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Excuse me, which way to the Berlin Wall?

Hallie Rawlinson
October 8, 2019

Today, the Berlin Wall appears as a photo stop at Checkpoint Charlie or as graffiti artwork at the East Side Gallery. DW’s Hallie Rawlinson retraces the history of the Wall to learn more.

Deutschland Die Berliner Mauer 30 Jahre danach | Auge in Auge mit der Berliner Mauer
Image: DW/H. Rawlinson

30 years ago this year, the Berlin Wall — the most tangible symbol of Cold War division — fell. Four years later, I was born several thousand kilometers away in the American Midwest into a world no longer divided by the Iron Curtain. Little did I know that I would eventually end up living right in its former shadow. As a (relatively new) Berliner, I feel that it’s my responsibility to try to learn more about this difficult period in my new hometown’s history. So I’ve set out to discover what exactly there is to learn 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

History at my doorstep

Steel poles mark where the Berlin Wall once stood at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin
The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse: Rusty steel poles visualize where the Berlin Wall once stoodImage: DW/H. Rawlinson

I live in an apartment very close to Bernauer Strasse, where one of the few standing and relatively untouched stretches of the Wall stands — so close that I actually have to cross the former border (now marked by a row of inlaid bricks) each morning when I stop by my favorite coffee shop. But it isn’t easy to just pass over this historical spot without noticing its significance. Every day on that walk, I am reminded of the city's division. There are pictures in an oversized photo frame commemorating those who died while fleeing over the border fortifications of the East German regime from East to West Berlin. In total, the Wall cost the lives of at least 140 people. My way continues over metal plates in the ground. They mark places where escape attempts failed or people had to evacuate their houses because of the construction of the Wall; but also places where escape from East Germany (GDR) was possible, for example via escape tunnels. Then I pass a series of rusty steel poles that mark where the Wall once stood, together making the course of the wall visible from the street. All this belongs to the Berlin Wall Memorial.

This memorial on Bernauer Strasse is dedicated to those who lost their lives on the Wall and to furthering education on the subject. For me, the most helpful part of this memorial is the five-story observation tower which allows visitors to climb to look out over a small portion of what the real border wall would have looked like. Earlier, I had always imagined the Berlin Wall as, well, one wall. But this replica helped me to understand that the Wall in its final form was actually not just one, but two parallel concrete walls between which the so-called "death strip" was located. Ranging from 15 to more than 150 meters (49 – 492 ft) wide, the sandy death strip was riddled with barrier systems like spike mats and vehicle ditches and was constantly watched over by armed border guards. They were always ready to shoot anyone who made it over the first wall and into the death strip.

A "death strip" replica on Bernauer Strasse, which recreates what the GDR border installations looked like during the Cold War
A "death strip" replica on Bernauer Strasse: This was what the GDR border installations looked likeImage: DW/F. Wiechel-Kramüller

Digging to freedom

I'm intrigued by the commemorative metal plates which show the escape tunnel routes that ran underneath the border barriers at Bernauer Strasse. More than seven escape tunnels were attempted there, within just a few hundred meters of each other. I decide to find out more about the ways that East Berliners escaped underground by heading just up the street to join a “Berliner Unterwelten” (Berlin Underworlds) tour called “Under the Berlin Wall”. I worry that a tour called “Underworlds” might be meant to draw those fascinated by the gruesome and macabre. Would it be cheesy and disrespectful? But actually, I am swiftly proven wrong as I embark on the tour. As the group and I climb down into the cool, damp underground museum, I can almost feel the desperation of those who attempted daring underground escapes and I listen to the stories told by our enthusiastic and informative guide. The tour includes various photography exhibitions and shows visitors with the help of life-size models how some of the tunnels were built. Surprised to hear that the most successful and famous tunnels had been dug just a block away from my apartment, I try to imagine how I would react if one of these East German refugees suddenly popped into my cellar after digging their way to the west. After all, more than 300 GDR citizens made their way from East to West Berlin in this way between 1961 and 1984.

Metal markers at the Berlin Wall Memorial show where an escape tunnel once existed directly underfoot
These metal markers show where an escape tunnel once existed directly underfootImage: DW/H. Rawlinson

An impenetrable gate and white crosses

Author Hallie poses for a photo in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, tourists in the background
The Brandenburg Gate is a must-see for any tourist in BerlinImage: DW/H. Rawlinson

I hop on the city train to another place that allows me to stand right in the middle of history. It is perhaps the best-known symbol of Berlin itself: the Brandenburg Gate. But I am here to reflect on the gate as a symbol of reunification. I was actually quite shocked to learn that this grand 18th-century monument, a real landmark of Germany, was once hidden away behind the border in the death strip, technically belonging to the East German side. I take a short seat on one of the nearby benches to watch the people walking past happily and conjure up the images I’ve seen of smiling faces cheering in front of this symbolic monument on the night the Wall fell, November 9, 1989. 

