Berlin was a city of separation. It has a rather unique past in modern world history as the city was divided into two after World War II. West Berlin became a de facto exclave of West Germany after the war, and East Berlin was declared the capital of East Germany. The Berlin Wall was set up as a border from 1961 to 1989, until German reunification in 1990, Berlin once again became the capital of all of Germany (and Bonn had been the capital of West Germany for almost 30 years).
What we know about the Berlin Wall
In the early hours of August 13, 1961, East German construction workers flanked by soldiers and police began tearing up streets and erecting barriers throughout the city of Berlin and its surroundings. This night marked the beginning of one of history’s most infamous dividing lines – the Berlin Wall. Check this map as it defines the area of West and East Berlin.
Construction on the wall continued for the next decade as it cut through neighborhoods, separated families, and divided not just Germany, but the world. After World War II, America Britain, and France joined forces against the Axis Powers. After they defeated Nazi Germany, each of the victorious nations occupied part of the country. The division was meant to be temporary, but the former allies found themselves at odds over their visions for post-war Europe. While Western powers promoted liberal market economies, the Soviet Union sought to surround itself with obedient Communist nations, including a weakened Germany. As the relations deteriorated, the Federal Republic of Germany was formed in the West, while the Soviets established the German Democratic Republic in the East. The Soviet satellite countries restricted Western trade and movement, so a virtually impassable border formed. It became known as the Iron Curtain.
In the former German capital of Berlin, things were particularly complicated. Although the city lay fully within the East German territory of the GDR, the post-war agreement gave the allies joint administration. So America, Britain, and France created a Democratic enclave in Berlin’s western districts. While East Germans were officially banned from leaving the country, in Berlin, it was simply a matter of walking or riding a subway, streetcar, or bus, to the Western half, then traveling on to West Germany or beyond. This open border posed a problem for the East German leadership.
They had staked a claim to represent the Communist resistance against Hilter and portrayed Western Germany as a continuation of the Nazi regime. While the US and its allies poured money into West Germany’s reconstruction, the Soviet Union extracted resources from the East as war reparations, making its planned economy even less competitive. Life in East Germany passed under the watchful eye of the Stasi, the secret police whose wiretaps and informants monitored citizens for any hint of disloyalty. While there was free healthcare and education in the East, the West boasted higher salaries, more consumer goods, and greater personal freedom. By 1961, about 3.5 million, nearly 20% of the East German population, had left, including many young professionals. To prevent further losses, East Germany decided to close the border, and that’s where the Berlin Wall came in. Extending for 43 kilometers through Berlin, and a further 112 through East Germany, the initial barrier consisted of barbed wire and mesh fencing. Some Berliners escaped by jumping over the wire or leaping from windows, but as the wall expanded, this became more difficult.
By 1965, 106 kilometers of 3.6-meter-high concrete barricades had been added topped with a smooth pipe to prevent climbing. Over the coming years, the barrier was strengthened with spike strips, guard dogs, and even landmines, along with 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers. A parallel in the rear set off a 100-meter area called the death strip. There, all buildings were demolished and the ground was covered with sand to provide a clear line of sight for the hundreds of guards ordered to shoot anyone attempting to cross. Nevertheless, nearly 5000 people in total managed to flee East Germany between 1961 and 1989. Some were diplomats or athletes who defected while abroad, but others were ordinary citizens who dug tunnels, swam across canals, flew hot air balloons, or even crashed a stolen tank through the wall. Yet the risk was great. Over 138 people died while attempting to escape. Some shot in full view of West Germans powerless to help them. The wall stabilized East Germany’s economy by preventing its workforce from leaving, but tarnished its reputation, becoming a global symbol of Communist repression.
As part of reconciliation with the East, the Basic Treaty of 1972 recognized East Germany pragmatically while West Germany retained its hope for eventual reunification. Although the Eastern regime gradually allowed family visits, it tried to discourage people from exercising these rights with an arduous bureaucratic process and high fees. Nonetheless, it was still overwhelmed by applications. By the end of the 1980’s the liberalization of other Eastern Bloc regimes caused mass demonstrations for free travel and demands for democracy. On the evening of November 9, 1989, East Germany tried to defuse tension by making travel permits easier to obtain. But the announcement brought thousands of East Berliners to the border crossing points in the wall, forcing the surprised guards to open the gates immediately. Rejoicing crowds poured into West Berlin as people from both sides danced atop the wall. And others began to demolish it with whatever tools they could find. Although the border guards initially tried to maintain order, it was soon clear that the years of division were at an end. After four decades, Germany was officially reunified in October 1990. And the Soviet Union fell soon after. Today parts of the wall still stand as a reminder of this part of the city’s past.
After that, in a very short period of time, Berlin quickly re-established itself as a world city of culture, politics, media, and science (Except for the new airport that was finally opened, after a nine-year delay due to planning issues, construction, management, and corruption – it was finally opened during the covid-19 pandemic in October 2020). The city has advanced development in various industries and technologies, it is also a popular destination for tourists.
While Berlin has a lot of hip cafes, designer stores, and classic art galleries and museums to visit, here are the five must-dos, especially for Berlin first-timers, to check out before leaving Berlin.
East Side Gallery & Trabi Safari
The wall was once the border that separated East and West Germany, that isolated West Germany from the rest of the world. It was built in 1961 and then symbolically, was fallen in 1989. Today, lots of tourists in Berlin will ask “Where is the Berlin Wall?” and “Am I now in East Berlin, or West Berlin?”
The wall was built because Germany was split into East and West, and East Germany was under the control of the communist Soviet government.
