Episode 6 / 1961: Murder and Protest on the River Spree

Sculpture Garden | between Reichstag and Congress Hall. Looking towards Carillon | Photo: Jan Koehler

Sculpture Garden | between Reichstag and Congress Hall. Looking towards Carillon | Photo: Jan Koehler

Art against Walls – Gerson Fehrenbach’s Sculpture Garden next to the Congress Hall

It is the morning of Sunday, 13 August, 1961. In Berlin, East German soldiers and members of the East German Socialist Unity Party’s works combat units take up positions at the demarcation line, which – invisible in many places - runs right across Berlin, and string out barbed wire. They do the same at the Humboldthafen, only a little to the northeast of the Congress Hall, in the bend at Invalidenstrasse and right along the water at Schiffbauerdamm (where the deckchairs at the “Federal Press Beach” and Lüders parliament offices with Ben Wagin’s “Parliament of Trees” are now located) and continue in a straight line along the southern bank of the Spree, passing about 5 metres behind the Reichstag and continuing to the Brandenburg Gate. At this historically significant site, they even position themselves shoulder-to-shoulder, with Kalashnikovs and rifles, to form a semi-circle. The Berliners are in a state of shock. And for most of the East German soldiers, the entire operation, mobilising them on a pleasant Saturday evening, also comes as quite a surprise. It takes a while for demonstrators to rally, and a large crowd of protestors is stopped at the Victory Column at the Grosser Stern to avoid any confrontations at the Brandenburg Gate.

Only two months have passed since Walter Ulbricht, the Socialist Unity Party leader and chairman of the council of state, announced at a press conference: “Nobody intends to erect a wall.” Even then, quite a lot of people evidently already suspected that the border would be closed at some time or other. And a few months previously, President Kennedy had indirectly given the go-ahead to erect a barrier of this nature. From the point of view of a regime that cannot survive in any other way, it is a perfectly logical step: after all, since the founding of the German Democratic Republic, some 2.5 million people have demonstrated that they would rather leave their homes and head west than continue living “like this”. In 1961, rumours about plans to seal the border proliferate, and by August an estimated 200,000 more people have fled to the West.

But let us leave aside the statistics for a moment. The first murder on the border line near the Congress Hall takes place on 24 August. Günter Litfin is shot attempting to escape across the water at Humboldthafen. He is twenty-four years old. Not far from the Spreebogen, quite a few more will be killed trying to escape.

During the summer, some artists launch a very special kind of protest right next to the Congress Hall: “Stone against the Wall”. Eighteen sculptors from Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, Israel, Japan and Switzerland – among them Gerson Fehrenbach – are working together in a symposium in Bavaria when they hear what is going on in Berlin. They spontaneously set off for Berlin and demonstratively set to work. By 1963, they will have erected twenty-four statues where the new Federal Chancellery now stands. Most of their sculptures can still be seen there today, despite (successfully resisted) attempts by a number of Berlin offices to let them go to ruin.

Peter Krönig-Dethlefsen, 1237 - 1987 – It happened in Berlin, (Berlin, no date).
Berliner Zeitung, 9 August 2001