In August of 1961, construction began on what was to become the Berlin Wall. An already divided Berlin in an already divided Germany would be saddled with a concrete monstrosity that would become the symbol of the Cold War. The wall would encircle all of West Berlin, stretching 96 miles, dividing it from both East Berlin and the rest of East Germany.
For more than 25 years, the Berlin Wall stood, its route crossing what would have been busy streets and plazas. In many areas, it was topped with barbed wire. Soldiers patrolled the “death strip” on the East German side, with orders to shoot anyone who tried to cross into West Berlin, attempting to escape communist and totalitarian East Germany. The wall stood about twelve feet high, and was lined with more than 300 watch towers.
By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, leading to a reunited Germany the following year, an estimated more than 200 people would die trying to cross, 5,000 would succeed in crossing, and nearly 100,000 would be arrested in the attempt.
Today, Berlin honors its past as a divided city, tracing the route of the Berlin Wall via signage throughout the city. The Berliner Mauerweg, literally the path of the Berlin Wall, can be followed for nearly the entire 96 miles if one wishes. However, there are specific places to get a real appreciation for the wall and its legacy.
Just outside Berlin’s Topography of Terror museum on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters is one of the longest remaining sections of the wall itself, exactly as it stood since 1961. There are some holes in it, ostensibly from damage done during celebrations of the fall of the wall, and those show the rebar heart of the concrete barrier. It is a somber place to walk. Sitting at 260 feet in length, it is a place to experience just a fraction of what the feeling would have been to be pressed against the wall, with the walkway being on the West German side. Photos exist of this section as it was prior to 1989.
Just down the street is one of the most famous crossings in Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie. This spot, which separated the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin, was the site of a tank standoff between the two powers in 1961, one that fortunately did not end with any fighting. From this most famous of Berlin Wall crossings (the name is simply the phonetic alphabet, C for Charlie, or the third checkpoint in order), platforms were set up allowing for viewing between East and West Germany. Relatives would climb platforms to wave at each other over the wall. Today, it is a tourist mecca, with just a small border station still standing.
Much of the wall was constructed with a “no-man’s land” on the eastern side, a space between the formal wall along the border and a second barrier. Sadly for Berlin, the most important symbol of the city ended up inside of that strip: the Brandenburg Gate. Originally built from 1788 to 1791 by Frederick Wilhelm II to honor the suppression of a rebellion, the Brandenburg Gate consists of five passageways (the center one was solely for the royal family, and was wider), separated by columns and stone walls with reliefs. The gate is topped by a four-horsed chariot driven by Victoria, Roman goddess of victory. Called a quadriga, the statue was taken to Paris when Napoleon conquered Berlin, to be returned after his defeat in 1814.
In 1987, the Brandenburg Gate hosted Ronald Reagan, in what would become his most famous speech. “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate” refers to the gate itself. On December 22, 1989, the Brandenburg Gate was reopened, and remains open today, although after a huge refurbishment from 2000-2002, it has been closed to vehicular traffic.
Potsdamer Platz is another place to experience the history of the Berlin Wall. Once one of the commercial centers of Berlin, it became a ghost town (ghost square) when the wall was built directly through it. A stone pathway traces its route.
In East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, one can experience both the history of the Berlin Wall, as well as a more interesting legacy. The corner of Eberswalder Strasse and Schwedter Strasse is one of the first places the concrete wall went up, crossing the busy Eberswalder Strasse and cutting off traffic. This is also the first place the wall came down, and a small set of exhibits talks about both events.
Across the street is Mauerpark, literally wall park. Once, the Berlin Wall ran through this area. Today, Berlin remembers via a large green space (the wall’s route is a walkway), home to Sunday markets and the world’s largest karaoke show. It seems fitting to me.
For more than 25 years, Berlin was a divided city, the Berlin Wall cutting the city apart. Today, it seems like a distant memory (though it was a mere thirty years ago), with East Berlin being a wonderful hipster area. (My flat here in Berlin is just off Mauerpark, and the neighborhood is incredible, with a vibe that you’ll love.) But Berlin remembers, and it honors that terrible period. And as a tourist, you, too, can experience the Berlin Wall in a variety of ways.
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