Berlin had quite an effect on me. I loved the city, the funky vibes, and amazing food scene, but Berlin still has the shadows of a dark past. Germany and Berlin are not afraid to face that past though, to remember it, cherish the memory of those who fell during the world wars, and during the division of the city and country into East and West. They also use this past as a reminder of what must never come again. The Berlin Wall is one of the most striking remnants of the past, as well as the holocaust memorial, as the Wall crossed the whole of the city, and can still be seen in several areas of Berlin today. I visited some sections of the wall, to learn about the past, and investigate how Germans are looking to the future.
Why Was the Berlin Wall Built?
After World War II ended and Hitler was defeated, Allied forces occupied Germany, and the German capital Berlin. They divided the city into four sections, each governed by one of the main Allied countries who had liberated Germany – the UK, USA, France and the Soviet Union. Political divisions between the Soviet Union and the other Allied powers became more apparent, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was confident that the US would withdraw soon, and that the Soviet Union would be able to take full control of Germany. However, that didn’t happen, and as the Soviets imposed harsher restrictions on the people of the Eastern Bloc, and East Germany, millions of people fled to the West of Germany. It is estimated that 3.5 million people left East Germany, that is around 20% of the total population, many of whom were young, educated and professional. To stem the flow of people, and to avoid Western influence and interference, the Soviet Union decided to take drastic action.
When Was the Berlin Wall Built
At midnight on Saturday 12th August 1961, East German police and army units began to close the border, running rolls of barbed wire and building fences to prevent people crossing. When residents awoke on the morning of August 13th they found they were trapped, and no longer able to cross freely into West Germany. The first concrete blocks of the wall were laid on 17th August, and a no-man’s land created between two walls to make it harder to cross. Even if someone made it over one section of the wall, they would often be shot in no-man’s land before reaching the 2nd wall. In the years that the wall stood between 1961 and 1989, over 100,000 people attempted to escape East Berlin and cross the wall. 5,000 of these attempts were successful, and an estimated 136 – 200 people died trying to cross in and around Berlin.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
During the peaceful ‘Velvet Revolution’ which was taking place in 1989 in several Eastern Bloc countries, such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the borders became more relaxed, and East Germans who leave through these borders. By early November, the East German government was designing new regulations which would help control the flow of people and take the pressure of the ‘unofficial’ border crossings in the other countries. There was apparently some confusion before a press conference on 9th November when the new regulations were to be announced, and the spokesman for the government apparently mistakenly confirmed that the borders were to opened. This was broadcast on the news on both sides of Germany, and East Germans gathered at the wall checkpoints, demanding that the guards let them through. The border guards knew nothing about the new rules and tried to stop the people leaving. No-one was willing to issue orders to use lethal force to prevent them passing, so the border guards had no way to hold back the growing crowds and finally relented to let them through. As the East Germans left, crossed the border, they were welcomed by the West Germans and they all celebrated together. Some people climbed onto the wall to dance and celebrate their new freedom.
In the following days and weeks people used basic tools to chip away at the wall, and although the official border crossings remained in place, it became easier for people to cross unhindered by the authorities. On 23 December 1989 both East & West Germans were allowed to cross without the need of a visa. On 13 June 1990, the official demolition of the wall began, and on 3rd October East Germany was officially dissolved and the country was reunited.
Sections of the Berlin Wall Still Visible
Across Berlin, you can still see evidence of the Berlin Wall, from a simple line on the floor to an impressive art gallery. Other sections are marked with metal poles, that now people can walk between safely, unlike when the wall was in place.
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The Brandenburg Gate
The most famous and impressive section of the wall that still stands is the Brandenburg Gate. Although the Brandenburg Gate itself isn’t actually part of the Berlin Wall, it became part of the barrier as East Germany lay on one side, and West Germany on the other. Now, it is a symbol of the history of Berlin, Germany and Europe, and also of unity and peace.
Along the Berlin Wall, there were several checkpoints where certain people would be allowed to cross to the East or West side of Germany. These were named alphabetically – A, B, C, D, etc., and Checkpoint Charlie was Checkpoint C, which was reserved for Allied personnel and foreigners. Nowadays this is a tourist attraction, and there is a ‘fake’ military checkpoint where you can take photographs, and a replica of the original sign saying you are now entering West Berlin.
The Wall Close to the Topography of Terror Museum
The Topography of Terror Museum is built on the site where the old Gestapo and SS Headquarters stood during World War II. The buildings were heavily bombed during the war, and demolished shortly afterwards. The museum has exhibitions about the activities of the Gestapo and SS, and is a memorial to those were tortured and killed here during the Nazi occupation.
The East-Side Gallery
In 1990, artists from all over the world came to paint murals on a large section of the wall close to the River Spree. On the east side of the inner wall, they painted images of change, hope and history, leaving a colourful reminder of what should never be again. The gallery is a heritage-protected landmark, and it is an offence to deface the paintings in any way. However, that hasn’t stopped people leaving their own mark on the wall over the years. Some of the paintings have been restored, while others remain covered in graffiti, although there is an ongoing project to restore and preserve all of the paintings.
Click on the images below to see the full-size photographs in the gallery.
Visiting the Berlin Wall, or what remains of it, is certainly thought-provoking, although it is hard to imagine even now, a mere 30 years later, what life was like in a divided Berlin when the wall was in place. It really made me think about how we shouldn’t build walls to stop people getting in or out, as well as causing injury and death to those who try to cross it, the wall has long-lasting effects decades later.
Where to Stay in Berlin
I was lucky to stay with a friend for most of the time I was in Berlin. For a couple of days, I stayed at EastSeven Berlin Hostel, which was nice but the wifi wouldn’t work for me so I wouldn’t have stayed there long. You could try JetPak Eco Lodge or Sandino World Improvement Network for something a little different! Or scroll through the options, there are some really high rated hostels in Berlin on Hostelworld.
Have you visited the Berlin Wall? I’d love to hear your comments, please share them below.
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