The Berlin Wall
More background info:
The term "Berlin Wall" is somewhat ambiguous: firstly, it denotes the actual border fortifications that did indeed physically separate the East from the West of the city, but secondly "Berlin Wall", or simply "the Wall", became synonymous with the whole German-German border, or indeed the complete division into a Western and an Eastern Bloc
during the Cold War
, as it was certainly the most solid and iconic bit of the Iron Curtain.
(More precisely, then, in terms of linguistics
, the expression was used 'metonymically' to stand for the whole division – in a similar way as the word Auschwitz
is used to stand for the entire Holocaust
Much of this border wasn't in fact literally a wall – not even (at least not everywhere) in Berlin – but rather "just" fences and all sorts of other border security installations. Only in Berlin
, however, did it really assume the form of miles and miles of wall as well, esp. all the way along the 42 kilometres (ca. 30 mile) long line that separated West Berlin from East Berlin. Not all of the "outer ring", i.e. the border between West Berlin and the GDR territory other than that of East Berlin, was indeed turned into a concrete wall proper. Nevertheless, West Berlin was completely surrounded by a total of 155 kilometres (ca. 100 miles) of high security border systems.
started building this type of border from August 1961 – patently in order to stop the country from bleeding dry, as it were, given the increasing number of refugees who were fleeing to the West. That had been going on all the time since the separation of the two Germanies, but was threatening to spiral completely out of control. At first it was by means of soldiers and then by quickly erected fences and other more temporary means that the Eastern Sector of Berlin was blocked off from the Western Allied Sectors.
Gradually, these were then replaced by a more permanent Wall proper. These even came in successive "generations" – the final stage being usually referred to as the '4th generation Wall'. In the end, the entire "enclave" of West Berlin (lying within the territory of the GDR) had become completely encircled by the Wall.
To be precise, "the Wall" actually consisted of generally more than one wall – an outer "enemy-facing" wall on the actual borderline with the West, and an inner "friend-facing" wall, which from the point of view of the GDR citizens was the real borderline that they couldn't cross (at least not without risking their lives). Between the two walls an assortment of border security installations added extra insurmountability, from watchtowers
and tank traps to (at times) minefields and spring-guns, though allegedly not in Berlin, only on the inner-German land border.
All in all the Berlin Wall, and the whole Western border of the GDR, became the most sophisticated and complex border security system in history. Cynically, in the GDR's regime's officiallese it was referred to as an "anti-fascist protection wall", that is: allegedly serving the purpose of keeping out the West, which was seen as imperialist (and even villainized as "fascist"). However, it was hardly ever threatened from the Western side – whereas the number of attempted escapes in the East-West direction speaks volumes about the real purpose of the Wall; as do in particular the unsuccessful attempts, of which a sizeable number ended deadly. The exact number of people killed at the border remains contested, and ranges from 86 to over 200.
the Berlin Wall, having been regarded for so many years as possibly the internationally best known building of the city, still is one of the top attractions that tourists come to see in Berlin
– but at the same time one that these days is almost non-existing.
Very little has remained of it since the "fall of the Berlin Wall" on the 9th November 1989. The demand "the Wall has to go", chanted by the protesters in the GDR
in the autumn of 1989, was only too quickly and thoroughly met once the border opened. Originally this demand was for lifting restrictions on travel to the West, but soon it became one of the means by which the GDR protesters consigned their whole state to history's rubbish bin. The day of the "fall of the Wall" was initially really just an opening of the border crossing points (first at Bornholmer Straße
) – but the Wall itself initially remained standing. It wasn't before long, though, that its dismantling began.
As early as during the spontaneous celebrations at and around the Wall during those heady November days some people began hacking physically at the Wall. Then more and more people, including many a tourist, joined in in the "wall-pecking" – the term given to this practice of hammering out a piece of the wall as a souvenir. A stretch of outer Wall that has been hollowed out by "wall-peckers", but now protected by a fence from further damage, can be seen next to the area of the "Topography of Terror"
exhibition on Niederkirchnerstraße – a similarly battered stretch can be found on Liesenstraße.
Pieces of "original" Berlin Wall remain a staple souvenir to this day, sold at Berlin tourist shops and over the Internet. Today it's difficult to say to what degree those "genuine" pieces of the Wall can really be believed to be originals. After all, there's no easy way of checking their authenticity. Most of the Wall, though, was simply dismantled officially by the authorities (initially East German, later by the FRG
) who "got rid of it". Mostly it was ground up and reused as building material.
