Cold War Berlin

07 Dec 2023
If families in Washington and Moscow felt threatened by the Cold War – and by the missiles that could cover the 7,841km between them in the time Carl Lewis could win an Olympic sprint – imagine how Berliners must have felt on the cold front, warily watching the nuclear-loaded giants that occupied them, held back from one another by a primitive concrete wall. Every year on November 9, the city celebrates and commemorates the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Part of the "East Side Gallery". It's a 1.3 km long part of original Berlin Wall which collapsed in 1989 and now is the largest world graffiti gallery © Atosan

Post-War Berlin

After the Second World War, Germany was carved up between the Soviets, Americans, British and French victors. Each received a large chunk of the country to administer, plus a symbolically important slice of Berlin. Because of Berlin’s location, the three western sectors (collectively named West Berlin) ended up being surrounded by the Soviet administered areas of East Berlin and East Germany. Stalin’s 11-month blockade of West Berlin in 1948-49 was a bitter taste of relations to come. British and American forces heroically supplied the cut-off West Berliners in an air operation that became known as the Luftbrücke (air bridge). The Luftbrücke memorial, a rising half-arch in front of Tempelhof Airport (F-4) was nicknamed the ‘claw of hunger’ by Berliners who lived through those dark months.
In 1949 allied planes were airlifting supplies into the city, a much-needed but fairly practical state of affairs. Without prompting, a US pilot by the name of Gail Halverson (known as Uncle Wiggly Wings, which is a little bit sinister) began dropping chocolate bars attached to handkerchiefs, bringing small bits of sugary cheer to the children of West Berlin. Landing in Tempelhof © By Henry Ries / USAF

Division of Berlin

Germany was divided into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949, and though East Germans were not permitted to emigrate to West Germany, they could easily slip through the loophole of yet undivided Berlin. After losing a couple of million of its young, educated and skilled citizens to the West, East Germany finally stitched up the hole in their Berlin pocket by erecting The Wall. At 01:00 on August 13, 1961, soldiers fenced off the 160km-long border surrounding the Western sectors.
The Berlin Wall in the Tiergarten district of Berlin © 360b

The Berlin Wall

The Wall, dubbed the ‘the anti-fascist barrier’ by the East German regime, ‘protected’ GDR citizens from their western counterparts for 28 years. Much more than just a wall, the border zone comprised a wide ‘death strip’ with tank ditches, mine fields, automatic guns, dogs, watchtowers and several fences, all on East German territory, necessitating the destruction of many buildings. 
The GDR was especially loyal to the Soviet Union and the 1961 Wall surrounding Western Berlin, the 'Iron Curtain' along the West German border and the many GDR citizens killed trying to flee are proof of how serious Erich Honecker and other hardline leaders were about staying in power. From © Bundesarchiv, Bild 145-P061246 CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA

The Berlin Wall Today 

Nowadays, the path of the Wall is marked with a double row of paving stones and only four major stretches of Wall remain. The longest portion is now called the East Side Gallery and runs along Mühlenstraße (H/I-3), between Warschauer Straße and Ostbahnhof (though the actual border followed the river Spree here). It is painted on the eastern, not the western side; artists only got their hands on this stretch after the Wende (revolution). The most famous image is of Brezhnev and Honecker, former heads of state of the Soviet Union and the GDR, locked in a kiss. Beneath the picture are the words ‘God help me survive this deadly love’.
At 1,3 km, this free open-air 'gallery' is the longest remaining original stretch of Wall in Berlin. The 'East Side' started out as a favourite haunt of graffiti artists in 1990 (note that the paintings are on the eastern, formerly deadly side of the Wall), and has since become a magnet for tourists as well as an important cultural landmark. Many of the original artworks have recently been re-painted by artists from all over the world. Art gallery of Berlin Wall at East side of Berlin © Noppasin Wongchum

Checkpoint Charlie

Not far from the East-West Berlin border crossing Checkpoint Charlie is the well-pecked stretch of Wall on Niederkirchnerstraße (E-3). Around the corner, Stresemannstraße sports another brightly painted portion behind a space-pod of a souvenir stand. Chipping off chunks of Wall is illegal now; for a genuine piece of the Wall, go to the Berlin Story bookstore (see Shopping), who will also give you an article that explains the source of your little grey nugget.
US M48 Patton tanks facing Soviet T-55 tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in October 1961. Photo by U.S. Army photoPhoto Credit: USAMHI - Public Domain

Haus am Checkpoint Charlie 

The most unusual portion of the Wall is the one literally resurrected by the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum in October 2004. The Wall, built from original segments but painted pure white, stands at the intersection of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, a few metres away from its original location. What is more attention-grabbing at the site are the 1,065 crosses; each remembers someone who died at a border crossing - whether in Berlin or the inner German border - or someone who died in imprisonment after attempting to escape East Germany. Cynical criticism has been hurled at Alexandra Hildebrandt, the director of the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum, for adding to her museum’s coffers with the increased tourism to the area.
A homespun Great Escape museum of false trunks, tools, videos, even a submarine, and stills of tunnel-digging attest to necessity and desire being the mother of invention. Visit this museum for dramatic stories of separated lovers, freedom-seeking families, and fed-up senior citizens in the GDR who breached the Wall. The museum also has art interpreting the concrete division of the city, and an exhibit on human rights movements. © Haus am Checkpoint Charlie

Berlin Wall Memorial

Another museum, the Berlin Wall Memorial, has also stirred up controversy not only regarding the economic gains behind grisly exhibits, but for the more moral point of view of who exactly the memorial should be dedicated to – victims of the Wall, or to all those who died under the tyranny of communism. Regardless, this memorial is tremendously moving and includes a graffiti-free portion of preserved Wall runs along Bernauer Straße (F-1); you can walk behind it and peer through a crack to see a preserved section of death strip.
The excellent national memorial site for the divided Germany has a documentation centre covering the Berlin Wall's history in text and dramatic film footage. An unscathed section of Wall runs along the street; walk behind it to peer through a crack in the Hintermauer rear wall to see a preserved section of death strip as it looked in the 1980s, complete with a patrol road, wires and a watchtower. Side View of Berlin Wall Memorial @ HohlImKopf

Other Berlin Wall Museums

Though the stockpile of GDR and Soviet military paraphernalia probably sold out in the late 1990s, vendors at the intersection of Zimmer- and Friedrichstraße claim to have the real stuff. South of this trade in crumbled nations, the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum is great for escape stories, but the history behind the building of the Wall is best conveyed at the Berlin Wall Memorial. Learn more about the history of Berlin’s occupiers at the Alliertenmuseum and Deutsch-Russisches Museum. Those fascinated by tales of spies being exchanged in the mist over Glienicker Brücke (the bridge connecting Potsdam in East Germany with Zehlendorf) can get there with bus N°116 (every 20 minutes from S-Bahn station Wannsee).
The Allied Museum covers 50 years of West German Allied (US, British, French) relations in the US Army movie house Outpost. The prize exhibit is the original sentry box from the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing. © A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons


Connect via social media
google sign in button
Leave a comment using your email This e-mail address is not valid
Please enter your name*

Please share your location

Enter your message*
Put our app in your pocket
This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Find out more here. AGREE