On the Old Berlin Wall, a Kiss is not Just a Kiss


On the Old Berlin Wall, a Kiss is not Just a Kiss
Story and photos by James Dorsey

A painting of a man-on-man smooch in Berlin may not be controversial now, but this one went up in 1979 and is between two world leaders.

Berlin travel

A kiss; that most intimate of personal connections, especially in public venues, has always brought with it an emotional reaction.

Some kisses are so iconic as to be instantly recognizable; Rodin's Carrera sculpture, Klimt's guilt embossed painting, Michael Corleone marking his brother for death, and the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ day, 1945.

But there is one enduring kiss that divides people like the wall it is painted on used to.

Fraternal Kiss

Its official title is "Fraternal Kiss" or Bruderkiss in local German and it depicts two men in the named act. It is often criticized for lack of originality as it is an almost exact copy of a photograph. Despite the subject matter, it has nothing to do with homosexuality, or sex at all for that matter.

It is represented in a mural measuring just over 11 by 15 feet. It is one of 105 paintings that share space on a 1.3 kilometer long wall, painted by as many artists from all over the world. It is on the longest existing section of the wall that once divided Berlin like a jagged knife scar, effectively encircling its inhabitants in a metropolitan concentration camp not much better than the ones its builders had helped to liberate two decades prior. This is the final and largest remnant of what the world has come to know as "The Berlin Wall."

The Socialist Fraternal Kiss, as it is formally called, is a somewhat dated and rarely used greeting once quite popular throughout Eastern bloc countries that involves a mutual kiss to the cheek repeated three times by each smoocher. Its history is shrouded in the mystical past of the Eastern Orthodox Church, where it was particularly employed during the Easter season. The sex of the kissers is irrelevant and enjoyed in various combinations by both. It was and is an accepted public means of expressing strong emotion and in extreme cases an open mouth to mouth kiss would not be uncommon, unless the lip lock happens between two world leaders.

Honecker's Soft Side

1979 was the thirtieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, and its postwar fuhrer was Erich Honecker, a Soviet functionary extraordinaire; the same man who gave us the all but useless Trabant motorcar, Stazi secret police, and curried schnitzel, not to mention a massive food airlift and Checkpoint Charlie. Berlin had been divided for 18 years by a zig-zagging, barbed-wire-coated monstrosity, constructed overnight, so haphazard in design as to be laughable had people not been dying to get over the top to freedom. The official death toll of those risking their lives for a taste of that freedom stands at 138 but that depends on who you are asking. Many think it to be much higher.


It was Honecker that ordered anyone attempting to escape into the west to be shot. The Soviet premier of the moment, Leonid Brezhnev, was the guest of honor at his indentured country's coming out party and was ambushed for a photo op by his German counterpart with a full on tongue down the throat smacker that was captured for posterity by photographer Regis Bossu. At least Brezhnev claimed to have been ambushed but the enthusiasm shown in the photo seems a bit much for a simple man crush.

Even in a land where public displays of affection between men are common, the Bruderkiss still manages to shock. Perhaps it is the advanced age of the participants or simply the gusto with which they are going at it, but whatever the reason it hits many visitors like a Bosch vision from hell. It seems not a photo of two friends kissing but Lucifer making a pact with himself.

The photo went viral long before such events were called viral and garnered the kind of attention neither despot desired, not just on the world political stage but for talk shows and late night comedians. As often happens with images carrying the potential to embarrass, the photo had legs, and became a front runner in the pantheon of poor taste political screw-ups, at least in the western press.

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