5 Strangest Berlin Wall Stories
As Berlin celebrates the 30 year anniversary of the Fall of the Wall we decided to explore some of the weird and wonderful stories to come from the frontier of East and West. Here’s our pick of the strangest Berlin Wall stories.
1. The Rabbits of the Death Strip
One of the (few) cute stories to come out of the border zone is that during the years the Berlin Wall stood, from 1961 to 1989, thousands of rabbits colonised the no-man’s land that lay between the inner and outer walls of the border fortification. Unlike their human counterparts the rabbits found safety in the Death Strip; free to roam, graze and tunnel to their heart’s content. The ‘Rabbit Field’ memorial – a set of bunny-shaped brass plaques just south of Wedding station on the Chausseestraße – pays tribute to the pointy-eared pioneers. They’re also the subject of an oscar-winning short film, ‘Rabbit a la Berlin’, by Polish filmmaker Bartek Konopka.
2. JFK Declares Himself a Donut
In June 1963, John F. Kennedy gave what is now considered to be one of the most famous speeches of the Cold War. Two years after the construction of the Berlin Wall had cemented the division of the city, JFK aimed to show his support to the isolated inhabitants of West Berlin, trapped in their ‘surreal cage’.
On the steps of the Schöneberg Town Hall, in front of a crowd of thousands, the U.S president ended his speech with the declaration: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ – showing solidarity with his fellow cold warriors. Grammar pedants across the globe pointed out that the article Ein is technically unnecessary, and that JFK had in fact proclaimed to the masses: ‘I am a jelly donut’. Indeed, the word ‘Berliner’ can refer both to a jam-filled donut – one of the city’s specialty sweets – and a person from Berlin.
It was, however, roaring cheers rather than mocking laughter that showered JFK at the end of his speech. The crowd fully understood his intent and appreciated the sentiment.
3. Levi’s or Bust
In the 1960s jeans were a scarce commodity in the Eastern Bloc. The East German State considered them a political statement – an expression of Western capitalism and youthful rebellion. Children wearing jeans to school would be sent home.
Regardless of the potential dangers, East Germans would go to incredible lengths to get themselves a pair of Levi’s. Many people had them smuggled in from the West, either in care packages or worn by visiting West German family. Others would pay extortionate rates on the black market. One smuggler recalls exchanging a pair of $20 Levi’s for an expensive bottle of Champagne and a jar of high quality caviar.
Sensing a losing battle against the influx of jeans from the West, the GDR started producing their own in 1974. Unfortunately, the ‘East Jeans’ were much less ‘must have’ than those from the West. Four years after production began, the East German state threw in the towel and imported a million pairs of Levi’s from the U.S which were sold in selected universities, companies and even in the Ministry of State Security.
4. The Wall as Inspiration
Completely surrounded by the wall, West Berlin became a mecca for creatives, punks and anarchists – a hotbed of creativity. It was an island where freedom ruled, a beacon of liberal values in the toxic sea of oppression that surrounded it.
Artists built careers from the Wall. Thierry Noir, for example, was among the first artists to graffiti the western face of the Berlin Wall in protest, subverting a symbol of war, protesting tyranny and encouraging resistance. And he’s still living off it today – his murals now turned into postcards, keychains, and fridge magnets.
Then there’s the music. David Bowie famously fell for Berlin and recorded the Berlin Trilogy whilst living in the city. West Berlin and the Wall also left an impression on Iggy Pop – his track ‘The Passenger’ is about watching the world through the glass of Berlin’s S-Bahn trains. And lest we forget the inexplicably popular David Hasselhoff who’s song ‘Looking for Freedom’ became the unofficial anthem of the Berlin Wall’s fall, smashing it at number one in the German charts for 8 weeks in the run up to the opening of the border.
5. The Berlin Wall Across the Globe
Official demolition of the Wall began in the summer of 1990. More than 40,000 sections were recycled and used as building materials in Berlin construction projects. An entrepreneurial West German construction worker by the name of Volker Pawlowski bought around 100 segments at the time and has been chipping bits off the Wall to sell ever since. It’s these pieces, covered in fake graffiti, that you still find in souvenir shops today.
You can also find sections of the Wall in rather unusual locations around the world. There is a piece of the Wall in the Vatican Gardens. A section, now covered in glass, can be found in the men’s bathroom of a casino in Las Vegas. In 2009 Germany gifted a section of the Wall to Usain Bolt after he broke the 100m world record. It’s now proudly displayed at the Jamaican Military Headquarters in Kingston.