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Berliners Uprooted by the Wall During Cold War Want Property Back : Germany: About 1,500 whose homes were confiscated and razed in 1961 are pressuring federal government, which is resisting. Officials contend that giving in would set a dangerous precedent.

July 03, 1994|TERRENCE PETTY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BERLIN — Five years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, killer of Cold War freedom-seekers, its ghost has risen to cause more heartaches.

In 1961, the East German Communists bulldozed, dynamited and burned whole neighborhoods in a 95-mile-long swath through the city and around West Berlin to make space for the wall.

People were given only hours to leave their homes. Some jumped from windows and fled to the Western sector, but most piled their belongings onto carts and moved out of what would become a no man's land.

Now that the Communists are gone and Germany is reunited, about 1,500 of those who owned their homes--East Germany had a mix of nationalized and private property--demand that their land be returned. But Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government, which inherited much of the property, says that it was seized under East German law and that giving it back would set a dangerous precedent.

Dispossessed owners say that's immoral.

"We thought we were through with totalitarianism, but the federal government is continuing a crime committed by the Communists," said one of them, 58-year-old Renate Saebsch.

The dispute began soon after Germany was reunified in 1990 and has been heating up since. A growing number of politicians and legal experts are siding with the dispossessed.

Berlin's municipal government, usually a close ally of Kohl, opposes him in the property dispute and is blocking any plans by the federal government to develop the real estate.

"You can't criticize the wall for decades . . . and then refuse to give its victims satisfaction," said Elmar Pieroth, the city finance minister.

East Germany built the wall in August, 1961, to stop its citizens from fleeing to the West. At least 172 people were killed trying to get through or over it.

The few remnants include a stretch not far from Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing in the old American sector, filled with ragged holes chopped out during celebrations of the wall's end in 1989.

A death strip that once bristled with machine guns, guard towers and electric fences, guarded by snarling dogs, now is largely covered with grass. Children play where their elders died trying to flee. In a few places, there are small monuments to victims.

Decapitated tops of several guard towers, collected on one lot, resemble giant eight-sided mushrooms sprouting from the ground.

New streets have been built parallel to the wall's route. Gypsy women sell Cold War souvenirs from sidewalk tables: Soviet and East German officers' caps, Communist medals, chunks of masonry they say are pieces of the wall.

American investors will be building a huge office complex where Checkpoint Charlie's barriers and soldiers once stood guard against the East. Daimler-Benz and Sony plan big projects on Potsdammer Platz, a square that was once the heart of Berlin.

But the ownership dispute, involving about half the lots seized to create the wall, is delaying development elsewhere.

Matthias Weckerling, spokesman for the federal Justice Ministry, says the government would like to return the properties to their original owners, but cannot under the current legal conditions.

East Germany seized the land under its defense law. Weckerling said giving the real estate back could call into question every legal property expropriation undertaken in four decades of Communist rule.

Schools, fire stations, hospitals, streets, army barracks and sewage plants were built on expropriated real estate in East Germany.

Berlin has proposed federal legislation stating specifically that only those whose land was taken for the wall would be eligible to recover it. Some of Kohl's Cabinet ministers support the idea, but others contend it is unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, the property owners are losing patience.

Inge Bergk, 59, accuses the federal government of intending to sell the land and pocket the profits.

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