There are surviving sections of Berlin Wall scattered throughout the city, but I found the Berlin Wall Memorial to be the perfect starting point for my Wall 101.
The memorial is actually a complex that includes a welcome center, a documentation center, and a huge piece of land dotted with lots of interesting stuff to see … like the Berlin Wall! It’s all located on Bernauer Straße where the wall separated people on one side of the street from their neighbors, friends and family on the other. In fact, the west side’s border included the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. So that means … even if your house was in East Berlin, you’d enter West Berlin the moment you walked out your front door.
When people think of the Berlin Wall, they probably picture a single wall, but it was more like a system of barriers. As time went on, more barriers were added to one-up the efforts of those trying to escape. The “wall” usually consisted of two walls with a “death strip” in between, supplemented by flood lights, silent alarms, watch towers, patrol dogs, beds-o-nails, barbed wire, and orders for guards to shoot to kill. Any doors embedded in the wall required two locks (and two people) to open. Guards were forbidden to make small talk while on duty — to prevent them from bonding or plotting an escape!
The wall was erected in August, 1961, and the Berlin Wall Memorial does a wonderful job chronicling the process, particularly for neighbors on Bernauer Straße. There are famous photos and film clips of people attempting to jump from their windows to freedom. Because so many people tried to escape (some losing their lives in the process), authorities sealed their windows and doors with bricks. This short video explains what it was like.
The memorial complex also features an observation deck that overlooks a piece of wall that still has its watchtower and death strip.
There’s another surviving watchtower (but no death strip) just down the street from Potsdamer Platz station.
The most beautiful section of Berlin Wall is called the East Side Gallery, which runs along Mühlenstraße between Ostbahnhof and Berlin Warschauer Straße stations.
There’s also a significant “chunk” next to the Topography of Terror museum…
This memorial on Friedrich-Ebert-Platz remembers those killed while trying to cross from east to west.
And, of course, there’s the famous Checkpoint Charlie where, these days, you can buy a souvenir gas mask (???) or pop in for a snack at Checkpoint Curry.
Another fascinating byproduct of the Berlin Wall was ghost stations. These subway stations had lines that crossed the East/West divide. Their entrances were sealed when the wall was erected, but the tracks underground were sometimes used for transport. Any trains traveling on ghost tracks would go very slowly, passing dark, eerie platforms staffed by guards. Even the emergency exits at these stations were sealed. In the event of a fire or other disaster, passengers and anyone on duty would be trapped inside.
One former ghost station, Nordbahnhof, has a photo exhibit and markers on the floor indicating where the barriers used to exist.
Brandenburger Tor is another former ghost station.
If you pass through Nordbahnhof station today, you’re free to come and go as you please … and buy some fresh flowers while you’re at it!
The story of how the Berlin Wall fell on November 10, 1989 is very interesting. It was actually kind of an accident. This Washington Post article explains what happened in more detail.
And, of course, if you’re my age or older, you probably remember Tom Brokaw’s iconic live report from the scene in Berlin. He talks about it 25 years later…
It makes me cry every time!