This story is over 5 years old

The French Punk Who Tore Down the Berlin Wall

This Saturday is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We found the guy whose face made all the front pages the day after he was photographed smashing the shit out of it with a hammer.

by Guillaume Fontaine
Nov 7 2014, 1:00pm

The section of the Berlin Wall next to the Brandenburg Gate on the 1st of December, 1989. Photo by SSGT F Lee Corkran ​via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-five years ago this Saturday, the Berlin Wall began to fall. On November 9, 1989, the East German government announced that all citizens from the German Democratic Republic could visit West Germany freely, concluding 28 years of strict border controls. That evening, Ossis overpowered the East German guards and started streaming through checkpoints, the Wessis on the other side greeting them with flowers and champagne.

Before long, the mauerspechte (wall woodpeckers) turned up to join the party. Charging the wall with hammers, they set about demolishing what had become the physical embodiment of the Iron Curtain, a 70-mile-long concrete barricade between Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc. Its destruction—which was finished off properly by bulldozers a few months later—heralded Germany's reunification and came to symbolize a pivotal moment in the Cold War finally thawing out.

A photo of Laurent on the front page of the German magazine Bunte (Image courtesy of DPA

The photograph that made the front pages the following day was of a punk beating the shit out of the wall with a hammer. Some reports pegged the man as East German, but as I discovered a quarter of a decade later, he's a actually Frenchman named Laurent who still lives in Berlin.

"This thing had been there for 30 years and everyone was afraid of it," he told me recently, recalling the night he'd hauled himself atop the 12-foot-tall section of wall near the Brandenburg Gate. "Nobody knew what was on the other side—we could have been shot. But everything went OK."

Laurent had made his way there after work, grabbing a hammer "in case we ran into trouble with the East German police, and also to bring back a souvenir". When he arrived, the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse had been open for around an hour and a half, but the crowds of people—citizens from both sides, reunited families, drunk men with sledgehammers—were still only beginning to comprehend what had just happened.

"There were already a few guys on top of the wall who were trying to crack the concrete, but they were doing a bad job of it," said Laurent. "They were hammering the flat top of the wall. I took my hammer and showed them how to do it."

Laurent is a stonemason by trade, so had a good bit of experience when it came to smashing up massive bits of rock. Squatting, he began to chip away at the wall; those below collected the pieces falling to the ground and Laurent kept a couple of chunks for himself. Spurred on by the crowd, he kept hammering away for the best part of 30 metres, while photographers clambered to get a photo of this man in a mohawk making international history.

Laurent today, holding the photo David Burnett took of him, the hammer he used to destroy the wall, and a couple of shards that he kept for himself.

A photographer from DPA, Germany's leading photography agency, was the first to capture the scene. Moments later, the photojournalist David Burnett took a color shot for TIME magazine, and Laurent's face was on its way into the hands of millions of readers around the world.

By Monday morning, Laurent's photo was in every newspaper. "Everybody was taking the piss out of me at work. I kept a low profile for a while," he said. I asked why some papers had reported him as being from the GDR. "The East Germans used to wear cheap jeans, just like the ones I wore that evening. So they thought I was one of them."

The photo of Laurent was distributed by AFP, it has appeared in the French newspaper Libération at least four times, it's in the history books German kids study at school, and it even made its way onto a commemorative stamp on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. However, there's no trace of the photographer's name anywhere; the DPA don't appear to have any record of who took the picture and there are no clues online. What is known, though, is that it was certainly one of the very first images shot of people tearing down the wall.

Laurent posing in front of a portion of the wall that's still standing in Berlin

"You can tell it by the state of wall," Laurent explains, telling me that dating photos of the "Wall of Shame" has since become his hobby. "On my picture, the wall is intact. On most other pictures, it's already been damaged all over. Nobody pays attention to the concrete."

In the days after November 9, breaking down the wall became a business—everybody wanted a piece, and to have their photo taken as they were hacking away at it. As early as Saturday the 11th, small stands appeared renting hammers and chisels at three marks for 15 minutes, with some collecting as many fragments as they could in the hope of selling them. The wall business boomed for a year until its total destruction was finally complete.

Today, entire sections of the wall are still for sale on eBay—the portions tagged with graffiti going for the highest prices. Viktor Pawlowski, a construction entrepreneur from West Germany, was certain the souvenir market would take him into retirement. And he was right; he bought nearly 300 tons of the wall and provides most of the pieces you'll find in souvenir shops today.

If you personally happen to be in the market for an inanimate piece of history, a 2.75-ton slab of wall—measuring 12 by three feet—can be yours for a meager €7,000 ($8,700).

Laurent in his apartment

A lot has changed in Berlin since the fall of the wall, and that's exactly not to everyone's liking. "I wish the city had evolved in a different way. It's much tougher today, and it's quite ironic to think I've played a role in this," said Laurent. "You can't regret the fall, but for me the years before it were the best."

Laurent was 30 in 1989, nearly as old as the wall. Born in the French town of Tours, he moved to Berlin for the squats and the punk scene. Before the wall was demolished, West Berlin included vast tracts of industrial wasteland and its residents were exempted from military service, which generally went down pretty well with the anti-militarists, hippies, punks, leftists, and artists who called it home.

Laurent stopped working a number of years ago after suffering from health problems, and has been making art ever since. His work is composed of recycled materials, like cooking utensils that he bends and welds together to create strange, abstract figures of musicians. He's also fascinated by the ties worn by businessmen—"How do they pick them?"—and uses them to form the central characters of his collages and paintings; Jesus on the cross, Marie Antoinette under the guillotine and Joan of Arc on the pyre. He gives his work away to friends or keeps it in the flat he's been living in for the past 25 years, stored among his vast record collection, gig posters, poetry, literature, political essays and the artwork given to him by friends. All his souvenirs.

A crane removing a section of the wall in December, 1989. Photo by SGGT F Lee Corkan ​via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, Berlin looks nothing like the city Laurent moved to over three decades ago. The squats have closed and been turned into art galleries, bars or loft apartments. At the base of where the wall once stood, the empty land that used to belong to Berlin's Turkish working class is now being sold off at a fortune to developers. It's been a long time since you could spot any of the hippy community's tractors and farm animals circulating around town, and May Day—which traditionally drew people from all over Germany to battle with the police—now looks more like a shit Lollapalooza, only with political placards instead of those flags that very annoying people insist on waving around in front of the stage.

For Laurent and those who knew the city back then, the mid-90s were a golden age for Berlin. The city had finally reunified and had an influx of people from the East thirsty for the counterculture of the West. However, as often happens when an area is both cool and dirt cheap, the property tycoons moved in and made quick work of coating over the era of secret Dead Kennedys gigs and Bowie–Iggy Pop parties with brushed marble and bespoke bathrooms. Last September, Tacheles—Berlin's largest artist squat, located right in the middle of the city—was sold for €150 million ($186 million) to American investors who plan to turn it into shops and offices.

Today, Berlin is trying to establish itself as Germany's great modern capital. It's the fall of the wall that ultimately allowed the city to get to this point, and it's clearly a positive that neither Germany nor Berlin are no longer divided. But it's safe to say the Berlin that once was has well and truly disappeared. 

Guillaume Fontaine / Transterra Media

Translation by Dominique Nonnet and Melike Ulgezer

eastern bloc
Vice Blog
berlin wall
iron curtain
West Germany
east germany
25th anniversary
French punk
9th of November 1989
Guillaume Fontaine