Culture

The Berlin Wall – 25th Anniversary Tour

Berlin East Side Gallery

The Berlin Wall

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Where were you when the Wall fell on November 9, 1989?  I remember watching the dramatic live TV footage as it tumbled down. 

The crumbling concrete blocks, once impenetrable, were smashed to the ground by protesters as East and West Berlin were reunited for the first time in 28 years.

This iconic moment will be celebrated as Berlin unleashes thousands of illuminated helium balloons this Friday to commemorate the anniversary.

Berlin 2014 - anniversary

Berlin 2014’s anniversary c/o Visit Berlin

A divided city

When I visited Berlin in 1991, two years after reunification, the city was in the thick of reinventing itself. Today, it’s one of Europe’s most popular city travel destinations.  

But Berliners paid a high price for the Wall’s division of the city. Around 200 people died trying to escape from the East to the West.

More than 5,000 succeeded in escaping but many more suffered from distress and despair as a consequence of the Wall being built.

Berlin Wall in 1981 c/o Visit Berlin and Harald Schmitt Bild

Aerial view of the Berlin Wall in 1981 c/o Visit Berlin and Harald Schmitt Bild

After the Second World War the Potsdam Agreement had divided Berlin into four sectors – American, British, Russian and French.

But as the Cold War intensified, tensions between the East and West powers escalated and West Berlin became stranded in the Soviet’s zone of occupation.

Watch a video looking at the history of the Berlin Wall…

As the Wall rose up, it became a symbol of oppression for Berliners on either side of the divide.

Today, the Berlin Wall is harder to find. Most of it has been broken up and fragments have been dispersed all over the world.

So where are the best places to get a glimpse of the Berlin Wall and its history? 

1. The Berlin History Trail

Berlin Wall c/o Visit Berlin

Berlin Wall information point – c/o Visit Berlin and Wolfgang Scholvien

A good starting point is the Berlin Wall History Mile, a multi-lingual trail with 30 information points telling the story of Berlin’s division, the construction of the Wall and how it fell.

There’s little left of the border fortifications, barriers and machinery of dictatorship so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Look out for the double row of cobblestones and bronze plaques inscribed ‘Berliner Mauer 1961–1989’ which mark the former line of the Wall. 

The Berlin Wall Trail helps a lot, tracing the course of the former border fortifications encircling West Berlin along 160 kilometres.

The hiking and bike trail runs largely along the former patrol roads used by customs officers and GDR border troops.

Berlin East Side Gallery

Cycle the wall in Berlin

The Berlin Wall in numbers

Total length of the border to West Berlin 155 km
Inner-city border between East and West Berlin 43 km
Border between West Berlin and the GDR (“outer ring”) 112 km
Border crossings between East and West Berlin (roads/railway) 8
Border crossings between the GDR and West Berlin (roads/railway) 6
Observation towers 302
Bunkers 20
Dog runs 259
Anti-vehicle trenches 105,5 km
Contact or signal fences 127,5 km
Border patrol roads 124,3 km
(July 1989, Lapp/Ritter, Die Grenze, 1997)

Measuring the wall segments:
Height: 3.6m
Width: 1.2m
Weight: 2.6 tonnes
Material: Reinforced concrete

2. East Side Gallery

Next on your itinerary is a trip to the longest stretch of surviving wall at the East Side Gallery which runs for nearly a mile. 

Its boldly coloured images were painted by 118 artists from around the world in 1990.

Berlin East Side Gallery

Berlin East Side Gallery

It’s also the longest open air gallery in the world with 110 large format images painted directly onto the wall. The whole effect is a bit like seeing a giant piece of graffiti art which runs as far as the eye can see.   

The gallery has been renovated several times over the years and provides a window on Berlin’s Cold War world through the eyes of international artists.

It’s a strange curiosity in the middle of a heavily trafficked area but it’s worth running the gauntlet of the speeding cars and trucks to get a proper look.

Berlin East Side Gallery

Iconic images at the East Side Gallery

3. Berlin Wall Memorial

The Berlin Wall Memorial is a must see destination on your travel schedule. Situated at the historic Bernauer Strasse, it extends for nearly a mile along the former border strip.

The memorial contains the last piece of the Berlin Wall embedded fully in the ground as well as a section of preserved grounds behind it.

Berlin Wall Memorial

Berlin Wall Memorial c/o Berlin Wall Foundation

This is one of the most interesting sections of the Berlin Wall where you’ll discover the heart-rending stories of people trying to escape from the Soviet quarter.

Berlin Wall Memorial

Berlin Wall Memorial c/o Berlin Wall Foundation

One daring  attempt involved 57 people who escaped successfully through a 140 metre tunnel to West Berlin.

This is also where  people jumped out of the windows of apartments bordering West Berlin in desperation. Tragically, many paid with their lives.

What once was “no man’s land” between Brunnenstrasse and Gartenstrasse has been preserved in its undeveloped state as a monument.

The open-air exhibition includes the Monument in Memory of the Divided City and the Victims of Communist Tyranny.

