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Behind the Berlin Wall: 9 sites for tracing history

I grew up in a divided city.

I grew up in a city where it was impossible for us to enter half of the city. Where I would be on suburban trains, look at high-rise buildings in the distance and wonder what was so special about that part of my city that I wasn’t allowed to go there.

I grew up in Berlin.

My city has now changed beyond recognition from the place of my childhood but there are reminders of its divided past along the tourist track as well as off it.

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Concrete blocks that once formed part of the Berlin Wall

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A Crumbling Wall: Berlin in 1989

East Germany was a country of civil unrest in 1989. In the summer of that year, people were leaving en masse to the West via Czechoslovakia and Hungary, churches became centres of peaceful protests against a totalitarian and unjust regime, and people were taking to the streets in protest, which often escalated into violence.

I was still in primary school at the time. When school started again in September, a couple of my classmates were missing. Over the next few months, one or two more disappeared as their families fled to the West.

The wall finally came down on 9 November 1989. But I missed that actual moment in history when Günter Schabowski, socialist party official, made the fatal error on live TV and announced that travel restrictions would henceforth be relaxed. Because I happily slept through that Thursday night, it was a school night after all.

By Saturday hardly any children were left in school. I was one of the few whose parents felt no need to take them out of school only because the wall was crumbling.

In those days, school finished at lunchtime on Saturdays, and that first Saturday I was beyond excited to finally find out what was up with those white high-rise buildings. Not much actually as I later found out.

So after school we made our way to the checkpoint at Sonnenallee in the district of Neukölln, and joined the throngs of people dead set on crossing into West Berlin. I don’t remember how long it took but it would have been hours being squished together with thousands of people before we got our ID cards examined and stamped.

By the way, those exotically white high-rise buildings turned out to be nothing more than apartment buildings. They seemed a lot more glamorous from afar.

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Markers commemorating the Berlin Wall along Bernauer Strasse

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Growing up

The early 1990s were years of massive upheaval, not just politically but also for us as a family. Plus I was growing into an irritated and highly annoying teenager who always knew better.

With the lifting of the travel restrictions and an unraveling political system came a new currency a mere 7 months later. By October 1990, the two Germanys were reunified, and we faced completely new ideological and political systems, ways of thinking and social expectations.

My parents both lost their jobs, as did my grandfather. And like everyone around us, we were trying to make sense of our new-found freedom full of blinding choices, consumerism, and an uncertain future.

Living behind the Iron Curtain was nowhere near as grim for me as a child as it no doubt was for some others. As a child I had no idea what was going on beyond being scared stiff to touch the wall, not ever getting any shiny presents from West German relatives (we had none), and having some awareness that we couldn’t just travel anywhere. That didn’t really affect me so much though since my summer holidays were mostly just about not having to go to school.

Maybe because I spent my formative years in a divided then reunified city, or maybe paradoxically because I moved far away, I still find East German history fascinating. Some people want to leave it all behind whilst others have become extremely nostalgic, suffering from Ostalgie (nostalgia for the former East).

For me, it’s just a part of who I am. One part of that complex, fragmented identity that makes me me.

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9 Places for Tracing the Divided Berlin

Life in East Germany was neither horrendously bad nor was it all fantastic. In some ways, it was just the life we had and you got on with it.

But for some, the only option was fleeing the repressive regime and leaving everything behind in the hope of a better life.

If you’re keen to trace some East German, Iron Curtain or Soviet history in Berlin, here are some ideas. Some are more popular with tourists than others. I haven’t actually been to all of them yet, something for my Berlin bucket list.

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1. Gedenkstätte Bernauer Strasse (Berlin Wall Memorial)

Bernauer Strasse in Mitte district became infamous after 1961 when the wall was erected directly in front of apartment blocks. Over night, it divided a street into East and West Berlin. Hundreds of residents were later resettled.

This was also where the first fatalities at the Wall occurred.

Today, the Gedenkstätte Bernauer Strasse serves as a stark reminder of the divided city with a few remaining pieces of the actual Berlin Wall left. Expanded over several years, the memorial now stretches along a 1.4 km walk, and includes a section with a guard tower and fortifications, a documentation centre, the Chapel of Reconciliation, and photographic plaques commemorating fatalities at the Wall.

