By Hanna Rantala
LONDON (Reuters) – A new YouTube show and virtual reality experience transports people to the streets of Berlin to relive the sudden construction of the hated wall in 1961 and its toppling 30 years ago this week.
Viewers stand alongside three young people in a residential street and see the initial coils of barbed wire that overnight closed off East Berlin, the Soviet-occupied sector of the city, from West Berlin.
The Berlin Wall was built to stop East Germans fleeing to the West. It began as a barbed wire and cinder block wall but was then fortified to become a heavily guarded 160 km (100-mile) white concrete barrier that encircled West Berlin.
At least 138 people were killed trying to escape to the West and many who were captured ended up in jail.
New technologies allow viewers of the show to stand in the middle of the so-called “death strip”, which ran alongside the wall, and sense its scale and menace.
“I think it’s really important … that we get young people to engage in this story because there is a bigger story around the Berlin Wall and putting up walls and closing borders … which feels very pertinent in today’s world,” said the show’s director Joff Wilson.
“We want people to experience it not just as a historic document but as something they can take and [which has] an emotional impact as well.”
The show also brings young Germans face to face with their grandparents as youths and lets them experience the impact the wall had on their lives.
In a virtual reality scene reconstructed from an old photo Anton von Keussler, a 20-year-old engineering student from Stuttgart, sees his grandfather Klaus-Michael helping dig a tunnel from a building in West Berlin to the East, through which 57 people escaped over two nights.
Von Keussler even crawls through the 145-metre (475 ft) long tunnel in virtual reality, which is just 1 metre high.
“The biggest surprise for me was to see how deep the tunnel was and also how narrow and long it was. It must have been so much work to dig,” he said.
“The students who did that, including my grandfather, were really selfless … they did not actually flee themselves, they just dug a tunnel into the East to help other people that they didn’t even know to flee.”
Youtube’s “Virtually History” series aims to bring the realities of young people’s experience of major historical events to life.
(Reporting by Hanna Rantala; writing by Alexandra Hudson)