Keeping the Capitalists Out?!
On the 13th of August, 1961, the then Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) started the building of an improvised barbed wire fence. Over time the barrier was to become known as the Berlin Wall.
Dissecting the city in two, separating East from West, the wall was expanded and reinforced to include 3.5 metre concrete walls and manned guard towers.The stated purpose, peddled by the East German propaganda machine, was to keep so called Western “fascists” from entering the socialist Eastern block.
In truth the wall was an attempt to stem the flow of refugees. Since WW2 the number of refugees escaping East Germany had topped 3 million. This included skilled workers such as engineers, teachers and doctors, and amounted to 20% of the population.
Three Decades of Waiting
The loss of citizens to the West was an embarrassment to the USSR and the militarisation and maintenance of the wall became something of a priority in conserving face. Arguably, Berlin was the epicentre of Cold War tensions and hosted numerous heads of state over the years, notably Kennedy and Reagan.
Political heavyweights aside, over the next three decades, despite the wall and it’s fortifications, many East Germans attempted to escape the country. Estimates vary but around 5000 people including 600 border guards were able to cross the border by a variety of methods with some more inventive than others.
Some jumped from windows, others just drove through the checkpoints at high speed. Amazingly someone even crossed over by hot air balloon. Sadly, despite these successes between 136 and 200 died attempting to cross over the wall.
A Berlin Wall Street Party
The Berlin Wall stood until November 9, 1989. On this day the spokesman for the East Berlin Communist Party unexpectedly announced to East Germans that from midnight citizens of the GDR were free to cross the border into Berlin whenever they pleased. Unsurprisingly Berliners from both sides flocked to the wall.
The atmosphere was described as being similar to a street party. When midnight came East Berliners began to cross freely into West Berlin, climbing the wall in places. At the same time others had brought tools, both hammers and chisels, that night began to dismantle parts of the wall.
Over the weekend more than two million people from East Berlin visited their fellow Germans in the West. On October 3, 1990, less than a year later the reunification of East and West Germany was completed. The Berlin Wall still remains one of the most powerful, polarising and enduring symbols of the Cold War.
Is There Anything Left to See?
Only small sections of the Berlin Wall remain. Nevertheless there are still some fantastic areas of interest for you to visit if you are in Berlin. You could start by renting a bike and following the Mauerweg, Berlin Wall Trail, which is a well signposted route snaking it’s way around the foundations of the original wall.
Checkpoint Charlie is also worth some time. As it was one of only a few crossing points between East and West Berlin. The checkpoint manages the maintain something of it’s significance despite overly commercialised surroundings.
To get a sense of the infrastructure of the wall i’d recommend the Berlin Watch Tower (BT 6), located near Potsdamer Platz. Built in 1966 this is the last remaining example of the more than 200 such towers that guarded the Berlin Wall and the infamous death strip.
Street Art and Graffiti: Honecker and Brezhnev
The Berlin Wall was the largest canvas in the world and over the years the western side was adorned in the artwork. Many of the artists remain anonymous voicing political expressions spanning decades.
Admittedly, until the fall of the Berlin Wall it was only the western side of the wall that had any graffiti. Nobody could get close enough to the eastern side to paint anything. But since then the eastern side has made up for lost time.
Nowhere more so than at The East Side Gallery. Located along the river Spree in Friedrichshain, this is now the longest part of the wall still standing. Shortly after the fall of the wall, around 100 artists began painting large sections of the wall. The area is one of the less gentrified parts of the city and is well worth an afternoon.
After that if you are still in the mood for street art then head over to Mauerpark. There is another superb section of the wall adorned with some fantastic work. On Sundays the park is the site of a great flea market selling retro clothing, furniture and other random assortments.