Berlin Wall Turns 50 -- and Some Want to Rebuild It, Barbed Wire and All

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The East Side Gallery is a strip of wall adorned with paintings by international artists who came to Berlin in the heady days of 1989-90, celebrating the revolution by splashing an explosion of color onto the white canvas that was the eastern side of the wall (the western side had been covered by graffiti for a long time already).

But critics complain that the use of the wall as a canvas for post-revolution art does little to show the harsh reality that the wall once represented. Instead of a memorial, they say, it's merely a tourist attraction, where sight-seeing buses crawl past slowly so people can take pictures, and fake Russian military outfits can be bought from a stall.

A Victim of the Wall Regrets Its Disappearance

Not far from the East Side Gallery, across the river at Elsenstrasse, one of the most dramatic of many escape attempts took place -- but no plaque, no sign speaks of it.

As a young conscript in the East German army, Wolfgang Engels had to help build the wall in 1961. His unit was driven to Berlin and ordered to put up barbed wire barriers to keep people away from the building site that would turn into the Iron Curtain.

"I was the only Berliner in my unit," he says. "We hardly understood what was going on, but I felt terrible."

Two years later, the pressure had become too much. Mr. Engels decided to leave -- and he wasn't going quietly.

On the eve of the May 1 celebrations in East Berlin, Engels stole a tank that was meant to be part of the military parade, drove it through the city, and crashed it right into the wall.

When the wall withstood the collision, Engels got out and climbed it, getting shot twice in the process. But he was rescued by West Berliners, who pulled him out of the barbed wire and carried him to a nearby bar.

"I came to on top of the counter," he says. "When I turned my head and saw all the Western brands of liquor on the shelf, I knew that I had made it."

But does he think that more of the wall, which almost cost him his life, should have been preserved? Definitely yes, he says.

'No Matter if There Are Monuments'

His opinion is not shared by some among the younger generation, however.

"I don't care that so little of the wall is left," says Anna, a 20-year-old student.

She sits with her friends on the grass at Mauerpark, or wall park, not far from Pastor Fischer's chapel. Nothing here reminds of the border, it's just an open space where on summer weekends thousands of young people hang out, make music, and play volleyball. It's a party place, where people dance on the ground that once was no-man's land. Many of them weren't even born when the wall fell.

"No matter if there are monuments or not," Anna says. "Berlin is the exciting, lively, fresh place that it is, because the wall was there – and because it came down."

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