After visiting the art scene of Berlin with my mum, we decided to take a tour to discover Berlin’s most iconic place, still present even though it’s gone. So, we went walking the Berlin wall.
The Wall and Me
When I was little, there were two Germanys. And there were two Berlins. I remember looking at maps, fascinated yet intimidated by that line, running across that country that I knew was in fact one. West Germany was green, and East Germany was always red – and that tiny dollop that was West Berlin stood out, right in the centre of that red expanse.
My grandfather used to say that dividing Germany was a great idea. The country was too big, too powerful – and he had seen first-hand the consequences of such power, during World War II. I didn’t understand, as a child – didn’t understand the tales of terror, of violence and fear that he told me, thinking that somehow I was ready for them, or that even though I was a child, I needed to know.
Then, when I had just started elementary school, the Wall fell. I have vague memories of that day – the ‘breaking news’ TV broadcast, the feeling that things were about to change. And change they did – the Nineties happened, Germany and Berlin went back to being one.
November 2014 marked twenty-five years from that day that changed history. The Wall is gone – but somehow it’s still there, present in its absence, absent in its presence. The presence/absence of the Wall, and how it shaped not only this city, but Europe as a whole, is something that cannot be understood, unless one knows history.
Walking the Berlin Wall with Context Travel
Up until our Berlin visit in March 2014, we only knew history through iconic images. The Soviet soldier waving the hammer and sickle flag after the city was liberated in 1945. Conrad Schumann leaping over barbed wire in 1961. Aerial shots of the Eastern and Western Wall, no man’s land within. And the photos of November 1989.
Then, we had the chance to join the Walking the Wall tour organised by Context Travel. These are not your run of the mill walking tours, run by guides that simply studied a script. Context Travel only hires PhD level academics who specialise in what the walk is about. Our guide, a Danish man called Rasmus, was a German culture scholar whose area of interest was depictions of metropolises in literature.
The tour began at the Berlin Wall memorial visitor centre, in Bernauer Strasse. Having come from the Bernauer Strasse U-Bahn, we walked along the entire memorial, a 1.3 km strip of grass, empty and sombre, surrounded by wall paintings of iconic moments related to the Berlin wall – including Conrad Schumann.
The memorial was imposing in its emptiness, a nothingness that was perhaps there to counterbalance the feelings, hopes and dreams that had crossed the space for much of last century.
Rasmus agreed that knowing 20th century history is essential to understand the Wall and Berlin as a whole. So, he gave us an overview of what happened – during the War, and afterwards. He transported me straight back to my high-school classroom, when we learnt about Berlin.
The History of the Berlin Wall
I remember being at school, tired and sweaty in a hot June morning in Italy. No one was paying attention, except for me and a couple other history nerds. I remember listening about the Berlin Blockade, when the Soviets cut off all land borders to West Berlin, and all supplies had to be airlifted. I loved hearing about the Raisin Bombers, Allied planes that used to parachute sweets (and presumably raisins) during the blockade, as they flew over East Berlin. After years in which planes were bearers of sorrow and death, they finally brought some sort of joy to the children of East Berlin.
Rasmus proceeded to outline the reasons and political intrigue underlying the decision to build the Wall – or the ‘antifascist blockade’, as it was called by the Soviet rulers of East Berlin.
Showing us city maps from the Fifties, the Eighties and 2010, Rasmus showed us how the Wall shaped the city. It wasn’t built in a straight line – rather, it snaked and zig-zagged across town, following the river and other natural landmarks, then cutting across houses and neighbourhoods. Some houses were even evacuated as they became part of the Wall itself. Their windows were boarded first, then bricked up, but people still found a way to escape. Eventually, they were knocked down.
Walking the Berlin Wall memorial
Then, we crossed the street to the Memorial, and started walking the Berlin wall. Yes, because the Wall was still there. It was there in the rows of iron poles that marked where it used to stand. It was there in the bricks on the floor, running across where it used to be. It was there in the relics, in the spiked metal and ditches that were used to stop vehicles from driving across.
The Wall was there in only sections of the memorial left as it was – complete with watchtower (bought on eBay), and barren no man’s land within. It was blocked off on both sides, and people peeked in through the cracks between one concrete slab and another. That image stuck with me. East Berliners, looking towards West, towards what they perceived as freedom.
The Wall and West Berlin
And what about West Berlin? I remember reading Christiane F’s book The Children from Bahnhof Zoo when I was a teenager. West Berlin was far from being the glittering, uber-capitalist dream of big cars and wallets full of cash. The book portrayed it as a filthy, broke, derelict place.