The grounds also include the Chapel of Reconciliation and the excavated foundations of a former apartment building whose facade functioned as the border wall until the early 1980s.

This authentic memorial site is well worth a visit for its compelling stories of Berliners during the Cold War.

4. Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie was one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks during the Cold War, the only crossing point for foreigners. It was the scene of a dramatic stand-off between Russian and American tanks in 1961.

Today it is one of Berlin’s top tourist spots. But there’s very little left of the crossing with the exception of one kiosk so you’ll have to imagine the barbed wire, barriers and gates.

Watch out for the Russian fur hat and military souvenir sellers with their street stalls. Don’t miss the interesting Black Box exhibition with photos, documents and displays about the Wall.

The Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie Museum is the place to discover extraordinary tales of escape from East to West Berlin during the Cold War.

Berlin

Tammy at Checkpoint Charlie

There is no end to the ingenious devices used in the escape attempts, from a hot air balloon and microlight aircraft to a mini U-boat and even a chair lift.

My favourite escape ‘craft’ are the more prosaic objects taken from everyday life such as suitcases, a car with enlarged petrol tanks, and an inflatable boat with a surfing sail.

Many died in their attempts to escape but some were successful – and the museum is a testament to the creativity and courage of the Berliners who tried to make this dangerous journey.

Checkpoint Charlie Berlin line of the wall

Checkpoint Charlie’s crossing point zone c/o Werber Fotografie

5. Potsdamer Place

There’s not much of the Wall to be seen at Potsdamer Platz either but this was once one of the most important points along the border route.

It’s the place where Westerners stood on high observation platforms to peek over the Wall during the Cold War. 

Today, there’s just this brightly coloured graffiti-covered slab that sticks out like a sore thumb in an ocean of bland, modern developments.

Potsdamer Platz Berlin

Tammy at Potsdamer Platz

In the 1930s, Potsdamer Platz was one of Europe’s busiest streets, surrounded by hotels, restaurants, shops and theatres. 

When the Soviet sector was sealed off on 13 August 1961, barricades were set up between Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz.

The Berlin Wall resulted in the area becoming a gigantic wasteland in the heart of the city, known as  “the death strip, running between the wall’s inner and outer fortifications.

Berlin Potsdamer Platz - line of the wall

Potsdamer Platz  – line of the wall c/o Werber Fotografie

It’s chilling to imagine life during the Cold War in this area of Berlin. The S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations were closed when the Iron Curtain came down.

The U-Bahn line was interrupted at the border whilst the south-north route of the S-Bahn trains in West Berlin ran underneath the centre of East Berlin.

Their only stop in this area was Friedrichstrasse station. It must have been an odd experience for rail passengers when they spotted the shadowy outlines of GDR border guards patrolling the darkened platforms of abandoned stations under East Berlin.

Potsdamer Platz Berlin

Potsdamer Platz in Berlin

Twenty five years after the Berlin Wall came down, Potsdamer Platz is unrecognisable from its Cold War days. It’s now teaming with modern shops, cafes, offices and hotels but it feels sanitised and soulless.

But delve deeper and you’ll find a few scattered remnants of the Berlin Wall with a series of information display boards.

Berlin Wall c/o Visit Berlin

Berlin Wall c/o Visit Berlin and Wolfgang Scholvien

The East German watchtower on Potsdamer Platz is one of the last historical remains of the Wall which is open to the public.

The tower originally stood between the Brandenburg Gate and Leipziger Platz but was moved to its present location in 2001. Ring ahead to book – visits are restricted to three or four people at a time.

6. Brandenburg Gate

The Brandenburg Gate is one of Berlin’s most iconic landmarks but during the Cold War it was on the front line, just behind the border inside the Soviet sector.

Early on 13 August 1961, work started on sealing off the border at Brandenburg Gate when soldiers arrived with water cannons and troop carriers.

Workers’ militias took up their positions in front of Berlin’s landmark to protest but their rallying cries were futile. East Berliners and GDR citizens were forbidden to cross through into West Berlin.

The barriers were later reinforced with an outer and inner wall, floodlights and watchtowers, creating a show of military strength and division between the two halves of the city.

Brandenberg Gate Berlin

Brandenburg Gate – Berlin

In front of Brandenburg Gate, the Wall was fortified with a three metre thick anti-tank barrier, signalling the impenetrable nature of the border between West and East

Today, the gate and surrounding square have been transformed and it’s a major tourist draw where you can ponder how different it would have looked in the 1960s and 70s.

Gone are the fortifications but a Cold War chill remains. This will be one of the key landmarks featured in Berlin’s 2014 anniversary celebrations and illuminations.

Berlin 2014 - anniversary

Berlin 2014 – anniversary c/o Visit Berlin

7. Niederkirchner Strasse

There’s little to be seen of the West section of the Berlin Wall but keep a beady eye open if you’re in the vicinity of the Topography of  Terrors on Niederkirchner Strasse.  

Berlin

Topography of Terror exhibition – Berlin

Between 1961 and 1989, Berlin Wall border installations ran through Niederkirchnerstraße in the direction of Checkpoint Charlie.

