Berlin is a city that captures the imagination of anyone who grew up in the Cold War, or at least who read any spy novel. The fall of the Berlin Wall is the first major news story I can remember, as I was six at the time it came down.
I got the chance to visit Berlin last summer, and I was happy to stay a few blocks off Potsdamer Platz. That particular plaza has fascinated me since I first saw its 20th-century evolution in a history class in college.
In the 1930s, it was a thriving spot in the heart of the city.
As with much of the rest of Berlin, it was rubble by 1945, and in the years after the war, it lay mostly in ruins. Berlin was a divided city that mirrored the divided Germany following the surrender of the Nazis in 1945. The country was divided into four sectors of occupation, being administered by American, British, French and Soviet forces. Berlin lay entirely in the Soviet sector, but as the capital and most symbolic city, it, too, was divided into four occupation sectors.
While the Soviets “tried” to administer a communist workers’ paradise (they didn’t really), the Germans didn’t see a future in East Berlin, and with the savagery visited upon the civilian populace by the Red Army during the war, many sought to leave. That’s bad PR for a world power that’s supposedly appealing to the masses, so the Soviets decided to take the totally rational step of building a huge wall to keep everyone in.
Initially, the Soviets’ border fortifications along the East German/West German frontier cut the city off and threatened to starve the citizens of West Berlin. The Americans and their western allies refused to be pushed around, and for about a year, they flew cargo planes nonstop from the West to land at airstrips in West Berlin and keep the city supplied. Finally, the Soviets relented and opened heavily guarded travel corridors that connected West Berlin to West Germany.
As we all know, however, the wall around West Berlin cut right through neighborhoods, walled off streets and split the city overnight. People of course tried to escape, and many were successful in the beginning, but the wall kept getting more sophisticated, with rows of barbed wire, guard towers, dog patrols and plenty of guards with guns.
It was intense as hell, and Potsdamer Platz looked like this in the 1960s. If you were walking there, you were dead.
In 1989, after a whole lot of politics and doomed economic policies and luck I won’t go into here, an East German politician read a statement on a late-night news channel that essentially announced that travel restrictions were being relaxed, and travel between the communist German Democratic Republic and the free Federal Republic of Germany would be allowed immediately. This was a mistake, and was not agreed-upon policy, and the ramifications of his remarks would change the world.
A few East Germans began showing up at the Berlin Wall looking to cross, and then those few turned to hundreds, then thousands. Confused Stasi guards didn’t know what to do, and at isolated checkpoints along the wall that were originally intended to allow tightly controlled passage between the Germanies, they decided to let a few of the most vociferous people pass through, hoping the rest would quiet down and go home. Their other option was to massacre the crowds.
Predictably, after seeing people crossing the wall, there was no way to stop the flood as thousands pushed through the wall, and in the course of one night, the East German government totally lost control, and people began tearing the wall down with sledgehammers, saws and any tool at hand.
What resulted is one of the most iconic scenes in the 20th century, and an example of hope for the oppressed that they can overcome authoritarian regimes.
That’s a long way of saying that you should take the opportunity to visit the wall if you ever get the chance.
So what is life like in Potsdamer Platz today?
It’s a showcase of contemporary German architecture with a bustling train station, shopping mall, plenty of restaurants and vast numbers of people driving through and walking the streets. The only overt reminder of the wall is the line of bricks that show the where the wall once stood.
A few blocks away, toward Unter den Linden – one of the iconic streets in Berlin – sits the 18th-century Brandenburg Gate. Also along the path of the wall, it was just inside East Germany, and the area in front of the wall on the western side was the site of many speeches by German and American leaders in the Cold War, including Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” line.
Constructed as a triumphal arch, the Brandenburg Gate has seen its share of strife, and it bears the marks of Nazi Germany’s ultimate defeat, with patched bullet holes and shrapnel scars from the Soviet conquest of Berlin still very much evident today.
But visiting the Brandenburg gate on a summer evening, it’s easy to forget that it’s the site of some of the worst fighting the world has ever seen, and easier to think of it as a place people come together in admiration of an iconic landmark. Tourists take pictures as musicians play for pocket change and locals pass through it toward the Tiergarten for a refreshing jog through the park.
It’s also hard to believe that the Berlin wall ran right in front of it, and seeing it as an adult brought back the early childhood memories of seeing Germans standing on the wall, tearing it down, once again giving the Brandenburg Gate a reason to be triumphant.
In Berlin today, most of the evidence of the wall is relegated to the twin rows of bricks on the ground, a few preserved pieces that stand as small monuments, and the “pieces of the wall” hawked to tourists in various shops, and whose legitimacy seems doubtful.
But there is one stretch of the wall in particular that still stands, giving an imposing reminder of what was once reality for Berlin as well as an explanation for how it came to be erected.
At Niederkirchnerstrasse 8, you will find the Topography of Terror. Once the site of the Stasi (secret police) headquarters, it was, during the Nazi era, the offices of the SS (Hitler’s true believers). It is now a free museum that documents Nazi atrocities during the war, and the outdoor section, which is also free, contains a stretch of the Berlin wall. Start at the bottom, where the site has been excavated, and read the comprehensive placards and boards that discuss the events that led to the Nazi rise to power, and then take the stairs upward to the street level and follow the path of the wall, which includes informational boards in various languages about the construction of the wall, escape attempts and, finally, its destruction.
As I mentioned earlier, there were places where the wall was pierced by heavily guarded checkpoints. Probably the most famous of those is Checkpoint Charlie, which separated East Berlin from part of the American Sector of West Berlin. The guardhouse for the American side has been preserved, and if you look past the kitschy souvenirs and the “American” guards who pose for pictures with tourists, you can still get a sense of what it must have been like to peer at the checkpoint through the Iron Curtain. In an ultimate display of how much capitalism won the Cold War, you can also grab a burger at the adjacent McDonald’s.
The Berlin wall stood from Aug. 13, 1961 until November of 1989. It was a symbol of the Cold War, a crossing point for spies, the scene of a tense standoff between the world’s superpowers, and the site of numerous escape attempts by people who sought to be free. An estimated 136 people died trying to cross the wall, mostly shot by border guards.
If you’re in Berlin and only have time to explore one aspect of the city, visit the Berlin Wall. But plan on staying a while. The city is full of museums including everything from pieces of antiquity like a preserved Roman Gate to more modern collections like the interactive museum of the GDR. Beyond the museums and history, Berlin is a great city to visit and immerse yourself in German culture, with a vibrant cafe scene, plenty of street food and great pubs serving beer from a country that is rightly proud of its brewing heritage.