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German “Mauerspechte” responsible for Berlin Wall souvenirs

If you’ve ever traveled to Germany, there’s a good chance you’ve seen tiny pieces of the Berlin Wall for sale at a souvenir shop. But the wall is gone – so where did these colorful pieces come from?

After the East German border was opened up nearly 30 years ago, countless people made their way to the wall, equipped with pickaxes and sledgehammers. They tirelessly chipped away at the wall. Their motivations varied, but in general such a person was called a Mauerspecht.

In German, Mauer means wall and Specht means woodpecker. A Mauerspecht, therefore, refers to a person who chips away at a wall (specifically, the Berlin Wall, since the word arose in this context and had never been used before). The closest English equivalent would be the word “stonepecker.”

©dpa / picture alliance

After the border was opened, many Germans flocked to the wall, eager to help break apart the object that blocked their freedom for so long. To many, chipping at the wall was an emotional act in which they gained power over a restrictive barrier that was now a symbol of their triumph. Previously, this concrete structure was representative of the political system that confined and controlled the people in the GDR through fear, which made it even more satisfying for the wall’s former victims to break it apart themselves.

Naturally, some Mauerspechte gathered wall pieces to sell as souvenirs. Others were merchants who gathered and sold much larger pieces or quantities of the wall. And some – like contemporary artist Horst Walter – used wall pieces to create memorials of a world that no longer existed.

Many other contemporary artists were also inspired by the wall, including Berlin-based artist Yadegar Asisi, who lived in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district in the 1980s. Asisi created many of the largest 360-degree panoramas in the world, among them an enormous panorama of a Berlin divided by the wall. During a visit to Germany in 2013, First Lady Michelle Obama took her daughters to visit Asisi’s panorama in Berlin.

Another notable destination in Berlin is the Wende Museum, which features wall pieces and memorabilia gathered by a notable Mauerspecht named Alwin Nachtweh.

©dpa / picture alliance

But the first – and possible most famous – Mauerspecht was John Runnings, who in English was referred to as both “The Wall Walker” and “The Father of the Stonepeckers.” Runnings was an American peace activist who spent years campaigning against a divided Germany. He was the first person to chip off a part of the Berlin wall, and the first piece he removed is currently displayed at the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin.

Many people soon followed his lead, but not everything always went smoothly: on August 31, 1990, 14-year-old Christoph-Manuel Bramböck lost his life while chipping away at the wall after a piece of loose concrete fell on him. A memorial site was erected in his honor by the Stiftung Berliner Mauer in 2009.

Today, remnants of the work done by Mauerspechte can be found throughout the world in museums and art galleries, many of which are in the United States. From the Wende Museum in California to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., broken segments of the wall are scattered throughout as a reminder of the triumph of a reunified Germany.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

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