A number of intact segments of the Wall, however, were sold off at auctions. Hence, segments of the Wall can now be found in the widest range of places all over the world, where often they are displayed as symbols of the struggle for freedom – one specimen can be found outside the UN Headquarters building
in New York
, for instance. The largest ensemble of Berlin Wall remains outside the city itself is also to be found in the USA
, namely in Washington D.C.
It is remarkable that at the time hardly anyone in Berlin seemed to have found it worthwhile to try and save at least a little stretch of Wall in its original state to serve as a reminder for future generations. Thus only a few remains can still be found. Nowhere has a complete border strip been preserved. Original sections are but scattered fragments
. There are a few memorials/museums and a part reconstruction (at Bernauer Straße
) – but a line of cobbles and a brass marker set into the roads and pavements is often the sole reminder of where the Wall used to divide Berlin
right through its centre.
Ironically, for those who want to see the closest approximation to what the Berlin Wall looked and felt like, it's not Berlin they have to be directed to but rather a couple of places on the former inner German land border, outside and quite a way away from Berlin, esp. to Hötensleben
What there is to see:
This is just a brief overview – the individual points of interest outlined here have their own more elaborate, separate entries:
Most fragments of the Wall
are no more than just that: bits of wall. Few display any of the menacing aura about them that they used to have. In that sense they are only of archaeological interest.
Many of the fragments you can see wouldn't normally strike you as in any way remarkable at all. So it is only at Bernauer Straße
, where a sizeable stretch of Wall survived and has partly been restored to a state that is vaguely reminiscent of the border's former layout, that the Berlin Wall has become a tourist attraction in its own right proper. It is here that a museum and 'documentation centre' have been set up, and there are also several memorials in the area. It is here that "Berlin Wall tourists" mainly flock.
One other popular place dedicated to the Wall theme is the Checkpoint Charlie
Museum – an informative exhibition in which many Wall-related objects are displayed, in particular various devices used by refugees to overcome the Wall in ingenious ways. The place was not itself part of the border, though, only very close to it, but has a history stretching back almost as long as the Wall's history. The Museum is a commercially oriented affair (and the many souvenir shops and stalls even more so), but the areas around the building have also been developed for tourists and there are things to see, in particular: information panels to read, which are all accessible for free.
A Wall attraction of its own kind is the "East Side Gallery
" – the longest stretch of surviving Wall, on the banks of the river Spree, and one that was used by artists in early 1990 as a "canvas" for a highly eclectic collection of wall paintings. Most of these were "restored" for the 20th anniversary of the "fall" of the Berlin Wall and German Reunification and since then more changes have been made, so it's no longer quite authentic.
Of the once over 300 border watchtowers
a mere three survive along the course of the Wall (and another two along the former outer ring around West Berlin, such as at Nieder Neuendorf
). A couple of these seasonally open to the public and contain small exhibitions.
Furthermore, there is the former border crossing Checkpoint Bravo/Dreilinden-Drewitz
, just outside what used to be the outer ring border around West Berlin, where one of the main road access points from the west used to be ... the site is not strictly speaking "at" the actual former course of the Wall, but close enough. Here a watch-tower-like command building that once overlooked the checkpoint area survived, whereas everything else has long since vanished. This remote spot has only recently been developed and the watchtower now houses an exhibition. It's a far less prominent site compared to those in the city centre, but an important relic all the same.
The border crossing point where the "fall" of the Berlin Wall began at the inner-city border, i.e. where it was first opened to let East Berliners out into the West on 9 November 1989, used to be at Bornholmer Straße
. The main element of the site is the Bösebrücke bridge that featured prominently in the video and photo footage of that night. The area behind it, especially that of the actual former border checkpoint has recently been developed into a proper memorial site of sorts too, with a "landscaped" area full of symbolism and additional information panels by the bridge.
More significantly still, the part of the former border crossing checkpoint at Friedrichstraße station known as "Tränenpalast
" ('Palace of Tears' – so named after the painful emotions many people experienced here) has even more recently been turned into a proper full-scale memorial site, with a very illuminating exhibition.
Related to the topic of the "Wall" is also Glienicker Bridge
, on the border to Postdam
. Here a new exhibition commodifies the historical significance of this spot and the wider topic of the Cold-War
era division of Germany
Further new memorial points of a smaller scale have joined the ranks of Berlin's Wall-related tourist spots in recent times as well. For instance, there's now a Berlin Wall information centre at the new metro (U55) station Brandenburger Tor (formerly "Unter den Linden").
