago, when East and West Berlin were still divided and the border tensely guarded.
Stefan Braunfels, the architect of the building in which I’m standing, designed the monument to follow the original line of the Berlin Wall. My eyes are drawn to wall’s black-painted panels, bearing a year, a number and the German word ‘TOTE’ (‘DEAD’) in block capitals. Chillingly, they represent the number of people killed each year while attempting to cross the border.
Nineteen victims fell in 1989, prior to checkpoints being opened, on 9 November — to widespread jubilation. An installation of illuminated, helium-filled balloons will line the course of the former border, from 7 to 9 November, to mark a quarter century since the fall of the Wall.
I’m alone in the room and the air conditioning hums quietly. Although it’s by no means chilly, the hairs on my forearms stand to attention as I begin to read through the book of remembrance. The hardback volume chronologically records the names of all 136 victims known to have died while attempting to flee from East to West Berlin between 1961 and 1989. Summaries of the events that led to their deaths are also provided.
Ida Siekmann’s is the first name in the book. She was mortally injured jumping from her apartment at Bernauer Strasse on 22 August 1961. Siekmann’s windows looked out onto the French-controlled sector of the city but her apartment’s front door was in the German Democratic Republic. Housing by the wall was later demolished in a bid to prevent further escape attempts.
A visitor centre now stands at Bernauer Strasse, along with an outdoor memorial with photos of victims plus a section of the 96-mile long Wall, which ringed West Berlin. East German authorities called it an ‘anti-fascist protection rampart’. Before heading to the Bundestag, I visited the centre and watched two 15-minute films about the construction the barrier and the complex system of defences built along its length. I learnt it was far more than merely a wall and evolved to include a patrol road, watch towers and a series of potentially deadly obstacles, known locally as Stalin Rasen (‘Stalin’s grass’).
I next headed across town, towards the double-decker Oberbaum Bridge, where a section of the Wall, just shy of a mile long, has been painted with colourful murals by international artists. This is the East Side Gallery, which celebrates the freedoms won in 1989.
Before setting off into Berlin’s sunshine I take another look at the powerful memorial and its grim reflection in the polished, grey floor of the Bundestag.