The Berlin Wall
a monument of pain
On november 9th, during one of those infamous boring press conferences of the GDR, Günther Schabowski was asked a simple question. After announcing that the East-German people were allowed to cross the border with proper permission, one of the reporters asked when the regulations would come into effect. Schabowski looked a bit sheepishly at that little note and said the infamous words: sofort, unverzüglich. Meaning: now, immediately. These regulations were actually to take effect the following afternoon, so as to allow time to inform the border guards. However, nobody had informed Schabowski of this...
Imagine. Little Klaus went to bed after a wonderful long and sunny August day of playing with his best friend Ernst, the boy next door. When Klaus woke up in the morning people built a wall between his house and the one were Ernst lives, his best friend ever. And now imagine that this was reality for many friends and families. Good, solid and lovingly relationship were simply torn on the night of 12 and 13 August 1961. At midnight, the police and units of the East German army began to close the border and, by Sunday morning, 13 August, the border with West Berlin was closed. East German troops and workers had begun to tear up streets running alongside the border to make them impassable to most vehicles and to install barbed wire entanglements and fences along the 156 kilometres around the three western sectors, and the 43 kilometres that divided West and East Berlin.
The barrier was built slightly inside East Berlin or East German territory to ensure that it did not encroach on West Berlin at any point. Later, it was built up into the Wall proper, the first concrete elements and large blocks being put in place on 17 August. During the construction of the Wall, the NVA (National People's Army) and the KdA (Combat Groups) soldiers stood in front of it with a license to kill anyone trying to cross the border. A huge no man's land was cleared to provide room for minefields and hedgehogs and to create a clear line of fire at fleeing refugees. The border was impenetrable!
During the post-war years, after Germany was divided into 4 sections, there had always been a communist versus a western front. It was Stalin's intention all along to put all of Eastern Europe in his pocket after him defeating Germany during WWII. It was Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor, who ordered the head of the DDR Walter Ulbricht to build the Berlin Wall in order to protect the East from the West...The real reason for the construction of the Wall was the fact that more and more East Berlin intellectuals left for West Berlin because of jobs, wealth and freedom. The East was about to be drained from professors, teachers, doctors, etc. and that was simply not happening.
From 1961 until 1989, the Berlin Wall replaced culture with indoctrination, freethinking with Stasi and the German soul with concrete, cold concrete. Even now, Germany still suffers from the deep wounds this Wall left behind. Although tourists are seeking for those remnants that make them more or less understand what it was like, the people from Berlin still do not really want to openly talk about it. But in my humble opinion, this period of suffering has put Berlin on the map as not only the capital of unified Germany but as a laboratory of free-spirited thinking that eventually led to its reputation of THE place to be in Europe at this very moment. A place where dreams may come true (even quicker than in the US of A!) and most certainly a place that surprises me every time again since the first time I visited this marvellous city along the Spree river. I am a believer!
To celebrate the Fall of the Wall I will leave you with some sight-see tips. There are still some wall remnants and watching towers to find and even to visit. But there are also some hidden gems that might get you excited.
First of all I will start with 2 tips to fully enjoy the city. The first is this: Read up on Berlin and its history. It is a big city and due to the separation by the Wall, it has several centers. Alexanderplatz used to be the center of East Berlin and Ku'damm of West Berlin. Potsdammerplatz used to be the busiest crossroads in Europe before the war. After the war and during the East-West charade it was an area free of buildings and solely inhabited by rabbits and birds, a land land of no man. Now this thriving district of high-rise and big brands forms another city center. In the early nineties all the districts became interesting one after the other. Artists and musicians came to Berlin to be creative and districts like Prenzlauerberg, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain became favorite to many visitors. These days Neuköln (hidden tip) is on the rise. In other words. Make sure you understand where Berlin has come from and prepare yourself properly before visiting. It will make the trip even more beautiful and interesting.
My second tip is: get lost in the city. Rent a bike and go crazy. You will find so much more when you get lost on a bike. And believe me there is so much to see. While on your bike, do the Berliner Mauerweg. You will pass and are able to visit all the leftover wall remains. When you do not have the time or just do not like (or not able) to ride a bike, here are some must-sees.
The usual suspects:
- Checkpoint Charlie
- East-side Gallery
- Oberbaumbrücke and Bornholmer Strasse
- the Wall at Topografie des Terrors
- Gedenkstätte Bernauer Strasse
- On Potsdamer Platz you can still find a genuine watchtower hidden away (Erna-Berger-Straße)
- the Soviet monument at Treptower Park
- the Stasi Museum at the former Stasi HQ (in all its former glory)
- Border fortifications on the Rüdower Höhe, south of Köpenicker Straße
- Visit the Invaliden Friedhof where you can see how even graves of great German soldiers, generals and alike were simply dug up to make way for the Wall.
And when you are lost and do not have a clue whether you are in former East or West, just look at the pedestrian lights. In the former East section you will find Das Ampelmänchen, a symbol of East Berlin. And when you are, like me, visiting next weekend make sure to visit www.berlin.de to find all about the festivities of the 25 Years Fall of the Wall.