The Walls of Berlin: A Reading List

The Berlin Wall still exerts incredible power over our imaginations, 25 years after Germans on both sides of the city began the process of demolishing it. Its existence had always invited wildly divergent reactions, making it not only a physical structure, but also a canvas on which political and cultural dreams could be projected. This is as true today, for a generation that has never lived in its shadow, as it was during the Cold War. Here are four stories that attempt to trace its legacy. 

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1. “Walk the Line” (Will Self, The Guardian, October 2014)

From Rudow in the east to Gesundbrunnen in the west, author Will Self took two days earlier this year to traverse the length of the Wall by foot. A trip through time as much as through space, the walk makes Self reflect on memory and the way it conditions our experience of Berlin today: “History swirled about our heads so giddily that it seemed visible as a fine sifting of dust that drifted down to coat every blade of grass.”

2. “Die Mauer” (John Bainbridge, The New Yorker, October 1962)

In the immediate period following the Wall’s construction, as the city was still coming to terms with this new scar carved into its surface, Bainbridge was among the first observers of its impact on Berliners on both sides. His reporting from the scene brings those early, chaotic days back to life, with precise, anatomical detail.

3. “Berlin in the ’90s: An Interview with Tobias Rapp” (Will Lynch, Resident Advisor, September 2011)

“Part of the experience was to explore the city, running through this empty city looking for a party.” Rapp, a West German transplant who moved to Berlin in 1990, was among the early chroniclers of the city’s techno and squatting scenes. He revisits the city’s glory days in the wake of the Wall’s fall, when electronic music, abandoned buildings, and a newfound sense of freedom fused together to resuscitate the city’s reputation for decadence.

4. “Homesick for Sadness” (Jenny Erpenbeck, The Paris Review, November 2014)

Having spent her childhood in East Berlin, Erpenbeck reflects on the Wall’s mundane presence for people of her generation, born into a world where it had always already existed. “I loved this ugly, purportedly gray East Berlin that had been forgotten by all the world, this Berlin that was familiar to me and that now — at least the part where I grew up — no longer exists.”

Photo: Remains of the Berlin Wall, Joe deSousa/Flickr