The East Side Gallery is the largest open-air gallery in the world. It is a 1.3 kilometers long painted strip of the former Berlin Wall with over one hundred mural paintings. Today it has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Berlin with almost one million visitors a year.

A symbol of the Iron Curtain
On 13 August 1961 the Berlin Wall was built. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) constructed the barrier. It cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and East Berlin. The Eastern Bloc claimed that the Wall was built to protect its population from fascist elements in the West. It was referred to as the ‘Anti-Fascict Protection Rampart,’ by the GDR authorities. Soon the Wall became a symbol of the ‘Iron Curtain’ that separated Western Europe from Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

Between 1961 and 1989, the Wall prevented almost all emigration from East to West Germany. During this period about 5000 people attempted to escape tot the West. Most of them were caught and arrested. Estimations say that between 100 and 200 people died because of their attempts.

The Wall comes down
After several weeks of civil unrests in 1989, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 that all GDR citizens were aloud visit West Germany and West Berlin freely. The Wall was opened up. Over the next few weeks the governments removed most of the Wall. It it was finally destroyed in 1990. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on 3 October 1990.

The East Side Gallery is a section of former the inner Wall on Mühlenstrasse in Friedrichshain in East Berlin. The construction of the border emplacements on Mühlenstrasse differed from other parts of the Wall. Here the political border to West Berlin lay to the southwest on the Kreuzberg riverbank, while the entire width of the water belonged to East Berlin. The Wall was put up on the Friedrichshain side of the river and border guards patrolled the Spree in boats. Behind this Wall was a border patrol path, a signal fence, a floodlight and a ‘border security fence’.

Visual testimonies
After the Wall had come down, 118 artists from 21 countries around the world made their way to Berlin in 1990 to leave visual testimonies on this piece of remaining Wall. The paintings at the East Side Gallery document the period of change and express the euphoria and hopes for a different and better future that characterized the time of when the Wall came down. The artists transformed the grey concrete walls into a colorful sight.

‘The Mortal Kiss’ made by Dimitrij Vrubel of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev’s mouth-to-mouth embrace is one of the most known. Just like Birgit Kinder’s Trabant that knocks down the Wall and Kani Alavi’s painting ‘Es geschah im November’ that can be translated as ‘it happened in November’. It shows a wave of people breaking through the Wall. The murals are under heritage protection.

Although the gallery is protected, it has been through some rough times since it’s transformation. Over the years the Wall itself began crumbling and people have illegally painted over the artworks. In 2009, under the lead of artist Kani Alavi, a large restoration project took place. About a hundred artists came back to Berlin to renovate their paintings.

Breaking the Wall
Despite the renovation efforts, the existence of the East Side Gallery is still at stake. In July 2006, to facilitate access tot the river Spree from O2 World, a 40-meter section was moved somewhat west, parallel to the original location. The latest dispute however, started in March 2013. A 23-meter section was supposed to be removed in order to create a passage to luxury apartments on the riverside. Many people demonstrated and the East Side Gallery received worldwide attention. American actor David Hasselhoff and recently also Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters joint the protests.

In general the demolition has been considered as a violation of the historical and cultural relevance of the East Side Gallery. Others consider it a further approach by the city’s senate and the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district administration to outsell the riverside. While both the city and district cast the blame one and other over responsibility in this case, it remains uncertain why a building license was issued in the first place.

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