Demolition teams backed by about 250 police removed parts of the Berlin Wall before dawn today to make way for a luxury building project.
Residents in the neighbourhood near the part of the wall known as the East Side Gallery have expressed shock at the move.
They had organised several protests, one of which was attended by the American actor David Hasselhoff, in a bid to preserve the wall intact.
Police spokesman Alexander Toennies said there were no incidents as work began about 5am yesterday to remove four sections of the wall, each about 4ft wide. That will make way for an access route to the planned high-rise luxury apartments along the Spree River.
The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall. Construction workers removed a first piece earlier this month as part of a plan to make a site access road.
The public outcry brought work to a halt while local politicians and the investor behind the project said they were looking for a solution to keep the rest of the wall untouched.
Investor Maik Uwe Hinkel decided to remove four more parts of the wall, according to Mr Toennies. “He had the right to do this and informed us a few days ago about his plans. Last night we were told he wanted to remove the pieces of wall early this morning,” Mr Toennies said.
Plans to remove part of the three-quarter-mile-long stretch of wall sparked protests whose main message was that developers were sacrificing history for profit.
At least 136 people died trying to scale the wall that divided Communist East Berlin from West Berlin until it was opened on 9 November, 1989. Over the years, the stretch has become a tourist attraction with paintings decorating the concrete surface.
“I can’t believe they came here in the dark in such a sneaky manner,” said Kani Alavi, head of the East Side Gallery’s artists’ group. “All they see is their money, they have no understanding for the historic relevance and art of this place.”
By mid-morning the new gap was covered by a wooden fence and protected by scores of police. Passers-by and a handful of protesters stared in disbelief.
“If you take these parts of the wall away, you take away the soul of the city,” said Ivan McClostney, 32, who moved from Ireland to the city a year ago. “This way, you make it like every other city. It’s so sad.”
In a statement, Mr Hinkel said the removal of parts of the wall was a temporary measure to enable access to the building site. He said he had ordered the move after four weeks of negotiations with city officials and the owners of adjacent property had come to nothing.
The East Side Gallery was recently restored at a cost of more than €2 million to the city. The wall section stood on the eastern side of the elaborate border strip built by Communist East Germany after it sealed off West Berlin in 1961.
The stretch of wall was transformed into an open-air gallery months after the wall fell and is now covered in murals painted by about 120 artists. They include the famous image of a boxy East German Trabant car that appears to burst through the wall; and a kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker.