At the end of our street in Prenzlauer Berg lies sprawling Mauerpark or ‘Wall Park’, which the Berlin Wall once ran through and where a buzzy flea market is held every Sunday.
Several beautiful books in our apartment comparing ‘before’ (the Wall) and ‘after’ (the Wall) photos, had us intrigued. We knew about the history of the Wall but we wanted to learn more about its impact on our neighbours and Berliners more generally. So we did a walk along the Berlin Wall.
We had visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum years ago on our first trip to Berlin, but it told the story of the Wall predominantly from the West Berlin perspective and this time we were staying in the East.
We decided to sign up for a Walking the Wall tour with Context docent Julian Smith-Newman, who grew up in Berlin and recently returned to the city to live again. We meet at the Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse, where Julian begins the story of the Berlin Wall at the beginning.
At the end of World War II, pre-war West Germany was divided into four occupation zones controlled by the Allied powers, the USA, UK, France and Soviet Union, while Berlin was similarly divided despite the capital being well and truly located in the Soviet zone.
It was an agreement that was doomed from the start. The Soviets weren’t interested in democracy and economic reform. If anything, Josef Stalin envisaged a united Germany within the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc that also included Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Soviet-backed East German government didn’t agree with reconstruction plans, so the UK, France and USA combined the non-Soviet zones into one zone.
Berliners got wind of the East German government’s plans to erect a wall between the East and West zones and on Saturday 13 August 1961, the night the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’, as the East German government called it, was erected, 3,000 people fled East Berlin for the West. It’s thought another 30,000 were planning to leave the next day but were prevented from doing so when the wall went up that night.
The first wall was 1.5 metres tall, topped with barbed wire, and ran 97 miles around Berlin’s western sectors and 27 miles directly through the city centre. It wasn’t until 1965 that the fully-fledged wall took the form that Julian now points out to me from where we stand on the rooftop of the Documentation Centre. From the rooftop we can see two parallel concrete walls, a watchtower, and in between a patrol road running by the infamous, desolate ‘death strip’ that quickly came to represent the immense divide, both physical and ideological, between East and West.
When the Wall went up that Saturday night in 1961, it ended all freedom of movement between East and West Berlin, artificially separating the city, and splitting up families, neighbours and friends, for more than a quarter of a century, until the wall finally came down on 9 November 1989.
Inside the Centre we watched clips of dramatic black and white archival footage of East Berliners escaping through windows of buildings that formed the Eastern barrier, jumping out of apartment windows onto firemen’s trampolines into West Germany below. Julian points out what remains of those buildings across the road.
We leave the Centre and cross the road to the park to see several memorials, including a monument to those who died attempting to escape, a reminder of the bodies that were removed from the cemetery behind to make way for the wall, and some artworks erected in remembrance.
We cross the road to visit the ‘Ghost Station’ of Nordbahnhof, one of a number of underground train stations that were closed to the public at the time. Because Berlin’s train network spanned East and West Berlin, some U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines fell within one half of Berlin; others were divided, running just to the border and back; while others continued to be open to West Berliners, but didn’t stop at East Berlin stations, which were blocked off to the public and heavily guarded. These became known as Ghost Stations.
We stroll along the old route of the wall, to get a sense of the scale and nature of the division, stopping to see artworks along the way. Julian describes how guards faced outwards to appear as if they were protecting the East Berliners from the West, but the reality was that they were keeping the people in.
Our three-hour walk tracing parts of the route of the old Wall takes in more monuments and art works and another preserved section of the Wall in the Prussian Cemetery. As we stroll along the icy paths, Julian helps me to understand the complex social, cultural and political history of the concrete barrier, and the steps taken to preserve its history and meaning since the wall was pulled down in 1989.
We remember very clearly the images of the fall of the Wall on television, but I imagine if you were born in the 90s or later, it would be very easy to visit Berlin these days, not knowing anything about the Wall, and not taking an interest in any remnants of or memorials to the Wall.
I wonder how many young Berliners take an interest in their recent history, how many know what the monuments in the parks mean, what Ghost Stations were… I’ve detected differences and tensions between East and West Berlin and their residents on this trip that I’d never noticed or thought about before, and I’ve wondered if the causes can be traced back to the post-war divisions created by the Wall…
The Wall has well and truly gone, but for those who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s, who only knew what it was like to live in a city divided, what does it mean to live in Berlin now? Did the differences that were allowed to form in the 30+ years of the life of the wall disintegrate overnight? I don’t think so… do you?