At the Nordbahnhof
station (S1, S2, S25) near Bernauer Straße
, there is now an exhibition about the former Berlin "ghost stations" (cf. why this interest
; also Marienfelde
), where western underground metro trains passed through East Berlin territory.
In addition, there are several memorials to the Wall and especially to its victims, e.g. near the Reichstag
parliament building by the Spree river (keep your eyes open for those white crosses) or east of Checkpoint Charlie
. If you walk the whole course of the former Wall, you'll find several more at various points …
Incidentally: the entire ca. 100 mile (165 km) course of the former border around what was West Berlin is now signposted – though much of it is little more than green parks with only very occasionally extra points of interest for the dark tourist (cf. Wall remains
). Outside central Berlin, this "Mauerweg" is mostly for cyclists (cf. Checkpoint Bravo
and Nieder Neuendorf
Part of the course of the former Berlin Wall in the more central districts has now additionally been commodified in a very contemporary fashion: through hand-held multi-media guides (combined audio-guide, photo and video player and GPS navigable map display) called "MauerGuide – walk the wall". These can be rented from and returned to any of these four collection points: at the documentation centre at Bernauer Straße
, at the new metro station Brandenburger Tor (see above)and at a round booth just north of Checkpoint Charlie
and at the East Side Gallery
(at the new pavilion/souvenir shop at the boat jetty by the river Spree, near the new gaping gap in the wall). The "MauerGuide" machines come equipped with a choice of languages – at present this includes only English in addition to German (but more language versions are said to be in the making).
UPDATE, May 2016: on my recent return trip to Berlin I couldn't see those MauerGuide hire stations any more. Maybe the service has been discontinued. I'll try to find out. Meanwhile better do not rely on these guides when you plan to go to Berlin.
scattered over Berlin
along the former course of the border, as described separately in the individual entries.
Access and costs:
some easy to get to, some way out and of restricted accessibility; many sites can be visited for free, some museums charge (rather steep) admission fees.
All the original open-air fragments of the Wall
can of course be visited for free; also free of charge are the memorials and the museum at Bernauer Straße
. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum
, however, charges a pretty hefty admission fee for a normal adult ticket.
While the more tourist-oriented places are very easy to get to, accessibility of the authentic remains of the Wall
varies greatly. Some remote sites require longer trips out to get to them and have to be explored on foot. The two former watchtowers
that are open to the public have rather limited opening hours (see also Nieder Neuendorf
). More details under the individual entries.
very flexible. Those who only want to catch a glimpse, can make do with the stretch of Wall at Bernauer Straße
, whose museum/documentation centre also provides easily digestible background information. For this you won't necessarily need much more than one hour (plus time to get there). Those who want to learn more about the Wall should head for the documentation centre at Bernauer Straße and/or the Checkpoint Charlie Museum
, where you can spend a good amount of time.
Exploring the original remains of the Wall
can be time-consuming. If you want to include some of the more remote sites, you may find that not even a whole day is enough. If you limit yourself to only the Wall sites close to the north of the central district of Mitte, however, those can be done in a half-day stroll (including Bernauer Straße
and Bornholmer Straße
Combinations with other dark destinations:
– if your special interest is in the darker aspects of all things ex-GDR
, and not just the Wall, then the Stasi Museum
and the former Stasi
prison in Hohenschönhausen
come particularly recommended. If it's the "other side" of the Cold War
you're interested in, then pop into the museum of the Allied Forces in Berlin
. And if you ever wondered what happened to people who successfully made it across the Wall to the West, then the Marienfelde refugee centre memorial
is for you.
Not exactly, physically a part of the Wall, but still part of the former border between West Berlin and the GDR at Potsdam
, the Glienicker Bridge
is also closely related to the topic of the dividing lines between the Blocs at large – it was here that captured spies were exchanged between the USSR
and the USA
. Today, there's also a small museum about the place, including bits about the Berlin Wall.
The best places dedicated to the related theme of the inner-German border, other than in Berlin
, i.e. between the FRG
and the GDR
, have to be the Point Alpha
border museum in the Rhön central uplands, Mödlareuth
further south (once dubbed "little Berlin" for the same Wall segments of the "4th generation" were used here) and the border memorial sites in/around Hötensleben
. In addition there are several more border museums/memorials of varying sizes and appeal.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
everything that Berlin
has to offer otherwise – i.e. loads!