The section of the Berlin Wall that still remains between the Oberbaum Bridge and the Ostbahnhof on Muhlenstrasse is the longest open air art gallery in the world. In German it’s called the Kunstmeile, which in English translates as Art Mile.
The East-West border along here during the Cold War was the River Spree and this segment of the wall on the Eastern side was never subjected to the graffiti that was associated with the Western side. As if to make amends, when the wall came down this section was preserved and handed over as a blank canvas to artists from around the world to create this unique wall of art. Over a hundred murals were painted by artists from twenty-one different countries; some had political statements, some were artistic, and some were just mind-bending offerings.
These paintings were originally done in 1990, but by the time I first saw them back in 2003 they were well past their sell-by date and the area was a bit different to what it is now. In 2009 the artists were invited back to re-paint their originals. One of the iconic images was Dmitri Vrubel’s painting My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, a painting of Soviet and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, locked in a fraternal kiss. The picture below shows how it appeared in 2013.
I know to some people it might not make sense for me to say this, but I hate seeing wall art covered in graffiti and although there are notices threatening prosecution if anyone is caught, it doesn’t seem to deter those with a message of their own. Political statements maybe one thing, but much of it is just plain graffiti.
Another famous painting that has been blighted by pointless additions is Birgit Kinder’s picture of a Trabant breaking through the wall. Although artists weren’t officially allowed to repaint their original images, Birgit Kinder did anyway – several times. Below are two images, one I took in 2003 and one in 2013.
It’s more than thirty years now since the wall has come down and the East Side Gallery is still here, even though redevelopment has gathered apace on the opposite side of the road.
The riverside location is prime real estate, and I don’t suppose everyone wants to be reminded about the time when the city was divided, but on my last visit here in 2016 the land on the river side of the wall was still pretty much undeveloped. How long it will remain like that I’m not sure – not too long I don’t suppose if people keep defacing the wall; but in 2016 I was heartened to see sections of it being re-painted again, so maybe there’s still life left in the gallery yet.
Over 3 million people a year were coming to see the East Side Gallery prior to Covid-19, and I can’t help thinking that the whole gallery needs to be covered in some sort of perspex material if people want to see it remain here, otherwise the elements and vandals will make it easier for the developers to take over.
As the title of the post suggests, there’s another landmark nearby that shouldn’t be missed – in fact you would have a job not to. Situated at the south-eastern end of Muhlenstrasse and the East Side Gallery, the Oberbaum Bridge was one of the border crossings for West Germans during the Cold War.
The origins of Oberbaum go back to the 18th century when Berlin constructed a customs and excise wall that surrounded the city. It wasn’t a defensive wall, but one that levied taxes on imports and exports. Around the wall were 18 gates (tors), with Brandenburger Tor the only one to survive. At either end of the River Spree, which cut through the middle of the enclosed city, there were two river gates – one at the western end of the river at Unterbaum – and one at the eastern end at Oberbaum.
The original bridge at Oberbaum was a wooden drawbridge, but a new double decker bridge of stone was opened in 1896 capable of carrying pedestrians, road traffic, and the new U-Bahn railway across it. It was built in a flamboyant North German Brick Gothic style and connected Friedrichshain on the north bank of the river with Kreuzberg on the south – although neither district was formed until 1920.
At the end of WWII Friedrichshain found itself in the Soviet sector of East Berlin and Kreuzberg in the American Western sector, but there were no restrictions on crossing the bridge until the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. Strangely enough, the river wasn’t divided down the middle here and East Berlin’s border stretched across the bridge to the Kreuzberg side of the river.
After the fall of the wall and subsequent reunification, the bridge was smartened up and once again joined the two districts together. In 2001 the districts became even closer with the formation of Berlin’s second district (after Mitte) and is now known as Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.
The East Side Gallery is a popular destination for tourists, and not just because it’s free, but for anyone who wants to have a more sober look at what the Berlin Wall was all about I recommend visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial in Bernauer Strasse, Mitte; but that’s another post for another day.