Growing up during the Cold War, the very embodiment of the on-going showdown between East and West was the Berlin Wall. In school, we were taught (not so subtly) that the Wall was more than a physical border, it was a prison wall keeping the good honest East Germans from seeking freedom in the West. We were brought to believe the Germans, with their proud history, were very much affected by its presence. During my earliest days in the military, I had friends and contacts stationed out in the Berlin Brigade who told me how intense the environment was with the Soviets just on the opposite side of the Brandenburg Gate. But not having been there myself, I could never put it into context. So, when I finally had the chance to visit Berlin several times between 2001 and 2004, the Wall and its remnants were of particular interest to me.
It appeared, however, that Berlin was of two minds concerning the Wall -- some wanted to remember it or capitalize on it, others preferred to ignore and forget it. Relating to the former, I encountered three museums related to the Wall -- a standing museum shown in the first photograph, the Berlin Wall Museum on Bernauer Strasse up north and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum downtown. Also, there were a large number of chunks of the Berlin Wall for sale in nearly every souvenir store and postcard stop around the city. But while the outline of the Wall was marked on the ground through the city, much of the former border had already been paved over and rebuilt on, as if it were never there.
Both museums developed significantly over those years. My first trip to Berlin was a bus tour in April of 2001, and the Berlin Wall Exhibit shown in the first photograph was part of the tour. The exhibit was open air, consisting of a makeshift wooden roof tacked on to the back of a section of the Wall. Tacked on the wooden frame were posters in four languages (German, French, English, and Russian) telling the full story of the post-World War II environment leading to the Cold War and the Wall's construction. Featured were the Berlin Airlift, the development of the German refugee situation, and the trials and tribulations of reunification after the Wall fell in November of 1989.
Unfortunately, I lost touch with where exactly this free exhibit was. I had no concept of the city's layout in that trip because I toured by bus. When I returned multiple times in 2002 and 2004, part of my desire was to locate this exhibit. Sadly, I was unsuccessful, but have been told that the structure still stands, and that it was at the site of the former Gestapo Headquarters*.
When we traveled to Berlin again in 2004, finding the Berlin Wall exhibit was top priority. In the time between, a formal Berlin Wall Museum was established on Bernauer Strasse, on the border between the French and Russian sectors. The Museum consisted on a reconstructed section of the Wall complete with double barrier on one side of the street (shown from above in the second photograph), and the Museum hall and observation tower on the opposite. The Museum was first-rate, with a very thorough dissecting of the key political events from 1961-1989, along with a tremendous library of books and magazines from the period.
As we would learn from the museum, Bernauer Street bisected a very busy, built-up section with tall buildings along both sides of the road. After the Wall was complete, East Berliners attempted to cross over to the West by climbing out of the tall buildings over the road, until the buildings were cleared away by the Soviets. Of particular importance was a church positioned on the East side of the road. The church became sealed off from the majority of its parishioners in the West. Eventually, the church was torn down in order to provide better observation for the Soviet guards. The destruction of the church was memorialized by the round barrel-shaped structure shown in the third photograph. This too was a church, but whether or not it served the same parish as the previous building was unknown to me.
The third major memorial was Checkpoint Charlie, located directly south of the Brandenburg Gate by a couple blocks. Checkpoint Charlie was made particularly famous as the standoff point when the Americans to the south and the Soviets to the North were within an eyelash of going to war. After a little touching-up, the Checkpoint became a simple memorial in the middle of the road, with its signature photographs of a Russian soldier on one side (shown in the fourth photograph) and an American soldier on the other.
Checkpoint Charlie also had its own Museum next door, and it was also a wonderful resource of information about the Cold War period. While the Berlin Wall Museum was like a library, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum was more like an art exhibit, with period military vehicles, paintings, and dioramas. This Museum also included special exhibitions on the struggles for freedom in general, particularly highlighting other former Soviet republics.
Both Museums were excellent, and highly recommended for visiting. But, what of the Wall itself? Indeed, large sections of the Wall still remained fully intact as of our last visit to Berlin. The longest original section was located outside the Ostbahnhof (the train station that was once the main station for East Berlin). This was found by exiting the front door of the train station, going one block to the left along the main road, and looking to the opposite side of the street. Filled with graffiti, visitors would likely not recognize it as the Berlin Wall. Instead, it looked like a cheap sound barrier.
Those interested in taking a piece of the Berlin Wall home as a souvenir should know that physically removing fragments was prohibited. The only legal way to do so was to buy a piece from a souvenir stand (usually a very small grain of the wall, perhaps a tenth of an ounce), but of course there was no way to truly verify the authenticity of the souvenir. Also, authentic portions of the Wall were exported to museums elsewhere in Germany. One example was at the Point Alpha museum in Rasdorf-Geisa along the former West and East German border.
It was incredible to believe that the Wall came down so long ago -- for us of the Cold War generation, the event seemed like yesterday. As our travels around the city showed, little direct evidence of its existence remained. But it was worth seeking out the reminders still there -- lest someone else in the future decide to build a similar Wall in future.
Trips taken 13-14 April 2001 and 29-30 June 2002 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002, 2004 Tom Galvin
*With acknowledgement to reader H. Bergman.