The West German government pumped West Berlin full of cash, to keep it as its capitalist show city. Salaries in West Berlin were higher than the rest of the country, and consequently prices were higher too – but away from the shiny Ku’damm and the other showcase streets, life was hard. What really surprised me, was that the Wall is barely mentioned in the book, as if nothing existed in the other side of it, and life began and ended in West Berlin.
We asked Rasmus how life was, on the western side of the Wall. He told us that many West Berliners – especially those born when the Wall was already up – barely considered East Berlin. It just wasn’t on their radar. They acknowledged its existence, but didn’t particularly care to visit.
The Berlin Ghost Stations
Then, Rasmus showed us two S and U-Bahn maps, one from West and one from East Berlin. As the underground was built when the city was still one, the Wall meant that the train network had to be divided, too. Some lines ran solely within East or West Berlin, others turned back at the border, but three lines – the U6 and U8 on the U-Bahn and Nord-Sud Tunnel on the S-Bahn – ran mostly through West Berlin, but crossed East Berlin as well.
The West Berlin map showed the wall as a jagged grey crack, with greyed-out lines beyond. Those were the U6, U8 and Nord-Sud Tunnel, that became known as Geisterbahnhof, the ghost stations. These were dimly lit and heavily guarded, and trains accelerated as they passed through, to prevent Easterners from clinging onto the trains and escaping. But on the West Berlin train maps, East Berlin was there – albeit as a greyed-out version of reality.
When looking at East Berlin maps, the Eastern side is named “Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR” (Berlin, Capital of the GDR). In the west, there is a big, white expanse of nothingness, merely dubbed Westberlin. The GDR authorities attempted to block out reality, with the construction of the Wall. Only the East Berlin side existed. The other side was nothing.
The victims of the Wall
One of the most moving locations we visited was the memorial to the 136 victims of the Berlin Wall. Some were shot while escaping, others died when their escape plans went wrong, like the very last victim, Winfried Freudenberg, who fell from a hot-air balloon. Four months later, the Wall fell.
The list of victims includes some children. Some were involved in escape attempts gone wrong – others, at least two or three, drowned in the Spree after accidentally crossing while playing. Rasmus told us that Eastern and Western border guards stood powerless, not knowing whether or not to act, afraid that they’d be shot down but those on the opposite side.
Walking the Berlin Wall memorial was an intense experience. You’ll find none of the tacky memorabilia of Checkpoint Charlie, and no giggling schoolkids taking selfies, like at the East Side Gallery. The memorial is sombre in its emptiness – you don’t need gruesome exhibits, as the influence that the Wall exerted over the city is still alive, even twenty-five years later.
After our walk at the memorial, we took a tram with Rasmus, bound for the East Side Gallery where the tour ended. He told us of what happened in Berlin, after the wall fell. The two sides of the reunited city couldn’t be more different, but they had one thing in common: both were broke. The municipality didn’t have a dime – West because they had to keep the uber-capitalist dream alive, East because the Soviet world was shattered. Property prices were rock-bottom, derelict buildings were everywhere – plenty of cheap housing for the young, bohemian youth from the rest of Europe and beyond.
With the fall of the Wall, alternative Berlin was born. Artists, photographers, musicians and filmmakers moved in, turning the city into the creative spot it still is. A place where communities are still strong, and abandoned places are being redeveloped with communities in mind – as it was the case with the former Tempelhof Airport, now a public park.
However, corporate dollars are threatening Berlin’s indie vibe. In my street art post, I have spoken about the controversial decision of street artist Blu to cover up two of his pieces. Rasmus told us of the popular Mauerpark flea market, that is now facing closure because the municipality (that is still broke) decided to call a tender to redevelop the area.
Near the East Side Gallery, gentrification was rampant. Steel and glass luxury condos are being built right next the Wall – developers are probably charging extra for people to live right next to a piece of history.
This was my second visit to Berlin, 7.5 years after the first one. I have seen the city change, in a way that doesn’t normally happen, in Europe. London is always London. Paris is always Paris. Berlin in 2007 was wilder than Berlin in 2015 – which is still wild, crazy and alternative, but it’s starting to button its shirt up. I just hope the buttons will fall out of the shirt, into the Spree, and stay there. Or Berlin will become just another city.
We were guests of Context Travel during this tour. All opinions are our own – we loved the tour and highly recommend it.