Only a few sections of the Berlin Wall are left standing, but visitors can still experience some of its Cold War history. Here’s how to track down the physical and psychological remains of a barrier that symbolized the divide between the free world and communism from 1961 until the night it fell on November 9, 1989.
Tour of the Berlin Wall Escape Tunnels
Berlin had been a divided city since the end of World War II. Deep in the Soviet occupation zone that became East Germany, sectors controlled by the USA, Britain and France offered a gateway to the more prosperous West. Millions of East Germans left, prompting the overnight construction of a barrier fence in 1961. Officially called the “anti-fascist protection rampart” by the communists, it was later reinforced with concrete walls and guard towers, as well as a “death strip” where escapees would be shot on sight.
The Berlin Underworld Association (Berliner Untewelten) has preserved the history of those who tried to escape underground. Our guide, Martina, met us in a concrete bunker that was a bomb shelter during World War II. She was only four years old when the wall came down, but vividly told stories of families torn apart by the divide. Under constant watch by the “Stasi” secret police and a vast network of informants, East Berliners were “living like every day was our last day with our fate in the hands of the big powers of the world.”
Some underground escapes took place in the sewers, where people crawled through human waste to freedom. Others dug their own tunnels, including student groups and an 81-year-old man who led a dozen senior citizens to the West. Successful escapes were publicized in the West German media to embarrass the communists. Weirdly, West Germans were allowed to come to the East to spend the hard currency desperately needed by the regime. Subway trains rumbled through closed “ghost stations” where guards kept watch for escapees trying to hop on board.
The tour includes a short ride on the U8 subway to Bernauer Strasse, where people attempted to leap out of windows next to the wall. Eventually those buildings were torn down. Today the death strip is a peaceful park with markers at the locations of known escape tunnels. The last stop is the cellar of a former brewery, where an exhibit recreates the dangers faced by those brave enough to start digging. American TV networks competed to document the escape attempts — with mixed results. Finish the tour and then wander through the Berlin Wall Memorial Park to see a portion of the actual wall, a guard tower overlooking the death strip, and a monument showing the 139 people killed while trying to escape.
To buy a ticket for the tour “Under the Berlin Wall”, visit the bookshop next to the Gesundbrunnen underground station at Brunnenstrasse 105. They don’t take advance reservations. The three tours per day can accommodate up to 60 visitors. Hours and prices are on the Berlin Underworld Association website. Due to copyright issues, photography is not permitted in some rooms of the tour.
The city of Berlin has a list of recommendations for other ways to experience the wall, including a documentation center and the museum at Checkpoint Charlie. The guard station that marked the boundary of the American sector is only a replica, and the city has cracked down on costumed actors posing with tourists for a fee.
The Brandenburg Gate is another must-see, when it’s not blocked off for a big event like it was at the time of my 2019 visit. Your sightseeing will at some point lead to Potsdamer Platz, once a barren wasteland above a ghost train station in communist times. Keep your eyes on the sidewalk for markers showing where the wall once stood in the middle of this now-thriving commercial marketplace.
Berlin’s Palace of Tears
US President Ronald Reagan visited Berlin in 1987 and called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Two years later, the East Germans opened the border by accident. A spokesman for the communist party announced at a news conference that East Germans could freely enter the West, effective immediately. He may have misread his hastily scrawled notes, now part of a free exhibit at the Palace of Tears (Tränenpalast). This mid-century-modern train station was where departing East Germans said goodbye, believing they would never see their loved ones again. That changed on the night of November 9, 1989.
As the news was confirmed on West German media, people crowded into border checkpoints. The world had just watched China’s violent crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square. With 380,000 Soviet troops stationed in East Germany, diplomatic observers feared a military response. Lacking specific orders, an East German officer decided to open the border. Confused guards watched as a giant street party broke out. Somewhere in the crowd that night was a young Angela Merkel — the future German Chancellor.
Berlin Wall Art at the East Side Gallery
In their haste to make sure the Berlin Wall was not rebuilt, Germans made little effort to preserve it. The longest surviving stretch is the East Side Gallery, reachable by S-train to the Berlin Ostbahnhof station. This free attraction now draws millions of tourists per year, so expect lots of competition as you try to capture your own selfie with the artwork covering the expanse of concrete that is nearly a mile long.
An informal collection of artists spontaneously showed up to paint the side of the wall that once faced the East. Among them, an Iranian immigrant who had watched from his apartment near Checkpoint Charlie as East Germans streamed across the border to freedom. Kani Alavi’s sketches from the night of November 9 would inspire one of the most famous artworks on the wall.
The paintings from the early 90s were restored in 2009. Don’t miss the “fraternal kiss” between the communist leaders of the Soviet Union and East Germany. Another must-see is the image of a Trabant breaking through the wall. The bare-bones automobile with a two-cylinder engine has remained an iconic symbol of East German communism, when buyers would wait up to 18 years for the chance to buy one. You might see modern-day car enthusiasts and their restored “trabis” parked nearby. Stroll along the pleasant riverfront, where escapees once risked being shot as they swam to freedom. These days, the biggest threat to the gallery is luxury real estate development in the area, including several hotels.
30 years after the Berlin Wall: What next?
