I am a Berliner – I was born here and grew up with the Berlin Wall, experienced the fall of the Wall and the growing together of the city. After years, I now went to the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse for the first time.
Let me say right away, I found the visit impressive. But I was also shocked by how ignorant many visitors are. This shouldn’t really surprise me, because even as a child/teenager I experienced many people who were completely ignorant about the Wall across Berlin. The questions I was asked then about topics that were commonplace for me still make me smile.
But back to the actual topic – so I visited the Berlin Wall Memorial.
The Berlin Wall
From 13 August 1961 to 9 November 1989, a wall separated West Berlin from the territory of the GDR and the East Berlin half of the city.
After the end of the Second World War, Germany and Berlin had been occupied by the four victorious powers. In East Germany, the state party SED had established its own political system with the help of the Soviet occupying power and separated itself from the political developments in the West of Germany. As early as the end of the 1940s, a flight movement from East Germany began. The motives were very different. There were economic and political reasons, but also personal reasons why more and more people left the east of Germany.
The SED sealed off the border between the GDR and the Federal Republic in 1952. Escape became increasingly dangerous. The refugees now chose the path across the open sector borders in Berlin to reach the Federal Republic.
Construction of the wall
By August 1961, about 1/6 of the population had fled. On 13 August 1961, border guards drew barbed wire around West Berlin, which quickly became a solid wall. This was an attempt to stop the flight movement, to document power internally and to demonstrate sovereignty externally.
It was not possible to stop the refugee movement completely. People still managed to get to the West, sometimes in adventurous ways. And so the SED began to further expand the walls and border barriers. What was initially a simple wall developed into a complex border system with staggered barriers. For this purpose, some residential buildings in Berlin had to give way so that the soldiers had a clear field of vision and firing range. A heavily guarded death strip was created around West Berlin.
I grew up in Berlin Spandau and our daily commute took us right along the Berlin Wall, which ran parallel to Potsdamer Chaussee. All we could see was a high wall and the guard towers standing at regular intervals. We could hear the guard dogs running back and forth along dog runs.
Today I know that the entire Wall was almost perfectly constructed:
If you wanted to escape from the East to the West, the first obstacle was the Hinterland wall on the GDR side.
Then came a signal fence with mats with steel nails at the base. When the fence was touched, the border guards on the towers received a warning signal.
Next came an open area with a post path and a control strip. Here there were also vehicle barriers to stop fleeing cars.
Yes, and then there was another 3.60-metre-high wall before you reached the west.
At night, the border strip was brightly lit. I only realised how brightly it was when, after the Wall came down, the drive on Potsdamer Chaussee was suddenly unlit and very dark.
The border towers had a dual function. They stood about every 250 metres and were manned by border guards. They not only guarded the border and were supposed to prevent people from escaping (even at gunpoint if necessary – there was a shoot-to-kill order), they were also supposed to watch the area of West Berlin.
Towards the end of the 1970s, the GDR leadership began to dismantle some of the border barriers in order to improve its political image. Nothing changed, however, as new walls offered better protection.
The Wall could not stop people from trying to escape to the West. From 1961 to 1989, at least 140 people died at the Berlin Wall trying to escape. In addition, at least 251 travellers died during or after controls at Berlin border crossings.
The Fall of the Wall
When the political situation in the Eastern Bloc slowly changed and the countries of the Warsaw Pact were allowed to determine their own national policy, Hungary came closer to the West. The border fence there was dismantled and the Iron Curtain got its first hole.
The SED did not want to adopt the reform course for the GDR and so there were ever-growing protest movements in the country. In order to keep the population happy, the SED felt compelled to make the first concessions. A new law on leaving the country was to allow freedom of travel. After the erroneous announcement, the Wall fell on 9 November 1989 under the onslaught of the crowds.
The demolition of the Wall began. Numerous souvenir hunters chipped off a piece of the Wall – more and more border crossings emerged. It wasn’t long before pieces of the Wall were being sold all over the world. In 1990, the first pieces of the Wall were finally listed as historic monuments.
For many years, Bernauer Strasse formed the border between West and East Berlin. The construction of the Wall was particularly dramatic for the residents here: urban space was destroyed, families and friends separated and life paths destroyed. There were countless escape attempts here on Bernauer Strasse. A particularly well-known example is the border guard Schumann, who became world-famous two days after the barriers began with a courageous leap over the barbed wire – which was also documented by chance.