As I leave the Gate and tourists behind me, I wander a short distance along the consistent brick path in the ground that traces where the Wall once stood. I come to the German parliament building, or the “Reichstag”. During the Cold War, this historical edifice was in West Berlin and stood just a few meters from the Wall, which right along the back of the building. Near the Reichstag and father along the path, there are even more reminders of the lives lost to the Berlin Wall. The white crosses hanging between here and the nearby banks of the River Spree list names, birth and death dates. Even across the Spree, where the border ran, people had tried to reach West Berlin. As I pause to read them, my heart sinks when I notice the names of those who died in the 1980s. Those desperate souls risking their lives to escape East Germany — for whatever reason — could not say for sure that their nightmare would soon end.

A brotherly kiss

Dmitri Vrubel’s “Fraternal Kiss” at the East Side Gallery, a painting that depicts a photograph of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in a fraternal embrace captured during the 30th anniversary celebration of the foundation of the GDR.
Dmitri Vrubel’s “Fraternal Kiss” at the East Side GalleryImage: DW/H. Rawlinson

Just a few kilometers up the River Spree, the remainders of the Berlin Wall tell perhaps a more hopeful story. When I first heard mention of the East Side Gallery in the former East German district of Friedrichshain, I assumed it was a sophisticated art gallery with expensive paintings hanging (somewhere I definitely needed to wear something nicer than a T-shirt). But actually, the East Side Gallery is the longest surviving stretch of the original Berlin Wall turned into an outdoor street art gallery. After the fall of the Wall in 1989, 118 artists from 21 countries were invited to paint sections of the 1.3-kilometer-long (4,265 ft) concrete strip — something that certainly would not have been possible on the Eastern side before. Many of the bright and captivating works are political commentaries focused on the end of the Berlin Wall era. The undoubtedly most famous painting included in the gallery is Dmitri Vrubel’s “Fraternal Kiss”. It depicts former Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker kissing in a fraternal embrace — a special greeting between socialist statesmen — and replicates a photo taken in 1979 during the 30th-anniversary celebration of the GDR's founding.  I can’t help but wonder if the people posing in front of it today for selfies know who these men are and why they’re kissing. 

Checkpoint circus
One last place is on my list of Wall locations: Checkpoint Charlie. Today at the kitschy photo point for tourists sandbags pile up in front of a white, wooden guard hut with a sign that reads: "U.S. Army Checkpoint." During the division of the city, Checkpoint Charlie was one of eight inner-city border crossings. However, this was a crossing point only for foreigners, military personnel and diplomats, not for regular travel and visiting traffic between East and West. The first thing I notice once I reach the site of the former border crossing: I’m faced with the iconic picture of an American soldier, staring blank-faced into the camera. On the opposite side, a similar portrait of a Soviet soldier can be seen. The next obvious thing: a McDonald’s, souvenir stores, street food stands and several cafes. Walking towards the small replica checkpoint booth, I nearly tripped a few times over men likely scamming unsuspecting tourists with the so-called “shell game”. Already I feel a little overwhelmed and honestly a bit uncomfortable with how cheap this all felt compared to the other places I’d been so far. But nonetheless, I buy a ticket to the “Mauermuseum” or (Wall Museum) and go inside. While this museum has a few interesting facts and artifacts, they are all hidden in the floor to ceiling blocks of text printed on the walls in seemingly random order. Without having prior knowledge, I’m not sure if I could even tell you exactly what this museum was about. I left feeling very unsatisfied and slightly more confused than I went in. 

A stand near Checkpoint Charlie where one can buy Soviet memorabilia, East German and West German flags, Soviet flags, hats, etc.
These stands selling Soviet memorabilia and "historical souvenirs" are scattered around the area of Checkpoint CharlieImage: DW/H. Rawlinson
Tourists snapping pictures at Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie: US and Soviet soldiers guarded the Allied border checkpoint in the middle of BerlinImage: DW/H. Rawlinson

Even with the disappointment of the last visit, I walk home feeling lucky to call such a historically significant and interesting place my home. Overall, I think those who want to learn about the Berlin Wall, the GDR and the Cold War division really do have authentic locations and museums in Berlin to do so. And I hope that those of my generation, who weren’t even born when the Wall fell will also take time to learn more about the city's layered history.