Today as people the world over celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is worth remembering the man who fought to preserve it.
Born in 1948 to a mother who cleaned the houses of American military officers, Manfred Fischer spent his childhood in Frankfurt am Main, in the heart of what would become West Germany. He arrived in Berlin in the late 1960s to find a city divided by the notorious wall that would later become a central character in his life’s work.
After finishing his theological studies in the early 1970s, Fischer had his pick of a half dozen parishes. He chose to become pastor of the Church of the Reconciliation, the only one in Berlin bisected by the wall. He tended to his flock as East German guards with shoot-to-kill orders used the church bell tower overhead to dissuade potential escapees.
When the wall came down in 1989, a wave of post-unification eagerness swept through the city to erase all signs of the East German regime, including all remnants of the wall and its brutal history. It was there at the Bernauer Strasse on Aug. 13, 1961, when Germans leaped frantically from windows – over the wall as it was being built – to escape to the West. It was at that spot that a 77-year old woman became caught in a brutal tug of war, East Germans pulling her one way while West Germans attempted – ultimately successfully – to drag her to freedom.
Given the ghastliness of the wall’s history, Fischer was a rare voice crusading for the preservation of a small stretch in 1989. At first, he struggled to persuade Berliners, who desired a modicum of normalcy, to embrace a project that would permanently commemorate their trauma.
But the quietly charismatic Fischer persevered by lobbying local residents, parish members and government officials to retain a small vestige of the original wall within what has become an almost mile-long memorial park. Today, it is one of Germany’s most visited historic sites.
When my students and I visited the memorial in 2011, Pastor Fischer – known by then as “The Wall Pastor” – reminded us that what we think of as history is not, for Germans, really in the past. Many perpetrators and victims still live together in the neighborhood, occasionally confronting each other in the modest chapel Fischer built in 2000 out of the ruins of his old parish church, which was spectacularly demolished by the GDR in 1985.
Fischer told us the story about the East German guard who shot another guard in order to escape to the west, but then was shot and killed himself by a third guard as he made his way to the wall. “So what is he?” Fischer quizzed my students. “How do we remember him?”
We were not so quick to answer. The state commemorative authority refuses to include such cases in its memorial wall. But next door, Pastor Fischer’s chapel pointedly embraces all who died at the wall as legitimate victims. Their names are inscribed in the Book of Wall Victims displayed on the altar and are read aloud in daily prayer services. His Church of the Reconciliation lives up to its name.
He told my students of the enduring nature of victimhood. Having been imprisoned, beaten, harassed and traumatized, these people are not suddenly “free,” he explained, just because the wall is gone. One hardship tends to lead to another, he said, a dispiriting chain of events that counters the celebratory mood that usually marks such anniversaries.
Remembering the Berlin Wall was for him very much unfinished business, not a victory lap. He likened it to other barriers – between the rich and poor, the young and old, the U.S. and Mexico. For him, the Berlin Wall was not just a gruesome historical fact or iconic Cold War remnant, but a grand metaphor for man-made obstructions that divide us still.
Manfred Fischer died last year, just a few months after retiring following four decades as his church’s pastor. We lost a man who knew that the Berlin Wall is not so easily eradicated. Even after 25 years.
William Collins Donahue is the Bishop-MacDermott Family Professor of German Studies at Duke University and chair of the Department of German Studies.