Traveling back to East and West Berlin: what to visit?

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  • 17 March, 2019
The Window of Remembrance at the Berlin Wall Memorial site.

The Berlin Wall memorial is installed on the site where most people attempted to illegally cross the Berlin Wall. Visiting the memorial reminds of the times of a highly divided Berlin. Let's go back to what happened.

A parade of allied forces in Berlin on 7 September 1945 marked the end of the war, and was meant to be a prelude for better times in the city. By that time, the USSR, the USA, Great Britain and France had reached an agreement overseeing the future of Germany, which was to be divided into 4 occupation zones. The city of Berlin suffered the same fate. However, it all seemed to work well on the papers.

In June 1948 the first conflict occurred. In an effort to take over control of all Berlin, the USSR blocked railways and highways, not allowing any food and other cargo to enter the Western districts of the city. The crisis ended after 11 months, when the USSR noticed that there was an air bridge in place, supplying West Berlin with the necessary goods. The blockade had turned out counterproductive actually, as the situation had merely caused a unification of Western lands and the formation of the Federal Republic of Germany. In response, the German Democratic Republic was formed in the zone of Soviet influence.

In June 1953, Soviet tanks had to be brought to the stage to end an uprising against the poor economic situation in East Germany. Protesters were demanding increases in living standards and political freedom. In response, the Soviet authorities only tightened their control further, which in turn led to a mass exodus to the West. In 1961, about 200,000 people had left the GDR already.

The differences in lifestyle between East and West were extreme. If you want to get a better idea of life in the East, consider visiting the GDR Museum (in German 'DDR Museum'). It describes life in East Germany in surprising detail, with many exhibits donated by former GDR residents. There is even an East German apartment, with all the interior items, clothes and books in place; where you can check out the contents of cabinets and bedside tables, and watch TV. The museum can be visited every day.

On 12 August 1961, the authorities of the GDR ordered to eliminate all communication between the Eastern and Western parts of the city. Police officers and other members of the communist party were demanded to form a living chain at night, instructed to not let anyone through. Soon the living chain got backed by armed forces. The GDR had started to feel the pain of specialists and other qualified people moving out of the country in search for better opportunities, and accused West Germany of provocations, acts of sabotage and attempts to destabilize the situation.

Under this pretext, on the night of 13 August 1961, construction of the wall began. In the early days, the barricade consisted primarily of wire barriers. The armed forces of the GDR rolled out 46 kms of barbed wire, blocking 193 streets, 8 tramlines, 4 metro lines and some railway lines. People who still attempted to escape the socialist region could expect to get shot.

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.
Checkpoint Charlie, nowadays a favorite spot for pictures.

Three months after the start of the construction, one of the most famous episodes of the East-West confrontation took place, known as the Tank standoff at the Checkpoint Charlie. The authorities of West Berlin were obviously dissatisfied with the construction of the border wall and brought in some bulldozers to crush the wall, backed by tanks in case of aggression. In response, the Soviets also sent their tanks and soldiers. The massive weapons were positioned just some tens of meters opposite each other. The tanks stood still for a day, while Khrushchev and Kennedy were negotiating. The conflict was eventually resolved without victims and bloodshed, but became the first direct military confrontation between the troops of the USSR and the USA and the beginning of the Cold War.

Former GDR Watchtower near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.
An original GDR Watchtower near Potsdamer Platz, open to visitors.

For a better observation of potential fugitives, the wall needed to be equipped with special watchtowers. One of the first of those towers has been preserved near Potsdamer Platz, and can be visited nowadays. For an entrance fee of € 3.50 you can get a glimpse back into the Cold War era. The watchtower can be visited every day from 11-17h, except with rain. Find the GDR Watchtower on our Streetwise map of Berlin.

By the end of the 70s, the wall had become an almost insurmountable obstacle. It was not only barbed wire and concrete wall. Immediately behind all that began a continuous series of anti-tank hedgehogs. Passing that, the fugitives again found themselves in front of a barbed wire fence, which was equipped with an alarm system that alerted the patrols of border violations. The GDR authorities even planned further improvement with new alarm systems. The official death toll during the existence of the border wall amounts at least 140 people.

Not only the Berlin Wall brought a share of frustration to the life in East Germany. To maintain deep control of the life in the GDR, the State security service, the Stasi, was created based on the principles of the Soviet KGB. It was a real Big Brother who watched all the inhabitants of East Germany and East Berlin in particular. The Stasi could also count on a huge whistleblower network. According to official sources, every 50th resident was one. Anonymous denunciations were also welcomed by the Stasi. Tight control of its people meant that a person who accidentally expressed dissatisfaction for example about rising prices, could at some point expect to be interrogated. The Stasi maintained files for every citizen. Those who expressed too radical ideas and thoughts were put away in the Stasi prison of Hohenschönhausen, for further interrogation and torture.

Being a dark but unique place in history, the Hohenschönhausen prison can be visited nowadays on a guided tour. Besides that, there's an exhibition illustrating the everyday life of the convicted, showing photos and nearly 500 artefacts including prison clothes and letters from inmates. The exhibition can be visited free of charge, see the official website for further info.

For those interested in the history and the way of working of the Stasi, we recommended you to visit the Stasi Museum which is located in the former headquarters building. It gives a look into investigators' offices, interrogation rooms and torture aids. Public guided tours are offered at no extra charge, see the official website for more details.

Inside the Hohenschonhausen Stasi Prison in Berlin.
One of the cold corridors of the former Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen.

With Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power in the USSR in the 80s and the beginning of perestroika, many countries of the Socialist bloc experienced the so-called “velvet revolutions”. Regimes softened, permits for traveling abroad appeared, and in some Eastern European countries it even became possible to criticize the regime without being prosecuted. However the leadership of the GDR continued to pursue the same aggressive policy.

On the occasion of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the GDR on 7 October 1989, the leadership of the USSR unequivocally hinted that it did not intend to support the GDR regime. And the regime did fall. On 9 November 1989, the ban on free movement to West Berlin was lifted, and a year later, all the border walls were torn down. A relatively small segment of a bit more than 1 kilometer long remained however, as a monument and a symbol of the Cold War. Today the entire world knows it as the East Side Gallery.

Immediately after the opening of the border between West and East Berlin, artists from all around the world gathered, to express their feelings about the political events in the Germany of 1989-90. As such 105 paintings appeared on 1316 meters of wall, made by 118 artists from 21 countries. The East Side Gallery is today still the longest open-air art gallery in the world. Find this monumental piece of art and all the other unique sights of Berlin easily on our Streetwise map.

The East Side Gallery in Berlin.
The unique open-air exhibition called the East Side Gallery.
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