In Bernauer Strasse, the border between East and West ran along a wall of houses. Some residents managed an adventurous escape from these border houses to the West. They abseiled down or jumped into jump sheets provided by the West Berlin fire brigade. The escape was not always successful; the first deaths on the inner-city border occurred here.
After a short time, the border regime cleared the houses and resettled the residents. All openings to the West were closed. This only further challenged those who wanted to escape. The most famous and successful escape tunnels were built here on Bernauer Strasse, through which some people were able to leave their old lives. You can also see the course of a tunnel created by the Stasi here.
Many years later, Bernauer Strasse once again came to the attention of Berliners. On the night of 10-11 November 1989, the first segments of the wall were demolished, creating a crossing between the two halves of the city. The official dismantling of the border fortifications began here in June 1990.
Berlin Wall Memorial
Today, Bernauer Strasse is home to the Berlin Wall Memorial with a visitor centre, a permanent exhibition on the former border strip, a central place of remembrance for the victims, the Chapel of Reconciliation and a documentation centre.
Much of the site is located on a 1.4-kilometre section of the former border strip.
Tour through the memorial landscape
I started my little sightseeing tour at the Bernauer Strasse underground station. This is where the central memorial area begins, telling the story of the Wall and the people whose lives were affected by it. Numerous display boards stand along the way and document the events surrounding the Berlin Wall.
Altogether, four focal points are considered:
- the Wall and the death strip
- the destruction of the city
- the construction of the Wall
- Everyday life at the Wall
At first I was very fixated on reading the information boards, so it was only with time that I discovered “little” clues on the former Wall strip. For example, escape tunnels and demolished border houses have been made visible with steel bands in the ground. Unfortunately, the grass had grown quite tall and so these interesting details did not immediately catch my eye.
At one point there is an archaeological window where you can see the remains of old border installations. I also found the topic of the Sophiengemeinde cemetery interesting. Parts of the cemetery had to make way for the border fortifications, the dead had to be reburied and relatives could only visit gravesites with great difficulty.
The “Window of Remembrance” very impressively displays names and pictures of people who lost their lives as a result of the border regime. But the stories of people who managed to escape are also brought to life here on Bernauer Strasse. In the exposed cellar of an old border house there is a listening station with the stories of some people. You should take some time here and just listen.
Chapel of Reconciliation
Before the Wall stood, there was the Church of Reconciliation, which lay inaccessible in the death strip when the Wall was built. In 1985, in the course of expanding the border, the GDR regime had the church, which had become a warning symbol of division, blown up.
After reunification, the parish received its property back. The Chapel of Reconciliation was built according to plans by Berlin architects. I find the building a little hard to get used to, because at first you only see wooden slats from the outside. These enclose a walkway that extends around the interior. Unfortunately, the chapel was closed and so I couldn’t take a look inside.
Directly next to the chapel is another wooden building in which the rescued church bells were hung. What I only noticed at second glance were the steel bands embedded in the floor, showing the outline of the former church. A nice idea to commemorate a building in this way.
The monument to the construction of the Berlin Wall
For many visitors, the most impressive part of the memorial is certainly the monument that was inaugurated on 13 August 1998.
An original piece of the border strip, closed off on both sides by a steel wall, impressively shows how high and almost insurmountable the Wall was. A border tower stands on the border strip and you can imagine how the soldiers’ gaze fell over the Wall and along the border fortifications.
The sight took me back to my past. At that time, the sight was normal and today the former border strip is built on, greened, used and disappearing more and more from the cityscape. At some point, a visitor to Berlin will only get an impression of it through the memorials and commemorative sites.
A little tip: If you go to the Documentation Centre opposite, you can take a look at the former border strip from above from the viewing platform.
Berlin Wall Documentation Centre
The permanent exhibition “1961 | 1989. The Berlin Wall” is located in the memorial’s documentation centre.
I strolled through the exhibition for a while and looked at the extensive information. The multimedia offers explain the political and historical background that led to the construction, preservation and demolition of the Wall very clearly. I don’t think it’s an exhibition that should be experienced “on the fly”. You have to read the really well prepared information at your leisure in order to grasp everything.
Don’t forget! The viewing platform of the Documentation Centre offers a beautiful view of Berlin. Here you have a good view of the Wall strip and Bernauer Strasse from above.
Opening hours outdoor exhibition:
Unrestricted (for the benefit of residents, please limit to 8 am – 10 pm)
Opening hours Documentation Centre:
Tuesday – Sunday: 10-18 h