The consequences of the division of Berlin by the Berlin Wall (1961-1989) are visible all over the city. The Wall was a wide, empty gash through the city, and that gash has, ever since the Wall “fell” in 1989, been repurposed in a variety of ways.
In some places, buildings encroach on the space: Potsdamerplatz is a good example, where some fancy modern buildings tower over the strip that was once the Wall. A few panels from the original Wall stand on the sidewalk at Potsdamerplatz, mostly serving as a background for tourists’ selfies.
Apparently, the pieces of the wall are protected by law, but the land they stood on is not, so the remaining panels get moved around by developers, and many are scattered around the city. I came upon them here and there, standing forlornly in front of businesses, for example.
In many places, a street follows the course of the old barrier, so that buildings from the former East Germany face buildings from the former West Germany across the busy traffic.
The Berlin Wall Memorial
At the Berlin Wall Memorial, some preserved sections of the Wall serve both as a memorial and a museum. It was, in reality, two walls: an outer wall and an inner wall and the no-man’s land in between. The graffiti-covered concrete that you picture was the outer wall, the first one built. The graffiti artists were West Germans. East Germans could not have gotten away with painting graffiti, so their side of the inner wall was not painted until the Wall came down.
Stretching several blocks (1.4 kilometers in total) along Bernauer Strasse, the Berlin Wall Memorial seems more like a city park than anything else at first glance. In the grassy space that was once a no-man’s land, people walk dogs, bicycle, or jog.
But when I slowed down and looked, I saw that the whole thing is a cleverly preserved piece of history, as well as an outdoor museum.
History of the Berlin Wall
From the time of the establishment of East Germany in 1949, Berlin was where many people (2.6 million, according to Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge) made their escape from East into West Germany. It was relatively easy to cross, since it could be as simple as crossing a street or taking a metro.
To the East German government, though, this was a problem. For one thing, it was bad for its image that so many people wanted to leave. It also represented a significant brain drain that was bad for their economic plans. So they built the Wall, officially the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall.”
When the Berlin Wall first went up, in 1961, it wasn’t actually a wall. The East German army hastily erected a barbed wire fence. Over the years following that first barbed wire fence, the East German government built a more permanent concrete wall. Then a second wall paralleling the first one—an inner wall about 100 meters away—was added. Other obstacles between the two walls prevented vehicles from crashing through. Watchtowers allowed guards to shoot anyone who tried to cross. Dogs and armed patrols kept watch along the “death strip” between the walls.
You might also want to read my article about lots of World War II and Cold War sites in Berlin that you can visit.
In the northern part of the city center, the Berlin Wall followed Bernauer Strasse. This was where the most dramatic images that we remember of the Berlin Wall happened. Those photos of people jumping out of windows, for example, happened here.
As the Wall became permanent, the windows facing West Germany on the East German side of the street were bricked up. Eventually, the government forced the residents to move. Later, the houses were demolished.
One side—the West Berlin side—of the Berlin Wall Memorial is lined with tall metal spikes, meant to show where the outer wall ran. The line of spikes ends where a piece of the wall still stands.
On the East Berlin side, some pieces of the inner wall still stand, along with original buildings and some very chic new homes. Large photographs on this side illustrate the stages of the building of the wall and dramatic scenes of people escaping out windows.
As I walked through the park, I noticed metal markers in the grass along the path. Here and there stand multimedia stations—a collection of vertical posts set with text, video and photos—explaining what I was seeing. The metal markers show the routes of the various tunnels that East Germans dug to escape to the West. They also indicate outlines of the houses that lined the street.
The multimedia stations tell the history of the wall, and the stories of those who escaped as well as those who died trying. These are personal stories that effectively express the feeling of imprisonment and oppression that East German residents felt, and the very real fear that accompanied any decision to try to escape.
At one point in the park is a memorial wall, called a “Window of Remembrance,” dedicated to those who died trying to cross over. It displays their individual portraits. People have left candles and other small markers, showing that this is a true place of mourning to this day.
Nearby stands the Chapel of Reconciliation, built on the spot where the Church of Reconciliation stood. That church stood empty, trapped inside the death strip, until the East Germans eventually tore it down to create clearer sight lines.
The new chapel is an interesting rounded structure. Inside, light enters from above. With an open wooden framework on the outside, the single rounded inner wall looks unfinished. It consists of pressed earth containing bits of the rubble from the original church.
Toward one end of the park is a section of the Wall that has been restored to how it looked in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall fell. The intact inner and outer sections of the Wall enclose a barren no-man’s land, over which a watchtower looms. In order to see it, visitors can climb a viewing platform.
I left the Berlin Wall Memorial and entered Nordbahnhof metro station, only to find that the memorial continued inside. An exhibition explained that this and several other metro stations became “ghost stations” during the Berlin Wall’s lifetime.
Berlin already had a comprehensive system of trains and metros before the Wall appeared. Three of the lines, however, crossed East Berlin territory as they passed between two different parts of West Berlin. The trains did not stop at these stations, and even if they did stop, East Germans soldiers prevented anyone getting on or off. West German passengers just saw the stations go by through the windows. Fortifications around the stations stopped East Germans from trying to escape through the underground tunnels.
I found this story particularly telling within the wider narrative of a city divided by the Berlin Wall. I knew the general history of its division, but it had never really sunk in how close the two sides were. The idea that trains passed—literally—under a foreign country while never leaving the city … or the idea that a person could climb out their window and be in a different country … It is just astonishing to me that this went on for the Berlin Wall’s whole 28-year existence.
The Palace of Tears is another piece of this history that has been preserved: an East German station hall where East Germans leaving legally said good-bye to their families. Read my article about it here.
The Berlin Wall Memorial also helped me understand what life was like in the divided city. Unlike most parts of the Wall around Berlin, this section shows the size of the no-man’s-land between the two walls. It was a gash—a massive wound—through the city. The Berlin Wall Memorial is one of the ways that the city deals with the scars.
Berlin Wall Memorial: Bernauer Straße, Berlin. Outdoor exhibits open daily 8:00-22:00. Documentation center open Wed-Sun 11:00-17:00. Ghost Station open whenever the Nordbahnhof metro station is open. Admission: free.