Border Watchtower Nieder Neuendorf
One of the very few preserved watchtowers
of the former GDR
border around West Berlin
, of which the Berlin Wall
was only the inner part bordering East Berlin. This tower was on the outer ring, and is thus strictly speaking outside Berlin proper. But it belongs to this city's divided history. Moreover, this is the only watchtower with a regularly accessible, modern, bilingual exhibition inside. Well worth the detour!
This tower in Nieder Neuendorf is of the “Führungsstelle” type, just like the one at the Kieler Eck
. That is: from here a whole stretch of border was overseen and secured, including 18 more regular watchtowers. It was built rather late, in 1987, as the command centre of the Border Security Regiment 38 “Clara Zetkin”. At the bottom this tower also had an arrest cell for anybody caught attempting to cross the border.
What was special about this tower was that it stood right on the banks of the River Havel waterway, where the official borderline ran along the middle of the river's course. Nieder Neuendorf is near the point where the Havel Canal meets the Havel itself and the Havel-Oder-Waterway, which links it with the Oder River in Poland
. So it also served as a waterways border area checkpoint (see also watchtowers
and Checkpoint Bravo
The tower at Nieder Neuendorf was constructed at a narrowing in the waterway where the West Berlin
district of Alt-Heiligensee is just 650 feet (200m) away. A bit north of it, where the Havel widens into the Nieder Neuendorfer Lake, the GDR border security forces even used sunken barges as barriers along the borderline in order to narrow the navigable part used by eastern boats. Some remnants of these can still be spotted.
Apparently one Polish skipper attempted to escape to the West here despite all the heavy security and fortifications. In October 1967 he used a stolen tug to get close to this border area, but instead of trying to breach the fortifications in the middle of the waterway, he landed on the eastern side, ditched his briefcase (with his personal ID etc.) and tried to swim across the river to the western side. He never made it though. His body was found washed up on the western side a week and a half later. It was presumed that he had drowned, having exhausted himself in this escape attempt.
After the fall of the Berlin WallBerlin Wall
and the reunification of Germany
, the “Grenzturm” ('border watchtower') at Nieder Neuendorf was preserved – as one of only a very small handful of such watchtowers
to escape demolition. It was turned into a publicly accessible memorial site in 1999. Then in 2014 the exhibition inside was completely reworked and brought up to modern standards. It is managed by the Stadtarchiv Hennigsdorf.
What there is to see:
is a stunning sight as soon as you lay eyes on it. It's clearly been refurbished rather recently, going by the pristine bright white coat of paint it bears. That certainly makes it look very different from the two watchtowers of the same type within Berlin
(Kieler Eck and Schlesischer Busch
), which both look rather shabby-grey these days. In contrast, the one here could pass as brand new.
The tower sits atop a small artificial hillock overlooking the banks of the River Havel. Today this is a pleasant promenade, but for decades it formed part of the world's most secured border. The course of the Wall is still marked on the ground in front of the tower but you can hardly picture it now. Some historic photos on a couple of text-and-photo panels around the tower help one's imagination along a bit and also provide some historical background information.
Next to the tower is also a rather crude stone sculpture called “Mauerfall” ('Fall of the Wall') by artist Heike Becker. And the little park between the tower and the main road (Dorfstraße) has been named “Platz der Maueropfer” ('Wall Victims' Square').
The highlight, however, is the exhibition inside the tower
! It's rare to get access to the inside of these former GDR
watchtowers, but here you not only get a commodification through an exhibition but also as close an impression of the original interior and its equipment as is possible today.
The exhibition is bilingual in German and English now, and while the translations often result in somewhat stilted (and occasionally rather broken) English, the information does mostly come across sufficiently.
You can borrow an audio-guide for free by the entrance. But since I gave it a miss (simply because I'm not overly fond of these devices, and also because I was under a bit of time pressure), I can't say anything about its quality.
Without an audio-guide there's no prescribed order in which to go through the different sections of the exhibition, but I decided to first head straight up to the top floor – i.e. the one from where the border guards would have looked out over their area of border security control.
There's still quite a bit of original equipment to be seen up here, including some very powerful binoculars, through which you can make out details of boats so far away that they look like little dots in the distance to the naked eye.
Also up here are some artefacts on display, such as some old GDR
-era communications gear
. Part of the original installations is the control beam for operating the searchlight
that sits atop the tower. This too still looks in pristine working condition.
Thematically, the information panels
provide an overview of the construction of the Berlin Wall
and the outer ring border – as well as of its demolition shortly after the collapse of the GDR
regime in 1989/1990. Stages of what lay in between are covered too, including the 1953 uprising in the GDR and the road to the Peaceful Revolution in 1989. Most relevant to this particular place, however, are the photos of the border as it used to be here as well as the drawings outlining the different parts of the tower and their functions.