Before the fall of the wall, the wall was the canvas of many graffiti artists in West Germany. Only part of the wall was left to memorize this historic event, and the longest part of the wall that was left here is at the East Side Gallery, stretching from Oberbaumbrucke to the Ostbahnhof station, 1.3 kilometers long. 106 artists were involved in the decoration of the wall and opened to the public on September 28, 1990.
The most iconic graffiti (and the most featured), is “Brotherly Kiss” by Soviet artist Dmitri Vrubel, “Fatherland” by former West German artist Gunther Schaefer, and “Berlin? New York” by former East German artist Gerhard Lahr. Some of these graffiti were also repainted and refurbished in 2000 after 10 years of being exposed outdoors.
Berlin is a cool and hip city and it has a place in the world’s stage of technology development and design. Having said that, Trabant (or Trabi), manufactured by GDR’s VEB Sachsenring, are compact “mini cooper” that made us hardly believe it was a German design. Most drivers needed to scooch down entering the car, yet almost every family in East Germany owned one of these. Today, Trabant still has a great market for vintage car lovers and collectors, especially those painted in vibrant colors. Many of these cars were used decades ago, and tour agencies bought them and refurbished them with bright colors. Old tires, fur chairs, and radios still remained, and the hippies look drivers take tourists on this ride to explore Berlin in Style.
Moving away from the wall, Checkpoint Charlie is another location that is a must-see in Berlin. This is the landmark boundary marking East and West Berlin. There were three checkpoints between 1961 and 1990, and Checkpoint Charlie is one of them, being the only gate people can enter or exit the two areas in the city.
The photos on the pole at the Checkpoint today were designed by Frank Thiel in 1998, dedicated to the event when the Soviet and American tanks faced each other in 1961.
On both sides of the Street Friedrichstraße are the Wall Museum and the Checkpoint Charlie Gallery. The Wall Museum showcases historic photos, items, and information about the post-WWII history of Germany. While we witnessed what actually stood there, on-site at the East Gallery, we gained a much deeper understanding of the political environment in Europe through these exhibits.
The sky canopy is located in the financial district in Berlin at the Potsdamer Platz. This is the headquarter of Sony and gradually, the entire area is named after this building. The open area is connected by seven commercial buildings, with dining and entertainment facilities like IMAX theatre, outdoor bars, Museum of Film and Television, Legoland discovery center, shopping center, and more.
Potsdamer was once a busy intersection before WWII, and then it was seriously damaged post-war. The district was then located right on the border of East and West Berlin, becoming part of the “No Man’s Land” of the Berlin Wall, until the fall of the wall eventually had this place rebuilt as a modern business center. There is a wall outside the Potsdamer Platz train station that showcases photos of the Berlin Wall decades ago, with a line on the ground that indicates the location of East and West. For a stunning view of Berlin, climb up the observatory in Kollhoff-Tower. It claims to have the fastest elevator in Europe.
The iconic glass dome was created by the world-renowned architect, Norman Foster. Reichstag, or the Parliament, was an old landmark in the city and the dome was a new addition to this historic building as if a crystal ball emerges on top of the roof.
The parliament was originally built in 1894 and then refurbished in the 1960s after being seriously damaged during World War II. This is the location where the German reunification ceremony took place on Oct 3, 1990. A year after, it was once again the parliament of the country when Berlin was decided to be the capital city.
Do you know that David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and Michael Jackson were here on the lawn of the Parliament performing in a concert in 1987?
In June 1987, a three-day concert was held in front of the Reichstag in West Germany with a lineup including David Bowie, The Eurythmics & Genesis. The speaker was turning to the loudest and people in East Berlin gathered near to hear the music.
Norman Foster won the bidding of a contest in 1992 and renovated the building with a brand new, stunning feature at the top – a large glass dome that opens to the public and offers a panoramic view of Berlin.
Access to the dome is free, however, visitors must sign up for a guided tour beforehand. This is a sought-after attraction and so it is recommended to register at least a few days in advance. The tour includes entry to both the dome and the roof terrace, with an informative guided audio tour and a photo display regarding the history of the building, which takes about an hour to complete.
The word means “Museum Island”, and it’s located on River Spree, consisting of five important museums: Alte Nationalgalerie, Altes Museum, Bodemuseum, Neues Museum, and Pergamonmuseum. The museums are located close to each other and it takes less than 30 minutes to walk between them. Many of the buildings were damaged during the war, and it was revitalized until recent decades and reopened to the public.
Alte Museum: Designed by Karl Friedrich in 1830, the museum has a spectacular dome at the top of the ceiling, and the museum showcases sculptures, notably, showcases items from ancient Egypt and the ancient Roman Empire.
Altes Nationalgalerie: The museum has an impressive collection of paintings and art pieces in the 19th century. The building was designed by Friedrich August Stüler. The staircase at the entrance of the museum and the statue of William IV are popular photo-taking spots.
Bodemuseum: The building is located at the tip of the island and very close to the shore. It is a Baroque-style building with a magnificent dome on top. The collection of the museum includes artifacts from the Byzantine Empire and ancient Greece.
Neues Museum: The museum is also designed by F.A. Stüler and the theme of this museum is ancient Egypt, and human history in pre-historic times.
Pergamonmuseum: This is the most popular museum among the five museums on the island, and also the latest addition. The building was completed in 1930 and many of the heritages from Mesopotamia were brought here, from the Pergamon Altar in Turkey, and the Ishtar Gate in Iraq.
Surrounding Museumsinsel, many of the city landmarks are located in this area that leads to Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin Cathedral is also nearby. To me, I had a great time at the DDR Museum, and I will introduce more about these places in my next post. 🙂