Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin is…Complicated
Confession: I am obsessed with the Berlin Wall and Communist era history. I was intent on seeing as much of the Berlin Wall as possible – and M dutifully followed me around.
Berlin has many reminders of the Berlin Wall’s 28 year history. Throughout the city, there are plaques marking where the wall used to stand, as well as bits and pieces of the actual wall. There are a couple of key spots to really appreciate the wall and what it meant for Berlin.
(1) Potsdamer Platz: Today, Potsdamer Platz is a bustling area with modern skyscrapers, cinemas, museums, hotels, and restaurants. In 1989, when the wall came tumbling down though, Potsdamer Platz was a wasteland. For 28 years, it operated as a death strip where Soviet guards would shoot down desperate East Berliners trying to make the escape to freedom. Today, you can touch pieces of the wall, and read about its history while you gaze up at the closest thing Berlin has to a skyline.
M relaxing at a Starbucks in Potsdamer Platz
Slabs of the Berlin Wall covered in gum
A piece of the Berlin Wall covered in graffiti
A reflection of the old subway sign at Potsdamer Platz – a stop that was completely vacant during the split
A map of the wall and the remaining pieces
(2) Checkpoint Charlie: Checkpoint Charlie was the entry and exit point between East and West Berlin, used primarily by foreigners. Today, there is a mediocre museum and some replicas that are great for tourist pictures. While the museum is not particularly done well, it tells an important story abut the toll the wall took, the people who risked their lives to flee and help others flee, and the unrelenting hope for freedom. While Checkpoint Charlie was not the largest checkpoint, it became a symbol of the Cold War, serving as the site of a major showdown between America and the Soviet Union in October 1961.
An outdoor exhibit gives you a sense of what this spot used to look like
There are plenty of original wall pieces to marvel at
Pictures of the crossing
A replica of the original checkpoint for tourists to take pictures
The original sign that used to stand at Checkpoint Charlie can now be seen inside the museum
Thousands of Berliners watched as the original checkpoint booth is airlifted out of the spot where it sat for nearly 30 years
On September 9, 1948, 300,000 Berliners gathered to protest the division of the city
After WWII, the Soviets set up “special camps,” often repurposing the Nazi’s concentration camps, to house thousands of people who were indiscriminately arrested. Between 1945 and 1950, 43,000 detainees — out of approximately 123,000 — died in the camps. The German Red Cross organized a list of those people and you can now search through the binders at the museum
From June 24 1948 until May 12 1949, the Soviet Union blocked the Western allies access to West Berlin. In response, the allies organized the Berlin Airlift to bring food, medicine, and other supplies to the people of West Berlin. It was a massive undertaking that required building a brand new airport in only 90 days
A Cold War-era map of Berlin
The ground floor of the museum
This car shows how people used to carve out stowage space to hide East Berliners in the trunks of their cars as they crossed the East-West border
The many passport pages of John P. Ireland – an American studying in West Berlin who had the genius idea of modifying a Cadillac to hide East Berliners in the trunk. Ireland ferried 10 people to freedom, usually via Czechoslovakia and Hungary where the border checks were less aggressive than East Berlin
An example of what it was like to hide in a car in an effort escape to West Berlin
A replica of a hot air balloon constructed by electrician Peter Strelzyk. On September 1, 1979, two families launched themselves into the night sky, landing in West Berlin at 2:40 a.m. They hugged the police officers when they were told “You’re in the West.”
(2) Brandenburg Gate: There aren’t actually pieces of the wall at Brandenburng Gate because the Gate itself served as a dividing line between East and West Berlin. In the early years of the Cold War, Brandenburg Gate was a checkpoint between the two sides. After 1961, the Gate was closed and became a major site of pro-freedom protests on the West Berlin side. It was famously, the site of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin – requiring the Soviet-run GDR to put up curtains on the East Berlin side of the Gate so no one would catch a glimpse of JFK. On November 9, 1989, thousands of Berliners gathered at Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the wall.
(3) East Side Gallery: East Side Gallery is a 4,317-foot strip of the Berlin Wall located between the Berlin Ostbahnhof and Warschauer Strauss train stops. The gallery contains 105 paintings by artists in 1990 after the fall of the wall. Sadly, today, many of the paintings are covered in graffiti and required heavy restoration. Some were entirely repainted by the original artists.
The artist of this painting actually painted it three times as indicated by the date at the bottom.
This is my favorite piece of art from East Side Gallery.
This painting, entitled “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” is probably the most famous of the East Side Gallery paintings. Painted by Dmitri Vrubel, it reenacts a famous moment between Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and GDR head Erich Honecker in 1979.
(4) Topography of Terror: The Topography of Terror stands in the spot of Hitler’s Gestapo, which was razed to the ground after the war. Today, it is a free museum that retells the history of Nazi Germany from its rise to its fall. I’ll talk about the museum later, but outside the museum, you can walk a long a long strip of the Berlin Wall as well as small piece of the basement wall from the Gestapo building.
There are several other places to see remnants of the Berlin Wall including Mauerpark and the Berlin Wall Memorial, which we did not have time to get to. Seeing the Berlin Wall was on my to-do list for a long time, and I highly recommend at least one of these stops if you’re in Berlin.