Most of this section of the Berlin Wall has long gone. It was carted away by souvenir hunters in the 1990s. Small concrete chunks of the wall are no doubt sitting on display in many Berlin homes! 

A badly damaged, 200 metre strip of wall can be seen on the southern side of Niederkirchnerstraße.

This was a later generation of the Berlin Wall, reinforced with extra strong pre-cast concrete. Its robust construction made it almost impossible to smash through with a vehicle.

Berlin

No man’s land

8. Templehof Airport

Berlin’s old Templehof Airport also played its part in the Cold War, best known for its role in the Berlin Airlift. As the Cold War intensified, West Berlin became stranded, an island in the centre of the Soviet’s zone of occupation.

West Berlin was thrown a lifeline by the Allies who used Templehof Airport to break the Soviet’s blockade of the city.

Templehof Airpor in 1992

Templehof Airport in 1992

During the airlift, ‘Raisin Bombers’ flew in every 90 seconds to deliver 2 million tonnes of food, coal and essential supplies. It was a hugely important support operation for people living in West Berlin.

Throughout the Cold War, Tempelhof was the main terminal for American military transport aircraft accessing West Berlin.

Today Berliners have embraced the large empty spaces around the former airport as a massive recreation park popular with urban skaters, cyclists, dog walkers and picnicking families.
 

Read more about visiting  Templehof on  Tammy’s blog post 

9. Fernsehturm Television Tower

Trying to get a sense of how the Wall divided East and West Berlin is tricky because the ruins at ground level are fragmented or missing completely.

So why not take to the skies with a trip to the top of the 368 metres tall Fersehturm TV Tower. From the viewing platform, you can enjoyed a panoramic view across the city and discover how the various pieces of Berlin’s East-West jigsaw fit together.

Berlin

Berlin’s eye in the sky – the TV Tower

The Television Tower was built in the late 1960s by the GDR government, partly to demonstrate the strength and efficiency of the socialist party system. Today, the tower has become a symbol of the re-unified Berlin.  

10. The Reichstag

The Reichstag has huge symbolic value because this was where the new German Parliament sat after West and East Berlin were reunified in 1990.  

Reichstag Berlin

Reichstag Berlin

Take a trip to the top of the stunning Reichstag Dome for another excellent view across the once divided city.

Cold War icons 

Finally, look out for the Trabant, the fast-disappearing car which symbolised East Germany and life behind the Berlin Wall.  There’s still a few on the streets of Berlin but most have rusted away and fallen to bits. They were never built to last!

The state-owned factory built over 3 million of these iconic cars in the GDR days.  Take a trip to the Trabi Museum which is dedicated to the bone-rattling car of East Germany. Look out for a Trabant with a camping tent on the roof and a bizarre, armoured Trabi.

Alternatively, go on a Trabi Safari Tour and drive a Trabant with a guide along the route of the former Berlin Wall.  

Trabant

Classic Trabant car

A trip to Berlin wouldn’t be complete without your very own piece of the Wall. You may find a small concrete chunk from the original Wall in the Checkpoint Charlie gift shop. I wish now that I’d brought a piece back home!

Tammy’s Practical Travel Guide –  Berlin Wall

Berlin is located in the north-east of Germany with excellent international flight and rail links from Europe and beyond.  The Visit Berlin website is a good place for hotels, attractions and travel information.

Berlin East Side Gallery

Berlin’s East Side Gallery

Don’t miss the East Side Gallery  which runs along Berlin’s Muhlenstrasse, close to the River Spree. It’s an open air site with free admission.

Checkpoint Charlie is located in the heart of Berlin at Friedrichstrasse in Kreuzberg. Open daily 9:00-22:00. Admission fee.

The GDR Museum is worth a detour. It’s the only museum that deals exclusively with life in the former German Democratic Republic during the Cold War.

If you’re interested in Cold War surveillance, take a trip to the excellent Stasi Museum (currently closed for renovation) which reopens in January 2015.  The once top-secret Stasi files are now freely accessible in the archive. Take a look inside the office of former Stasi boss Erich Mielke.

Berlin

Berlin’s Reichstag Dome

The Reichstag is one of Berlin’s most popular tourist attractions but you’ll need to book ahead for a visit to the magnificent glass dome.  Free admission. Open daily 8:00-midnight.

For panoramic views across the city, visit the Berlin TV Tower which is located in the Alexanderplatz district of Berlin. It’s open daily 10:00-midnight. Admission charge.

Berlin Wall c/o Visit Berlin

Berlin Wall Park c/o Visit Berlin

The Mauerpark or Berlin Wall Park is a good place to relax on your tour with the backdrop of  a section of the wall decorated by graffiti artists. 

The Documentation Center at Bernauer Strasse (currently closed for renovation) offers a wide range of information about the history of the Berlin Wall with a permanent exhibition plus a viewing platform overlooking the old line of the Wall.

Berlin Wall after the fall in 1989 c/o Visit Berlin and Uwe Gerig Bild

Berlin Wall after the fall in 1989 c/o Visit Berlin and Uwe Gerig Bild

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