Berlin Wall

Although Berlin has so many sights that it’s almost impossible to squeeze them into a short stay, most tourists are looking for something that’s not even supposed to be there anymore. The Berlin Wall has not only parted a city and a country, but it has also been visible proof of the separation of the world into a Western and an Eastern part. It was right here, at a concrete wall adorned with graffiti art on one side and guarded with machine guns on the other, that one political philosophy ended and the other began. But apart from this towering significance, the wall also separated neighbors, friends and often even families and it plays the defining role in countless sad stories. Remembering the Wall also means reflecting on how many people were willing to risk their lives to escape the dictatorship of Communism and how many of these people ultimately died because they longed for freedom.

> See also: Fall of the Wall - A 1989 chronology

Berlin Wall

Today, Berlin has healed along the former border and what remains of it often is swarmed by so many tourists at a time that it is hard to imagine the air of terror and fear once associated with it. The scars inflicted by the separation of the town have long since been overgrown by a construction boom that ensued after the country’s reunification – the area once covered by the border line now consists of some of Berlin’s prime real estate due to the central location. The Wall had been built by the East Germans from 1961 on and the official reasoning behind the construction had been to protect the East German people from “fascist elements” from the West, while in reality its sole purpose was to put a halt to a wave of defection into West Germany that had been going on for a while. For this reason, the Wall was adorned with more than 300 watchtowers, staffed with soldiers. Behind the actual wall, there was the so-called “death strip”, an area several meters wide which had been completely razed and the people living there relocated as to afford a clear view of everything and everyone moving towards the wall. These areas were scattered with mines, trenches and other obstacles to prevent anyone from even approaching the border. An estimated 5,000 people attempted to flee from East Germany during the Wall’s existence until  1989, at least 100 of those were killed by East German military personnel. Those caught alive were usually thrown into jail for long times and were considered enemies of the East German people. The Wall had a length of 155 kilometers (96 miles) and could only be found in Berlin, the remaining border between mainland East and West Germany was marked by a high fence.

After World War II and the division of Germany into four parts controlled by the allies, tensions between the Soviet Union and the Western allies had quickly risen over disagreements on how to proceed with the defeated and largely destroyed Germany. Soviet leader Stalin planned on integrating Germany as a whole into the Eastern bloc, while the Americans favored the Marshall Plan that provided for a reconstruction of Germany into an industrial country. Stalin then started the Berlin blockade, essentially cutting the Western part of the city from all supply routes, to which several Western countries responded by initiating the airlift to get much-needed food and other supplies into the city. Soon, the two German countries developed in different directions. While the Eastern part suffered from shortages and restrictions of personal liberties, West Germany evolved into a country with a quickly improving standard of living. As a result, many East Germans fled to the Western neighbor, more than a half a million people between 1950 and 1952 alone. This caused the Soviets to close the border between East and West Germany, initially marked by a barbed-wire fence. However, people could still rather easily pass from one part of Berlin into the other and many East Germans, feeling the growing pressures and tension, used this route to escape to the Western half. By 1956, the East German government disallowed travel to West Germany altogether. Still, until 1961 some 3.5 million citizens of the GDR left the country, equaling roughly 20% of the entire population.

Responding to rumors that had been around for a while, GDR Council Chairman Walter Ulbricht famously stated “No one has the intention of erecting a wall” in June 1961. On 12 August, Ulbricht signed the order for the construction and the following day, troops sealed the border and construction began. The sudden and complete closure came as a shock to people on both sides of the border, as they suddenly were unable to see their family stuck on the other side. In some cases, it took several decades for families to reunite. The Western part of Berlin Checkpoint CharlieBerlin, which belonged to the Federal Republic, was now completely isolated. Only later was a road built that allowed for direct connection to the West German mainland. Between 1975 and 1980, a new, thicker wall was erected with the intention of preventing cars from crashing through it. This last version of the separation wall stood 3.6 meters high and 1.2 meters wide.

There were a total of nine border crossings in Berlin, each one closely monitored from both sides. The one at Friedrichstrasse, which could only be used by members of the allied forces and non-German foreigners, was dubbed “Checkpoint Charlie” because it was the third in the list of border crossing points and became the most famous of the nine crossings. For the entire time of its existence, Checkpoint Charlie remained a non-permanent structure, while on the Eastern side, sophisticated border protection measures were installed. The photo to the right shows the last version of the allied checkpoint - in the early years, there had only been a wooden shack at this location. This shack was prominently featured in images depicting the standoff between American and Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in 1961. There was a café close to the checkpoint which was often frequented by visitors as well as army officials because it allowed for a look comparatively deep into East Berlin.

The site where Checkpoint Charlie once stood has become a major tourist attraction, although the original checkpoint shed has been removed in 1990 and is now on display at the Allied Museum (Clayallee 135). However, the former border crossing site still is a good place to visit if you want to learn more about this particular part of world history. In 2000, a replica of the first building used as checkpoint in the 1960s was placed here and there are a number of gallery walls along Friedrichstrasse, informing about the history of the Wall. Also, there is the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (Friedrichstrasse 43-45, open daily 9 am- 10 pm), which has been open since 1963. The museum, once located in the private apartment of its founder, historian Rainer Hildebrandt, is dedicated to showcasing the many, often creative attempts to flee from East Berlin. It is one of the best-visited museums in Berlin.

The Wall itself has mostly been destructed and a number of pieces are on display at museums around the world. In Berlin, the Berlin Wall Memorial (Bernauer Strasse 119, open Tuesday-Sunday 9:30 am – 6 pm) preserves an original part of it, complete with the adjoining death strip. In addition, there is a Documentation Center and an exhibition about the so-called ghost stations at the nearby Nordbahnhof, subway stations in East Berlin the Western trains were not allowed to stop at. At the site the memorial is now located, the Wall once ran directly in front of the buildings along the street. Another opportunity to see what the Wall looked like is the East Side Gallery (Mühlenstrasse). Here, some particularly colorful remnants of the wall can be seen and it is rather an art gallery than a memorial. On a total length of more than one kilometer, the gallery showcases more than 100 of the most intriguing graffiti art works that had been applied to the wall from the Western side. Some of the artwork has been carefully restored after the fall of the Wall, some others remain in their somewhat eroded condition. The artwork gives visitors a good impression of the changes in perspective over the decades. However, in March 2013, workers started demolishing parts of the East Side Gallery as ordered by the city administration as a private investor has requested clear access to his property behind the Wall remnants.


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