On the windowless floor below
the exhibition continues with individual stories of victims of the Wall, i.e. people whose attempts at fleeing to the West failed and who were killed. Covered are all cases that occurred at this particular part of the border (including the one the Polish boatman already mentioned above
). The organization and routine of the border security regiment is explained and illustrated with plenty of photos. The case of a successful escape to the West from Nieder Neuendorf is amply covered too in this section.
There are a few artefacts on display on this level too, especially parts of border guard uniforms, a field telephone as well as a few original documents. The hatches in the wall, one of which is left open here, are also worth a mention. These are additional loopholes for shooting down onto the border strip. This room used to be where the border soldiers had their quarters; and they had to be at the ready if the observation officers at the top level ordered them to spring into action.
At the ground level
there is nothing much to see, except the arrest cell
that was in place in case a captured “border violator” (that was the GDR
jargon) had to be held by the border security forces.
The exhibition as such continues in the basement level. Here is also the only audiovisual element of the exhibition, a video screen on which a couple of videos are played in a loop.
Otherwise there's more text-and-photo panels, providing yet more information about the border area in these parts and what it meant for the ordinary people living here – for instance the fact that they could no longer get to the waterfront as the border was fortified. This even affected parts of West Berlin
, namely a so-called exclave, called Erlengrund, which found itself on the shores of the side of the River Havel that otherwise now belonged to the GDR
. On land, this exclave was surrounded by its own border wall. And even though these West Berliners still had access to the water, and could only get in and out by boat, they were not allowed to use the water in any other way … no swimming, no fishing.
Finally, there is a model of pretty villa in a glass display case – why it is here is explained on a panel next to it: it depicts a manor house that used to stand nearby and that was demolished by the GDR regime because it “blocked the view” of the border strip.
All in all, although comparatively small, this is quite a captivating little exhibition. The individual cases covered give it a personal angle that complements the fascinating authenticity of the place and the artefacts on display very well. My only caveat really is the quality of the English translations. There really is significant scope for improvement in this. Otherwise I can't recommend making the detour to this place enough!
On the western Havel River bank promenade in the southern part of Nieder Neuendorf, a southern district of the town of Hennigsdorf, Brandenburg, Germany
, which borders the Berlin
districts of Spandau to the south – and Heiligensee to the east across the water.
Access and costs: quite a bit off the beaten tourist track, requiring a bit of time and/or effort to get there; but free.
it is a long trek out here, but you can get here by public transport. You can take a bus (line 136) either from Spandau Rathaus station in the south (which you can reach by the metro line U7), or first take the regional metro train S-25 to Hennigsdorf station and get the same bus line from there in the opposite direction. In any case it's a lengthy journey and the bus runs rather infrequently (at best half-hourly), so you may have to factor in long waiting times. Walking it from Hennigsdorf station would take up to an hour and wouldn't be the most scenic of walks for much of the way. If you're taking the bus get out at the stop “Am Oberjägerweg” and head north a short distance to the Platz der Maueropfer, from where you can already see the tower.
If you have your own vehicle, then note that there is no parking directly by the tower but you can use spaces a bit further up Dorfstraße and walk it south from there.
Opening times: open only seasonally, between early April and early October (from 06/04 to 03/10 in 2017), Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Mondays unless it's a public holiday.
Time required: Between 15 minutes for just a brief impression and perhaps up to 45 minutes if you want to read everything there is.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Berlin
Hennigsdorf is an industrial centre that has some dark history of its own, namely in that during the Third Reich
period forced labour was used at some of its factories and plants. The slave labourers, mostly POW
s from the occupied countries, were housed in a satellite camp of the concentration camp
(cf. also Schöneweide
). There is a memorial commemorating this just outside the train station of Hennigsdorf and you can also find commemorative plaques about this dark part of Hennigsdorf's history.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Hennigsdorf and Nieder Neuendorf are not especially touristy places by any stretch of the imagination, but the river promenade is a pleasant green and airy kind of attraction in itself, especially for walkers and cyclists. As it is part of the “Berliner Mauerweg” you can in theory carry on and circumnavigate the whole of Berlin
along these tracks and paths.
Heading south will take you to the district of Spandau, which is really a town of its own and sports an impressive red-brick citadel. En route you pass extensive forests, especially the Spandauer Forst.
And the river and adjacent lakes are popular for boating – but should you take to the waters remember that this is still an active commercial waterway. You can watch plenty of river cargo barges passing by …
In general see also under Berlin
- Grenzturm 01 - in Nieder Neuendorf
- Grenzturm 02 - going up
- Grenzturm 03 - top of the ladder
- Grenzturm 04 - observation level
- Grenzturm 05 - communication gear
- Grenzturm 06 - powerful binoculars
- Grenzturm 07 - massive magnification
- Grenzturm 08 - exhibits
- Grenzturm 09 - a little bit of multi-media too
- Grenzturm 10 - arrest cell
- Grenzturm 11 - old border sign
- Grenzturm 12 - search light at the top
- Grenzturm 13 - shadow and former course of the Wall
- Grenzturm 14 - square named in memory of the victims of the Berlin Wall