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Berlin Wall's East Side Gallery Removed In Pre-Dawn Operation Despite Protests

Berlin Wall Removed

KIRSTEN GRIESHABER and ROBERT H. REID   03/27/13 02:49 PM ET EDT  AP

BERLIN — For nearly 30 years, the Berlin Wall was the hated symbol of the division of Europe, a gray, concrete mass that snaked through neighborhoods, separating families and friends. On Wednesday, it took hundreds of police to guarantee the safe removal of 15 feet (less than 5 meters) of what's left of the wall.

Construction crews, protected by about 250 police, hauled down part of the three-quarter of a mile (1.3-kilometer) strip of the wall before dawn to provide access to a planned luxury apartment complex overlooking the Spree River.

Even though most of the strip remains intact, the move angered many Berliners, who believe that developers are sacrificing history for profit.

The site, known as the East Side Gallery, has become a major tourist attraction, painted by 120 artists with colorful scenes along the gray concrete tiles.

It is the longest remaining portion of the 96-mile (155-kilometer) wall that surrounded Western-occupied West Berlin from 1961 until the peaceful revolution against the communist East German government in 1989. At least 136 people were killed trying to escape over the wall.

The flap over the future of the East Side Gallery flared last month with the announcement that developers wanted to tear away part of the wall. The announcement triggered a series of protests, including one attended by American celebrity David Hasselhoff.

Hasselhoff is remembered here fondly for his song "Looking for Freedom" that became the unofficial anthem of the 1989 revolution.

"It's like tearing down an Indian burial ground," Hasselhoff said during the March 17 protest. "It's a no-brainer."

After the protests, demolition work was suspended while local politicians and the investors looked for alternative access to the apartment site, located in the heart of the German capital.

When no other access route could be found, the main investor, Maik Uwe Hinkel, decided to resume the project. Work began at 5 a.m. Wednesday when few people were out on the streets.

In an emailed statement, Hinkel said the removal of parts of the wall was a temporary move to enable trucks to access the building site. He said that after four weeks of fruitless deliberations with city officials and owners of adjacent property, he was no longer willing to wait.

As word of the demolition spread, small crowds of Berliners turned out to watch although no one sought to block the effort.

"I can't believe they came here in the dark in such a sneaky manner," said Kani Alavi, the head of the East Side Gallery's artists' group. "All they see is their money. They have no understanding for the historic relevance and art of this place."

The irony of Berliners trying to preserve part of what was once a hated symbol of repression reflects a growing public belief that the German capital needs to preserve symbols of its past – both the good and the bad – for future generations.

Much of Adolf Hitler's capital was destroyed by Allied bombing and the 1945 Soviet ground assault that ended World War II in Europe.

With the end of the Cold War, however, Germans have worked to preserve other sites, including those that do not flatter the country.

A museum to Nazi atrocities has been built over the site of Gestapo headquarters. Tourists can wander through dungeon-like prisons operated by the Soviets and the East German secret police – as well as underground complexes built in the west of the city to protect civilians against nuclear attack.

It's all designed to allow new generations to understand the painful history behind a country that is now Europe's economic powerhouse.

"The Berlin Wall is the most significant symbol of the division of Berlin," said Maria Nooke, the deputy director of the Berlin Wall Foundation. "On the one hand it illustrates the repression in East Germany, on the other hand it symbolizes how Germans peacefully overcame that repression."

It took years for Berliners – both easterners and westerners – to develop such feelings for the wall.

"After a while, there was a growing need to deal with that part of history and to preserve it for future generations," Nooke said.

In an effort to give visitors and Berliners a taste of life in a divided city, a 70-meter (-yard) stretch of the wall on Bernauer Strasse was restored to its original state, including an East German watchtower from which guards would shoot at people trying to scale the structure.

The East Side Gallery was recently restored at a cost of more than 2 million euros ($3 million) to the city. It is now covered in colorful murals painted by about 120 artists.

