“Ich bin ein Berliner.” That’s what JFK proclaimed standing in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg in 1963, just 22 months after East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall. It was to express the United States’ support for West Germany and to underline that as people who stand for unity and democracy, we are all Berliners. Berlin during the Cold War is one of the main interests that I pursued during my third stay in Berlin. I learned extensively about the Weimar Republic and the Nazi rule in history lessons, but never reached as far to cover the topic of the aftermath of World War II in Germany. Whether it’s tracing your fingers across chewing gum studded remnants of the wall, or walking across the Tranenpalast (the border crossing where families used to say goodbye to each other), it’s still difficult to fully grasp the extent of division which was apparent in Berlin. For those who are not very familiar with German history, here’s a brief (albeit an oversimplification) summary of events: after WWII, the victorious allies carved Germany up between them. The West was divided up and allocated to France, the US and the UK, and the East went to the Soviet Union.
As so many people from the East relocated to the West, the GDR (German Democratic Republic – the official name for East Germany) put up a wall to prevent people from moving. This started as a simple structure, but eventually morphed into the extensive wall that we tend to think of when we envision the Berlin Wall. Obtaining a permit to enter the West became increasingly more difficult until it was near impossible. Countless families were torn apart, and people went to desperate attempts to cross the wall. Tunnels were dug, hot air balloons were crafted, planes were hijacked. Those who were manning the wall were told to shoot anyone they saw attempting to escape on sight. At least 140 people were killed or died at the Wall in connection with the East German border regime between 1961 and 1989. It is more difficult in speculating how many people died at the hands of the GDR regime, as many ‘accidents’ conveniently occurred and there were no records kept of suicide statistics.
You can see traces of the wall, the barbed wire and the lampposts across the city. One of the most popular sections that are still standing is the East Side Gallery which was decorated by artists from all over the world who turned the grim, grey wall into the largest open air collection of murals in the world. The art is beautiful and definitely worth a look, although it can get pretty overcrowded at times. I went the last time I came to Berlin on an InterRail trip, but aside from walking past it and admiring it, I didn’t spent too much time there this year. Perhaps a more insightful primer is the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer which extends for 1.4km in one of the areas most affected by the construction of the wall. It’s an outdoor, free exhibition and memorial which includes original remnants of the wall, with engaging information throughout, to read, to watch and to listen to, including sections such as the lives of those who manned the wall and escape methods used. The grounds and open-air exhibition is open daily from 8am-10pm. The Visitor Centre, which has a viewing platform, is open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm.
Another free exhibition is at Checkpoint Charlie, named as such as it was the main gateway for foreigners and diplomats between the two Berlins, and the border between the American and Soviet sections. This outdoor open-air exhibit provides more of an overview on Cold War history in general. This is also a museum located here, Museum Checkpoint Charlie (also known as the Wall Museum) which you can pay to enter. The Checkpoint itself is more of a tourist trap, with people paying €3 euros for a photo with dressed up American soldiers (unless you flirt your way to a series of free photos. €3? Ha. Don’t make me laugh).
For more of an insight into the policing of East Germany, the Stasimuseum which charts the methods of the Secret Police in their former headquarters, was fascinating. The Stasi watched everyone’s every move, and had informants in every corner. If they wanted to keep an eye on you, as well as bugging your house and phone with cameras, they’d also recruit someone from your family, your workplace, your friendship group, etc. If you said anything to ‘undermine’ the party or their intentions, or acted in a way that they deemed wrong, then you were liable to be arrested, or have an ‘accident’. They refrained from physical torture as they didn’t want any visible evidence of their regime when they sold political prisoners to West Germany. Instead, they relied on psychological warfare and destabilization, driving people to psychosis and suicide. As they had studied you incessantly, they knew everything – your hopes, your dreams, your fears and this enabled them to personalize their torture to ensure they broke you. The culture of denunciation reminded me starkly of the Mao era in China.
There are free guided tours in English at 3pm Thursday-Sunday. Our tour guide was amazing. Although she fully conveyed the horrors that the Stasi conducted, she also humanized them. She told us to bear in mind that post-War, many people didn’t see the Soviets as the ‘bad guys’ as they’d helped liberate the Germans from Hitler. Therefore, a lot of people who worked for the Stasi genuinely thought they were doing what was best for the people of East Germany, protecting them from capitalists and ensuring that a war never occurred on German soil again. You see a range of material that they used for watching people. Something I found particularly interesting was a clunky bird house with a clearly visible camera on the front. As our guide explained, there’s no need to invest in specialist equipment when you can put up a seemingly ‘obvious’ camera. If people know they’re being watched, they behave.
I didn’t get time to go to the Stasi Prison (officially called the Gedenkstatte Berlin-Hohenschonhausen) but I’ve heard that it’s also very insightful and chilling – the tours are often led by former inmates and reveal the abuse they used to endure. The DDR Museum is also apparently a great one to go to, is very interactive and informative on communism and life in East Germany. Again, sadly I didn’t have enough time for this. I think I’d need a solid fortnight to work my way through all the museums that I’d like to go to in Berlin! Something that is particularly fitting for reflections on the Cold War is the Brandenburg Gate. Once a symbol of the Cold War as it separated East and West Germany during the years of the Wall, the Brandenburg Gate is now a symbol of the unification of Germany, a patriotic symbol, which seems adept with Liberty riding a chariot atop the structure.
I was staying in Friedrichstrain which was formerly East Berlin. I’d definitely recommend the area – and the hostel I stayed in, Industriepalast. It was less than a five-minute walk to the S-Bahn and Underground stations, just over a five-minute walk to the East Side Gallery, and the area is full of amazing places to eat. Perhaps the most advantageous is that it is the main district for nightlife, with Suicide Circus, Berghain, RAW and many others within its confines. Bursting at the seams with street art and cheap food (it even has a vegan supermarket!), what more could you want?
If you want more of an introduction to the history of East vs West Berlin before your trip, but don’t fancy reading up on it, I’d definitely recommend watching The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin! They are both two of my favourite films and critically acclaimed in their own right. The former is about a Stasi officer who becomes enwrapped in the lives of a couple he’s spying on, and the latter is about a boy who does what he can to prevent his mother from finding out that the GDR has fallen after she wakes up from a long coma.