When the Berlin wall opened on November 9, 1989, discussion around the globe focused on the role of the Soviet Union. This was unterstandable, for the political changes that Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had set in motion in the communist world with his policies of reform riveted the attention of a joyful world to the events there. After the people of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, the population of the GDR, too, had demanded political liberalization with increasing clarity in the course of the year. As had happened before the wall was built in 1961, many people used the chance to flee to the West. Despite the joy and fascination of the moment, however, it should not be overlooked that, in Berlin, it was the western powers led by the United States that laid the foundation for these developments by virtue of their consistent and unwavering commitment to the ideals of freedom and humanity.
The Berlin wall symbolized not only the division of Germany but also the division of the political world. Here in Berlin two contradictory political and social philosophies faced off -- in the East, the dictatorship of the communist party; in the West, the democracies based on the principles of liberty. The Cold War threatened to become "hot" several times whenever the powers that be in Moscow and East Berlin wanted to incorporate the western part of the city into their sphere of power, as they tried to do with the Berlin blockade of 1948-49, the Berlin ultimatum in 1958, and ultimately the construction of the wall in 1961.
The goal of this exhibition, "Breakthrough - The Fight for Freedom at the Berlin Wall," is to document and explain the history of the Berlin wall from its beginnings in 1961 to its opening on November 9, 1989. It revolves around the efforts of the people on both sides of the border to overcome the line separating freedom and bondage. If it was simple at the outset to leap over the barbed-wire fence, it gradually became all but futile in the face of the border fortifications, which even critics called "the most heavily guarded in the world." Nonetheless, people tried again and again to get across by land and underground, by water and underwater, even by air. It was always risky. The ratio of success to failure cannot yet be calculated precisely. It is known, however, that many people lost their lives trying to run the border from East to West.
The exhibition consists of three thematically interwoven areas: a photographic exhibition, objects used in escape attempts, and a videofilm. The photographic exhibition comprises around one hundred pictures presenting twenty-eight years of the wall's reality. Those relating to the period through November 9, 1989, are in black and white; those relating to the period thereafter are in color. The photographs have no captions and are consciously intended to speak for themselves. The historical context of each section is explained in a brief text. The purpose of the four objects used in escapes is to show the risks that people were willing to take and to document the wealth of ideas developed by people trying to gain their freedom. Lastly, the videofilm (The Symbol of an Age - Berlin and the Wall) couples statements made by leading U.S. figures during their visits to Berlin with scenes of actual escapes as recorded by camera teams who happened to be on the spot.
As a tangible illustration of what the Berlin wall looked like, the exhibition is accompanied by a segment of the wall and two frontier barriers. These sections of the wall composed part of the border to the west, which ran about 27 1/2 miles (46 km) through the city. The threat to freedom in Berlin was great, but the willingness to defend that freedom was greater. As President John F. Kennedy rightly said during his visit to Berlin on June 26, 1963: "Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free."
Helmut Trotnow, Ph. D.