Cold War Berlin

more than a year ago
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.

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. Germany was divided into the Federal Repuplic 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 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.

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’. 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.

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.

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.

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).


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