Scenes include the famous image of a boxy East German Trabant car that appears to burst through the wall; and a fraternal communist kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German boss Erich Honecker.

"I heard it on the radio, so I quickly took my son to nursery school and then came here," said Jana Voigt, a kindergarten teacher who grew up in East Berlin. "I feel so betrayed that they tore down that piece of the wall while I was asleep. They knew that so many Berliners don't want the wall to be touched."

She said part of the wall needs to be protected for future generations "in order to understand what happened here."

Karl-Heinz Richter was a 17-year-old teenager when he tried to escape from East Berlin three years after the wall was erected. His escape failed and he was jailed.

"What you see happening now is capitalism in its purest form: it's all about money and power, history doesn't matter anymore. That's disgusting." he said. "For me the wall is a holy site. I'm outraged that they would even dare to touch it."

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  • Berlin Wall Section To Make Way For Development

    BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 01: A protester clutches her dog next to a sign that reads: 'Isn't culture worth anything anymore?' during a demonstration at the East Side Gallery, which is the longest still-standing portion of the former Berlin Wall, as construction workers were attempting to remove a Wall section on March 01, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. A real estate developer is planning to build a 14-storey apartment building between the Wall and the Spree River, and needs to remove a 25-meter long Wall section in order to allow access to the construction site. Critics, including East Side Gallery mural artists and Spree River embankment development opponents, decry the move, citing the importance of the East Side Gallery's status as a protected landmark and a major tourist attraction. The East Side Gallery is approximately 1.3 kilometers long. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

  • GERMANY-HISTORY-WALL-EAST SIDE GALLERY

    French artist Thierry Noir stands in front of his work on the doomed section of the 1,3 km long remainder of the Berlin Wall near the city's east railway station in Berlin on February 28, 2013. Some 25 meters of this section of the wall that mostly came down 23 years ago and marked the end of the cold war is to be taken away to make way for a new housing development on river Spree. As news of this spread activists and artists that had decorated this remaining part of the cold war relic known as the east side gallery came to protest. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • German police officers protect a part of the former Berlin Wall and a construction worker who fixed a part of the wall at a crane in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

  • A part of Berlin Wall known as the East Side Gallery is pictured in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

  • Construction workers try to remove a part of the wall with a crane in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped their work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path. (AP Photo/dpa, Florian Schuh)

  • Protestors are gathering in front of a part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

  • German police officers protect a part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

  • A German police officers reacts to protestors as they protect a part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber/Pool)

  • German police officers protect a part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

  • A German police officer protects a part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

  • Berlin Wall Section To Make Way For Development

    BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 28: Kani Alavi (2nd from L), Chairman of the East Side Gallery Artists' Association, talks with Arno Paulus (3rd from L), a local real estate development opponent, and Thierry Noir (R), the artist who painted the murals visible behind, while standing next to the East Side Gallery, which is the longest still-standing portion of the former Berlin Wall, close to where a new hotel is scheduled to be built on February 28, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. According to media reports the developer in charge of the project plans to remove an approximately 25-meter long piece of the Wall and transfer it elsewhere in order to allow access to the construction site. Critics, including East Side Gallery mural artists and Spree River embankment development opponents, decry the move, citing the East Side Gallery's status as a protected landmark and a majortourist attraction. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

  • German police officers protect a part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

  • German police officers protect a part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

  • German police officers protect a part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 1, 2013. Construction crews stopped work Friday on removing a small section from one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall to make way for a condo project after hundreds of protesters blocked their path. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

  • Berlin Wall Section To Make Way For Development

    BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 01: A protester argues with police at the East Side Gallery, which is the longest still-standing portion of the former Berlin Wall, following efforts by a construction company to remove a 25-meter long section of the Wall on March 1, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. A real estate developer is planning to build a 14-storey apartment building between the East Side Gallery and the Spree River, and needs to remove the Wall section in order to allow access to the construction site. Critics, including East Side Gallery mural artists and Spree River embankment development opponents, decry the move, citing the importance of the East Side Gallery's status as a protected landmark and a major tourist attraction. The East Side Gallery is approximately 1.3 kilometers long. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

