The Berlin Wall went up early on a Sunday morning on the 13th of August 1961 while most Berliners were still sleeping. The military and some forced-into-volunteering people started demolishing the streets and installing the beginnings of a wall with concrete breeze blocks. The wall cut through apartment buildings, cemeteries, gardens, etc without a care for traditional boundaries.
The Berlin Wall still casts a long shadow over the city of Berlin even now decades after its demise. Fragments of the Berlin Wall pop-up randomly in Berlin. You’re walking along and then there it is – another little bit of history set in concrete.
All the graffiti and the colour in the world doesn’t really take away from the menace of it all.
I was a little surprised that the wall isn’t that wide or high. It’s a little over 3 meters high and cast in concrete with a rounded top which made it hard to get a grip to climb over. I learned that the wall itself wasn’t the real deterrent. The Death Strip behind the wall which was a no-man’s land with very high security, such as look-out towers, barbed wire and nail-spiked grounds, was the real separation. Very few people could make it past the Death Strip. There is a memorial at the Berlin War Memorial to the those people who died while attempting to cross over into western Berlin.
In fact, East Germany had an unofficial policy of shooting to kill people who tried to escape over/under the Wall. The policy had to be unofficial because it was in contravention of UN law and East Germany was a member nation of the UN. If the authorities thought one of the guards had attempted shoot to injure instead of shoot to kill, the guard himself would be sent to prison for 5 years. And, women and children were not exempt from the shoot to kill order, either, in case you were wondering. Our tour guide told us that guarding the Berlin Wall was such a distasteful job to Berliners that they brought in people from other parts of East Germany to act as security. There was, of course, less of a chance that you would be asked to shoot someone you knew if you were not a Berliner.
These are 3 ways I suggest that you experience the Berlin Wall and its impact on a city:
East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is a 1.3 kilometre section of the wall that is still intact in the center of Berlin. The longest intact section of the Berlin Wall still around today, it is located on Muhlenstrasse between the Oberbaum Bridge and the Ostbahnhof. Billed as the largest open air gallery in the world, there are approximately 106 pieces of artwork created in 1990 from artists all over the world commemorating freedom. Unfortunately, many of the pieces are covered in graffiti even though it is illegal to do so.
It’s historical and symbolic existence did not stop corporate giant O2 from taking out a chunk of the East Side Gallery so that it’s 02 venue can have unobstructed views and access across to the Spree River.
Nordbahnoff Ghost Station
The Berlin underground transport had been built many years prior to the division of east and west Berlin. On some lines, there were stations that started in west Berlin, went through east Berlin and then came back through to west Berlin. These stations in east Berlin were called ghost stations because the trains were not allowed to stop. In fact, they had 3 different walls blocking off each station and armed guards patrolling the station as well. The Nordbahnoff Station, one of the former ghost stations, has an excellent wall display explanation of the ghost stations.
The Berlin Wall Memorial
The Berlin War Memorial has a really well-done museum with a powerful video documentary of the Wall. Located on Bernauerstrasse, and conveniently located near the Nordbahnoff Station mentioned above, this street was one of the main areas of the wall. It also houses a large stretch of Berlin Wall unmarked by graffiti and a Death Strip you can walk through. The Death Strip is a grassy area now with all the spikes, barbed war etc. removed!
There is a tower which you can climb and get a good perspective of how massive an area the Wall and the Death Strip took.
There are other memorials and venues that commemorate the Berlin Wall but I did not find them as powerful. For example, Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist trap where you can take a photo with actors posing as American soldiers. Near to Checkpoint Charlie, the artist, Yadegar Asisi, has created an exhibition which recreates a panoramic view of the Berlin Wall. It’s interesting but I preferred visiting the real wall and trying to imagine the rest.
Have you ever been to the Berlin Wall? What did you think of it?