West of Berlin - How an iconic symbol of the Cold War came to be in Gloucester
GLOUCESTER, United Kingdom – It’s easy to miss the unremarkable piece of concrete positioned directly opposite the entrance to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps’s headquarters.
Busy staff officers walk past it every day on their way into work, indicating just how it has become part of the scenery at Imjin Barracks in Gloucester.
Only closer inspection reveals it as one of the most iconic symbols of the Cold War.
That an entire section of the Berlin Wall should be in Gloucester reflects the ARRC’s unique German heritage.
The Berlin Wall came to represent the ‘Iron Curtain’ that separated Western Europe and theEastern Bloc after the Second World War. And ahead of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989, staff from the ARRC have visited the German capital to learn how this particular Cold War relic came to the U.K.
We travelled with our very own Berliner, German army Lieutenant Colonel Florian Raebel, a staff officer serving with the ARRC.
As we walk around his home city, Raebel explains: "It was a big surprise to see a piece of the Berlin Wall in South West England, and I was proud that a piece of German history had found its way to Gloucester.
"But it’s good that most of the pieces of the Wall have now gone from here. It was a ‘wall of shame’ that divided the whole city, that divided families and divided a population.”
The graffitied section of wall was gifted to the British military by the German government in recognition for U.K. support to West Germany during the Cold War.
It was initially placed at the Joint Headquarters (JHQ) in Rheindahlen, North Rhine-Westphalia, the same military base that was home to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps until 2010.
When the ARRC moved from Germany to Gloucester almost a decade ago, the Wall also crossed the English Channel.
And it is appropriate that this symbol of the Cold War should sit outside the NATO headquarters given the ARRC’s German history – and not least because Gloucester today is home to the largest contingent of German troops based in the U.K.
WRITING ON THE WALL
We’re keen to identify the precise area of Berlin where our section of the Wall may have been located while the city was still divided.
21st century tourists in the German capital have to look hard to find remaining traces of the Wall. Large parts were torn down in the rush to reunite the city, making our detective work all the harder.
The Gloucester section is known to have come from the ‘British Sector’, close to the famous Brandenburg Gate. The faded graffiti on one side supports that theory.
"In the town centre you had much more graffiti than in the suburbs,” explains Bernd von Kostka, curator at Berlin’s AlliiertenMuseum (Allied Museum).
To assist us, Bernd reveals a little-known clue for visitors: "If you’re stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate there is today a line of little bricks in the ground, and that’s where the Wall was.
"You can easily miss it, and you need a special Berliner Mauerweg (Berlin Wall Trail) map to show where the Wall was, how east and west was divided.”
On what it was like to experience life in Berlin with the Wall, he continues: "It’s difficult. Imagine that everybody who is, let’s say, 35 today never really experienced the Wall because he wasn’t born or he was too young. So, it’s very difficult to explain to young adults how it was to live in a divided city.”
Our own Berliner has clear childhood memories of growing up with the divide.
Stood in front of one well-preserved section of the Wall in Niederkirchner Strasse, just a few hundred metres from where our piece would have been located, Colonel Raebel adds: "Every time when I visit Berlin and I see a piece of the Wall, it’s a gripping moment for me.
Pacing up and down the remaining section, he continues: "When I was a child growing up I was inside this Wall in West Berlin. It’s a total turnaround.
"As a youth of 14 or 15, I often had discussions with my teachers about the two German states and everybody said ‘this will be forever’. And I thought ‘no’, you can’t divide a country forever, it’s not possible. And a few years later the population that lived on the east side tore down this wall.
"It’s now just a piece of history, and that’s a good thing.”
A version of this article was first published in the Autumn 2019 edition of ‘the imjin’ magazine.