  • GERMANY-HISTORY-WALL-EAST SIDE GALLERY

    Policemen face protestors as a section of the East Side Gallery, a 1,3 km long remainder of the Berlin Wall, is being removed by a crane for a housing construction project near the city's east railway station in Berlin on March 1, 2013. Some 25 meters of this section of the wall that mostly came down 23 years ago and marked the end of the cold war are taken away to make way for a new housing development on river Spree, a project called Living Levels. As news of this spread activists and artists that had decorated this remaining part of the cold war relic known as the east side gallery came to protest. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • GERMANY-HISTORY-WALL-EASTSIDEGALLERY

    A banner reading 'Berlin sells itself and its history' during a protestors against the removal of a section of the East Side Gallery, a 1,3 km long remainder of the Berlin Wall, for a housing construction project near the city's east railway station in Berlin on March 1, 2013. Some 25 meters of this section of the wall that mostly came down 23 years ago and marked the end of the cold war are taken away to make way for a new housing development on river Spree, a project called Living Levels. As news of this spread activists and artists that had decorated this remaining part of the cold war relic known as the east side gallery came to protest. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Berlin Wall Section To Make Way For Development

    BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 01: Protesters scuffle with police at the East Side Gallery, which is the longest still-standing portion of the former Berlin Wall, during efforts by a construction company to remove a 25-meter long section of the Wall on March 01, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. A real estate developer is planning to build a 14-storey apartment building between the Wall and the Spree River, and needs to remove the Wall section in order to allow access to the construction site. Critics, including East Side Gallery mural artists and Spree River embankment development opponents, decry the move, citing the importance of the East Side Gallery's status as a protected landmark and a major tourist attraction. The East Side Gallery is approximately 1.3 kilometers long. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

  • Berlin Wall Section To Make Way For Development

    BERLIN, GERMANY - MARCH 01: A construction worker inspects a section of the East Side Gallery, which is the longest still-standing portion of the former Berlin Wall, before attempting to remove it with a crane as police stand nearby on March 01, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. A real estate developer is planning to build a 14-storey apartment building between the Wall and the Spree River and needs to remove a 25-meter long Wall section in order to allow access to the construction site. Critics, including East Side Gallery mural artists and Spree River embankment development opponents, decry the move, citing the importance of the East Side Gallery's status as a protected landmark and a major tourist attraction. The East Side Gallery is approximately 1.3 kilometers long. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

  • GERMANY-HISTORY-WALL-EAST SIDE GALLERY

    A woman writes on a part of the East Side Gallery, a 1,3 km long remainder of the Berlin Wall, as a section is being removed for a housing construction project near the city's east railway station in Berlin on March 1, 2013. Some 25 meters of this section of the wall that mostly came down 23 years ago and marked the end of the cold war are taken away to make way for a new housing development on river Spree, a project called Living Levels. As news of this spread activists and artists that had decorated this remaining part of the cold war relic known as the east side gallery came to protest. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • GERMANY-HISTORY-WALL-EAST SIDE GALLERY

    An activist's flag is seen with construction cranes behind it along the doomed section of the 1,3 km long remainder of the Berlin Wall near the city's east railway station in Berlin on February 28, 2013. Some 25 meters of this section of the wall that mostly came down 23 years ago and marked the end of the cold war is to be taken away to make way for a new housing development on river Spree. As news of this spread activists and artists that had decorated this remaining part of the cold war relic known as the east side gallery came to protest. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • GERMANY-HISTORY-WALL-EAST SIDE GALLERY

    A couple walk along the doomed section of the 1,3 km long remainder of the Berlin Wall near the city's east railway station in Berlin on February 28, 2013. Some 25 meters of this section of the wall that mostly came down 23 years ago and marked the end of the cold war is to be taken away to make way for a new housing development on river Spree. As news of this spread activists and artists that had decorated this remaining part of the cold war relic known as the east side gallery came to protest. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

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