Sean Gallup / Getty Images

In Germany, the wall that didn't fall

As Berliners fret over excesses of wall commemoration, Bavaria hosts haunting portion of Iron Curtain

November 8, 2014 2:00AM ET

For many Europeans, Disneyland is not just a theme park. It is a swear word contemptuously hurled at over-the-top attempts to recreate or remember the past. On Nov. 9, Germany will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and with it, the definite crumbling of the Iron Curtain. As Germans prepare to mark the border’s erosion, the justified but myopic Disneyland curses have become popular again.

This much is true: The brisk dismantling of Cold War’s physical traces, from military fortifications to civilian symbols, has rendered remembrance open to creative license. The storied Checkpoint Charlie Museum, a Berlin private initiative seen as the unofficial outpost of “Disneyland” in Central Europe, comes to mind. For years, the controversial ventures of its director, Alexandra Hildebrandt, have catered to nearly 11 million annual city visitors’ appetite for more wall, garnering admiration from tourists and disdain from natives. Similarly, the East Side Gallery’s 1.3-kilometer wall segment in Berlin, painted as late as 1990 from the newly accessible eastern side, remains every preservationist’s worst nightmare and a subject of disputes about authenticity in the famously broke capita

Discontent with garnishing Cold War past has not spared other cities either. Take Leipzig, a hotbed of change circa 1989 and Germany’s newest hipster central. Critics charge that the revolt kitsch of the last month’s candle vigil re-enactments has portrayed a Disneyland revolution. The same ambivalence about commemorative props pervades small towns such as Thuringian Lindewerra. In July, one local’s attempt to mark the border’s evasive course with a black, red and gold concrete post brought the residents to the brink of a mini memory war. As Lindewerrans fretted about the single pillar, the German public-service television station ZDF created a divided village in Besno, in the Czech Republic. Filmed on this set, a new miniseries, “Tannbach,” an early Cold War–era family drama due out in January, is meant to ride the wave of ZDF’s success with the World War II miniseries “Generation War,” released last year.

But in the midst of all these reconstructions and anxieties around them, we have lost sight of the Iron Curtain that didn’t fall, the so-called prayer wall, on the border between the former West Germany and Czechoslovakia. Its existence has escaped us for two reasons: the fixation on Berlin as the Cold War’s traumatic yet scintillating hub and our view of borders in general. 

Too often, we forget that grass-roots and state borders are inseparable. Germany’s prayer wall is but a timely reminder.

Well away from poor but sexy metropolis of Berlin, the prayer wall lives on. A landmark for thousands of ethnic Germans expelled from postwar Czechoslovakia and uncounted numbers of Bavarian locals, it stands just west of the border between what were once West Germany and Czechoslovakia. Unlike the Berlin Wall, the prayer wall is not rumored to have been visible from outer space. Nor was it uninterrupted, mined or patrolled. In contrast to Berlin’s state-built structure, the prayer wall is a product of civilian hustle and bustle at the conflict’s best-known site and symbol. Instead of barbed wire, it bristles with chapel spires, which mushroomed from the 1950s to 1980s. But its beginnings are inseparable from those of the military border, whose outlines it contoured.

The making of the Iron Curtain in 1950 and 1951 required clearing long stretches of land for a new security strip. In this task, Czechoslovakia’s border guards had one clear advantage over their other socialist colleagues: They did not agonize about the fate of affected villagers, as they were already gone. A series of decrees drafted during World War II forced the area’s predominantly German population out of Czechoslovakia to create a nation-state of ostensibly loyal Czech and Slovak citizens. By 1951, when the border was militarily fortified, all that was left was to demolish the former German domiciles and gathering places. And churches became attractive targets for the eastern borderlands’ explosive blend of postwar ethnic hatred and Cold War–era atheism.

But some Czechoslovak soldiers charged with razing these houses of prayer were unable to destroy the remaining Jesus and Virgin Mary images. Guilt-ridden, some simply lay the statues at the border to West Germany and pretended to forget about them. Others used axes and flames to lash out against the unwelcome German traces. On Feb. 8, 1951, in Wies, a Czech village across from the Bavarian town of Waldsassen, a mock procession delivered the local church crucifix to a burning pile. But the Jesus sculpture, with its arms broken off, would not burn. Frustrated and terrified, the iconoclasts abandoned the torso and fled the scene. A year earlier, a man committed a similar misdemeanor died within days, and they dreaded his fate.

Image shows a "defiled Savior" from Wies, Waldsassen basilica, Germany with its arms broken off.
Yuliya Komska

But against the Cold War’s turbulent backdrop, one man’s curse was another’s blessing. The torso from Wies, soon named the Defiled Savior, and its kin did not languish abandoned for long. The images quickly drew West Germany’s miracle-crazed Catholics and their initially skeptical pastors. They rescued the statues and elevated them to the prayer wall’s cornerstones — the more disfigured, the better. “Let there be as many churches at the border [in the West] as there are watchtowers [in the East],” one of the local priests announced. His words were heeded.

And that is how the Iron Curtain evolved into a destination for pilgrims and visitors from Germany and, witnesses say, the rest of the world. The unlikely magnet came with benefits as well as liabilities.

The onslaught of crowds called for a more robust infrastructure and supported the fast-paced rebirth of tourism in the region. It asserted religion’s grit at the West’s embattled limit. About a dozen of prayer wall churches were soon built or remodeled. On summer weekends, their adjacent lookout towers lured thousands daily, letting the nostalgic expellees mingle with West German adherents of dark tourism. Well into the late 1980s, the borderland travel — a special brand of Cold War tourism — lent cohesion to the prayer wall as it enlightened the visitors about the present and offered them carefully curated samplers of the area’s past.

The wall that didn't fall

Over the years, the prayer wall helped put tiny locales on West Germany’s economically disadvantaged periphery on the map of the global Cold War, the war over people’s minds.

Still, perils loomed at every corner. Believers, clerics suspected, verged on subversive unorthodoxy. Their zeal, the Catholic Church feared, compromised its authority over designating and maintaining holy places. Throngs of clueless, tipsy or emotionally overwrought travelers turned out to be a nuisance for border guards on both sides. Visitors leaned on the fence or, worse, crossed to the other side — never to return, on some occasions. Politicians worried about the borderlands’ potential as a hotbed for right- and left-wing extremism. The expellees were no less known for their territorial revisionism than for elaborate costume embroideries.

Most of these qualms have dwindled since 1989. Cross-border church services, school curricula, youth groups and pilgrimages have increasingly taken the place of onetime nostalgia or resentment. The number of the prayer wall’s visitors has also gone down. In 2003, when I first visited the area in search of the prayer wall, many locals failed to point me in the right direction. The Rev. Thomas Vogl, the Defiled Savior’s most recent custodian and Waldsassen’s Catholic priest, is urging more young people to visit. Connections between the Cold War and the role of religion, he told me, have become difficult to communicate. But the prayer wall still stands. How is it possible that we have overlooked it so consistently? And why hasn’t it made it as a movie set yet?

This particular stretch of the border thwarts our fantasies of Cold War suspense —spies, epic escapes, bodies writhing in barbed wire, in short, the stuff of big-screen hits. It was simply too quiet, with incidents here and there. But there is another explanation. We tend to push back against state-enforced borders much more vigorously than we do against civilian borders, from gated communities to racial and gender divides. Too often, we forget that grass-roots and state borders are inseparable. Germany’s prayer wall is but a timely reminder.

Yuliya Komska is an assistant professor of German studies at Dartmouth College. She writes about transatlantic culture and media during the Cold War. This year she is a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter