Berlin turns to technology to bring back the wall

By Allan Hall
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:50

Berlin's leaders were so happy to be rid of the most striking symbol of Cold War division that they tore the city's wall down after the collapse of East Germany and sold much of it off around the world. In retrospect, if only for the money it would have generated in tourism, they wish they had not been so hasty.

But beginning next week, visitors to the German capital will be able to rent a hand-held gadget that uses GPS technology to show where the Cold War barrier once stood. Fewer than two miles of the real bricks still exist, but the MauerGuide allows tourists to embark on a virtual tour of the full 98 miles of the wall's former course across the city.

"MauerGuide presents a well-documented and customised account of history that is appealing to tourists and fits nicely with our overarching memorial plans for the Berlin Wall," said Andre Schmitz, Berlin's state secretary for culture, after the city's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, tested the device.

Visitors to Berlin today can rarely differentiate between the former east and west of the once-divided capital, which has seen a dramatic construction boom since the wall was toppled in a peaceful uprising in 1989.

In 2006, the Berlin authorities announced a £35m plan to preserve remnants of the wall, while in a recent German tourism survey more than 70 per cent of respondents said they came to the capital to experience the wall and felt disappointed when they couldn't find it. Now, as plans advance to build a theme park called Ossi World dedicated to the East German state (an Ossi is an easterner) the digital-age Baedeker will help people to visualise what the hated and feared wall looked like and where it was. Using GPS navigation technology it presents pictures, video footage and audio recordings on the history of the Berlin Wall at five prominent sites along its former route. With commentary in English and German, tourists can also avoid herds of tour groups and navigate their own way for the price of £9.

Victims' groups estimate that more than 1,000 people died trying to escape from East Germany, many of them shot by Communist border guards. The wall's horror, however, has only added to its allure, particularly for overseas visitors, most of whom flock to the East Side gallery – a stretch of avant-garde art painted on one of the last remaining stretches of the wall.

Some 118 artists from 24 countries used the wall – the "anti-fascist protection barrier" in the argot of the rulers of the German Democratic Republic – as a canvas upon which to paint their farewell to the regime that erected it back in 1961.

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