This was my third visit to Berlin. In 2001, World War II bullet holes were still visible in the crumbling vintage buildings of the former East. By the time I returned in 2010, East Berlin had become the trendiest part of the city, leading one German journalist to comment, “Nobody comes to West Berlin anymore.” In 2019, Germans marked the 30th anniversary of the “mauer fall” with a splashy light show, concert and fireworks at the Brandenburg Gate — and mixed feelings.
Walk down the Kufürstendamm and imagine what it must have been like on the night when thousands of East Germans got their first look at the capitalist world. The grand department store KaDeWe was the symbol of consumerism on the Ku’damm. It still boasts a splendid food hall on the top floor. East Germans received 100 German marks as a “welcome” dividend and quickly became the targets of scam artists as they raced to spend it. The two Germanys were economically joined by the Deutschmark in 1990 with formal reunification coming a few months later.
After 30 years, a psychological East-West divide persists. Some “Ossis” in the East are nostalgic for the communist system, which guaranteed jobs in the absence of freedom. Some “Wessis” are alarmed by the rise of the rightwing “Alternative for Germany” (AFD) party, particularly in places where Easterners feel that capitalism has left them behind. Eastern resentment has been fueled by Germany’s decision to admit vast numbers of Middle Eastern migrants in 2015 with generous welfare benefits.
To hear another side of the story, I toured an immigrant neighborhood with someone who escaped the war in Syria. We shared Middle Eastern food in a restaurant filled with newcomers, hungry for a taste of their homeland.
RIAS BERLIN KOMMISSION
I visited Berlin as a fellow of the RIAS Berlin Kommission. Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) was established by the U.S. government after World War II to broadcast news to those behind the iron curtain. Following Germany’s reunification, RIAS established a German-American exchange program to promote understanding between journalists and students in both countries. For more information on how to apply, click here.
Terry’s Travel Tips
When to Visit: Summer is the most crowded time to visit Berlin. In November, we braved clouds, chilly temperatures and rain typical for Northern Europe. In December you’ll be able to enjoy the charming Christmas markets, which started to pop up while we were there.
Planning your trip: I’d allow at least three full days for Berlin. In addition to the Wall, you’ll want to explore the antiquities on Museum Island. Dive into the dark history of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at the Topography of Terror. Remember the Holocaust at an outdoor memorial only steps away from Hitler’s Berlin bunker, now a parking lot. Learn about the East German secret police at the Stasi Museum or by visiting the Stasi prison depicted in the Oscar-winning movie “The Lives of Others.”
Plan ahead to climb the clear dome of the Reichstag parliament building for a splendid overview. Admission is free but advance registration on the website is required. I’d highly recommend a day trip to Potsdam, the former royal resort town where the allies met to carve up Europe after World War II.
Language, Currency and Safety: English is widely spoken. Germany is in the Euro zone. Germany is generally a safe country but hang on to your purse in crowded public areas or nightclubs. I had two friends who were robbed of their purses on different trips and some Germans believe attacks on women are under-reported in the media. Always be aware of your surroundings; the Christmas Market on the Ku’damm was the scene of a terrorist truck bomb attack in 2016 that killed 12 people. You’ll notice tight security at any crowded public event.
Getting there and around: I took a cheap flight on Easy Jet from Ljubljana in Slovenia, landing at Shönefeld Airport and getting into Berlin by the S-9 train. Don’t forget to check the fares and package deals on CheapoAir. Most international fights arrive at Tegel Airport, connected to the city by bus. There are train connections to the rest of Germany.
The efficient transit system of subway and light rail trains is fairly easy to use. My 7-day pass cost 30 euros. Be sure to have cash euros in your pocket when you arrive at the airport and buy your ticket from a machine. Keep your ticket with you due to random police checks; we were only checked once during a weeklong visit.
We avoided the buses, which were harder to figure out and slow because of the area around the Brandenburg Gate being blocked off for the Wall celebration. You don’t need a car in Berlin, but consider Auto Europe if you plan to drive around the rest of Germany. Click on the ad at the top of the page to reserve before you leave the USA.
What to Eat: In the land of wiener schnitzel, being a vegetarian can be challenging. Many Germans prefer Italian cuisine to the heavier German dishes. The variety of ethnic restaurants from Middle Eastern to Vietnamese guarantees something for every taste. Meat lovers should definitely try the currywurst and döner kebabs, the most popular street foods. For an elegant old-world breakfast or dinner, my German friends recommended Cafe Einstein Stammhaus near my West Berlin hotel.
Where to Stay: I stayed near the KaDeWe Department store in West Berlin, an area of low-cost trendy hotels like Motel One, Tiergarten. The high-end choice on the boulevard Unter den Linden near the Brandenburg Gate is the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, where pop star Michael Jackson famously dangled his infant son from a balcony in 2002. Thank you for clicking on the Trip Advisor links in this post to book your hotel and support this blog. I’ll get a small commission at no additional cost to you.
More World War II Secrets: Check out this post on The Crow’s Flight. The greatest POW escape of World War II took place in Nazi-occupied Maribor in what is now Slovenia. Watch an interview with the son of the man who led more than 100 POWs to freedom with the help of brave partisan fighters in Slovenia. One of my relatives may have been among them!
Want more inside stories and travel planning tips? Like @strangersinthelivingroom on Facebook, and sign up for the occasional email when there is a new post here on the blog. You can follow Terry Anzur on Instagram,Twitterand Pinterest. I’m in the top 1% of Trip Advisor, and you can read all of my reviews @strangersblog on the Trip Advisor feed. Don’t be a stranger!