Berlin Locals and tourists watched in dismay Tuesday as workers pulled up wooden crosses and ripped out a reconstructed section of the Berlin Wall, fulfilling a court order to dismantle a private memorial to people killed at the East German border.
Bailiffs and workers arrived at dawn to take down the memorial erected by owners of the nearby Checkpoint Charlie museum. The owners had refused to remove it after their lease expired in December.
"Where are the Berliners?" asked 59-year-old resident Wilfried Gordan, among the scattered crowd that watched in the rain as a crane prepared to move a slab of the notorious barrier. "It's such a disgrace. There should be 100,000 people out here in protest today."
"Today, they have shot the dead a second time," added Berlin's Burkhardt Sach, 52. "It's a joke, and it stinks."
Museum owners built the memorial in October, using original sections to reconstruct a stretch of wall next to 1,067 crosses - their tally of those who died at communist East Germany's fortified border.
They had leased the land from the Hamm-based BAG Bank, which sued to have it vacated after the lease expired. The museum failed to come up with the necessary $43 million to purchase the plot.
As work started Tuesday, museum director Alexandra Hildebrandt confronted a group of police: "Do you really want to defend this process?" she asked to no reply. A bank spokeswoman reached by telephone, who would not give her name, refused comment.
Workers in yellow raincoats unscrewed the crosses from their pedestals before carrying them away one by one. The crane hauled away the pieces of wall, which the museum had brought out of storage.
Several hundred protesters jeered and whistled as the work began. Four men briefly chained themselves to crosses but unchained themselves after police spoke to them.
"It's too late now for a solution," Hildebrandt said.
The checkpoint was established by the U.S. Army in 1961 after East Germany closed its border and later that year was the scene of a dramatic face-off between U.S. and Soviet tanks.
It became the main crossing where foreign tourists, diplomats and military personnel entered and left the Soviet sector of the divided city, with multilingual signs warning: "You are leaving the American sector."
The memorial lay in what is now a high-rent shopping district. The adjacent Checkpoint Charlie museum - established in 1963 on the West German side of the border and Berlin's second-busiest with 700,000 visitors last year - is not in jeopardy.
Hildebrandt's memorial had drawn a mixed response in Berlin. The wall remnants used did not originally stand at the site, and the monument did not recreate how Checkpoint Charlie looked before the wall fell in 1989.
A few sections of the Berlin Wall still stand in their original locations as reminders of the barrier, which snaked around the 103-mile perimeter of West Berlin.