I was 13 when the Berlin Wall came down. While I was counting the minutes to the next break, my history teacher went on about “big changes” and “huge impacts”! I couldn’t care less about it at that age…
Fast forward 28 years and I find myself at the Brandenburg Gate, a little wiser and far more interested in history, ready to go on my very own Cold War tour of Berlin! Care to join me?
A. What exactly was the Cold War?
The Cold War was a period of tension between the communist East (led by the Soviet Union and its allies) and the capitalist West (led by the USA and its allies) It started right after the Second World War and finished in 1989 with the collapse of the communist regime and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was called “cold war”, because it didn’t involve any military action.
The Cold War was also a time of espionage and nuclear threats.
B. A Cold War tour of Berlin in 10 stops
During the Cold War, the city of Berlin was divided into 4 different sections: the French, British and American zone made up West Berlin, while the Soviet zone made up East Berlin. Border crossings were introduced between East and West and while people from the West could cross to the East fairly easily, this was a lot less easier for those wanting to travel East to West. The city is still home to a lot of reminders of that dark period in German history; why not embark on your very own Cold War Tour of Berlin?
Right next to the Berlin Friedrichstrasse railway station lies what was one of the main border crossings from the GDR (East Germany) into the BRD (West Germany) : the Tränenpalast or “Palace of Tears”. The name says it all: this modern steel and glass construction was the scene of hope, yearning and tears. It was a place where people from East Berlin said goodbye to their western relatives and friends, not knowing when they’d see each other again, even when they were only a few miles away…
An original passport control booth shows the claustrophobic border controls while various objects document the impact of the division on the daily life of the Berliners on both sides of the wall. Very moving!
2. Brandenburger Tor
This famous Berlin symbol was completed in 1791 as the royal city gate. Nowadays a symbol of reunification and a photogenic backdrop for many festivals and major events, the Brandenburg Gate was once trapped behind the Berlin wall and was THE symbol of the division between East and West.
With the huge crowds gathering all day long on the Pariser Platz, it can be quite tricky to reminisce about the historical importance it played all these years, but it’s still worth taking a look! If you need some peace and quiet, there is a “Room of Silence” in the northern wing to get away from the madness.
3. Ghost train stations
The Cold War didn’t just mess up people’s lives, it also caused massive chaos to Berlin’s transport system. Some of the U-bahn (subway) lines ran for most part through West Berlin but passed for a short distance through a part of East Berlin territory. Once the Wall was built, these lines continued to be open to westerners, but trains did not stop any longer at most of the stations located within East Berlin. The stations became deserted and known as “ghost stations”. The Nordbahnhof station, which is now fully operational again, has a small exhibition on what it looked like back then. To be perfectly honest, there’s still a very eerie feeling to the place…
4. Gedenkstätte Mauer
Coming out of Nordbahnhof, you will find yourself face-to-face with an outdoor memorial that was once the scene of “the death strip”. The death strip was a territory between the two concrete walls separating east and west Berlin. It contained hundreds of watchtowers, anti- vehicle trenches, border guards, guard dogs and floodlights. Multimedia panels explain the history along the Bernauer Strasse and you can see where some of the tunnels were dug by people trying to escape the East. The Window of Remembrance portraits the less fortunate who lost their lives while trying to cross the border.
The museum opposite provides you with a further insight of life along the border strip. You can easily spend a few hours here!
5. Stasi museum
If you’re into espionage, you’ll love the Stasi museum! The old Stasi headquarters have been transformed into a museum that gives an overview of the various methods used by the former Ministry for State Security (Stasi). The Stasi has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies ever to have existed. Their main aim was to spy on the population of East Germany. Therefore they used over 90.000 employees and a huge network of unofficial informants, who were recruited to spy on neighbours, friends and colleagues. Anybody who was suspected to be opposed against the communist regime could expect to be harassed, intimated or arrested!
The museum gives you an insight into some of the spying and intimidation techniques. It is truly fascinating and I must admit I felt quite paranoid after leaving the premises!
If you want to have an idea of what the Stasi can be up to, I can highly recommend a TV-series called Deutschland 83, about a young East-German border guard, forced to go undercover in the West. Another movie to watch on that topic is “The Lives of Others“.
6. East Side Gallery
Probably the most famous stretch of the former Berlin Wall, it’s 1.3km long and is possibly the world’s largest open-air gallery. 105 paintings describe the euphoria and joy that reigned across the city back in November 1989, when the demolition of the Wall hit the newslines! The East Side Gallery is situated in between Ostbahnhof and the Oberbaumbrücke. The grassy bit behind the gallery is a nice spot for a picnic along the Spree river.
Not the grandest of monuments, but of great historical importance are the watchtowers scattered around the city. At the height of the division there were over 200 of them! The easiest one to find is situated at the end of Erna Berger Strasse, close to Potsdamer Platz. Guards had to climb up the cramped towers, ready to stop anybody making an attempt to seek a better future in the West. Two iron ladders on the inside take you to the top where you can look out through the small windows just as the border soldiers used to do.
A few minutes walk from the watchtower on Erna Berger Strasse looms a 200m long section of the outer Berlin Wall. Each section was made of pre-cast concrete used by farmers to build open silos. It was 3.60 meters high and 1.20 meters wide and topped off by a smooth asbestos-concrete pipe. The remains of this section are marked by deep gashes and even holes left by the souvenir-seekers and -sellers who chipped away at the concrete in the days and weeks after the border was opened.
Niederkirchnerstraße is slightly overshadowed by the “Topography of Terror” exhibition on the other side of the street that deals with another dark passage in German history, World War II.
9.Walk or cycle the Berlin wall
Why not discover the city by following the Berlin Wall as your guide? The 160km long Berlin Wall Trail traces the course of the former GDR border fortifications encircling West Berlin. In most sections, this hiking and bike trail runs along the former border patrol roads. Sections of historic interest intertwine with remains of the old Wall and stretches of natural beauty. Even if you are only doing a small part of it, it’s a great way to take in key sites and lesser known parts of the city.
I saved this one for last. The most famous border crossing between the former East and West has unfortunately turned into a big tourist trap. The old border control booth is now a replica in which a poor soul, dressed up as an American soldier, poses for pictures with the hordes of tourists wandering about the place. Well, he’s probably not that poor, since he is expecting a tip for that privilege!
Do go there to snap the obligatory “you are now leaving the American sector” sign, but venture further away to discover much more interesting and authentic places that will take you back to the times of the Cold War.
Have you been on a Cold War tour of Berlin? Or maybe visited a few other locations that didn’t make the list? I’m all ears!