If you only have time for one museum, make it this one. Everybody visits the East Side Gallery. But at Bernauer Strasse, you’ll get a real insight into what the Wall looked and felt like.

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Overlooking a section of the border strip as of 1989

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Guard tower

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Commemorating normal people like Erna Kelm who died fleeing across the Wall in 1962

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Exposed fortification structures of the actual wall

Because the memorial is open-air and stretches for over a kilometre, you can meander around and it doesn’t tend to get too crowded along there (though the documentation centre might).

For more information, including opening hours to the documentation centre (free admission), check the Berlin Wall Memorial website.

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2. Museum für Staatssicherheit (Ministry of State Security Museum / Stasi Museum)

Like any totalitarian regimes, East Germany had a well-oiled “state security” apparatus. The headquarters of the former secret police now house a museum dedicated to documenting the incredible sinister impact the Stasi (short for Staatssicherheit ‘state security’) had on the general population. Some of the offices, including notorious head of the Stasi Erich Mielke, are well-preserved and give you a real insight into communist interior design.

This one is high on my list of must-sees on my next visit to the homeland.

Stasimuseum Berlin

Inside the Stasimuseum | Photo credit: throgers via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

More information, including details on the daily guided tours, can be found on the Stasimuseum website.

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3. Mauermuseum (Checkpoint Charlie Museum)

I’ve only been to the Mauermuseum (known in English as Checkpoint Charlie Museum or Wall Museum) once, back in 1999. I remember finding it quite interesting, especially since I had no idea of the ingenious ideas people came up with in order to escape.

The museum is privately run and was first established in 1962. It’s really all about showcasing artifacts and sharing stories of people fleeing East Germany. Though a little bit on the sensationalist (entertaining?) side, it’s amassed quite a collection, including hot-air balloons and escape cars.

And since it’s right next to famous Checkpoint Charlie, it’s also extremely popular with tourists so expect queues.

View of Checkpoint Charlie and the Mauermuseum | Photo credit: Eintracht123 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

For more information, including buying tickets online, check the Mauermuseum website.

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 4. Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen (State Security Prison Memorial)

The Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen houses the former main Staatssicherheit (state security) prison. It’s a grim place and not one that’s on the tourist trail. Located in the district of Hohenschönhausen, you’ll have to catch public transport to get there.

It’s best visited on a tour (yes, they offer guided tours in English), which are often taken by former inmates. They’ll tell you about interrogation methods (not pleasant) and prison conditions in general. They’ll lead you into bunker-like prison cells, isolation chambers, interrogation rooms where you can literally taste the horrors of political oppression and persecution.

Much of the furniture and interior has been preserved, which really give you a sense of the isolation, bleakness and hopelessness that many inmates must have felt.

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Entrance to the prison in Genslerstrasse

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One of the many bleak cells complete with the typical inmate uniform

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Prison corridors

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Starkly furnished interrogation rooms that made it difficult for inmates to tell the time (the curtains were usually drawn)

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I visited in 2009 and our tour probably had some 10 people on it. Obviously that was a few years ago and it’s more “popular” these days. And by popular I mean half a million visitors a year, most of them school groups.

To find out more about the guided tours and how to get there, check out the Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen website.

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5. Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears)

One of the few border crossings in Berlin, the Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears) is another memorial site documenting the divided Berlin. It was here where East/West relatives said goodbye to each other and thus the place became aptly known as the Palace of Tears checkpoint.

Today it houses a permanent exhibition and offers guided tours in both English and German (plus other languages if you book ahead). You can learn more about checkpoint procedures and checkpoint surveillance in general.

But best of all, admission is free and it’s super accessible being right next to the Friedrichsstrasse train station in the heart of the city.

Hard to believe I’ve never been. Another divided history site for my next Berlin visit!

Tränenpalast Berlin

The entrance to the Checkpoint Tränenpalast right behind Friedrichstrasse station | Photo credit: mompl via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tränenpalast Berlin

Checkpoint signage | Photo credit: mompl via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

More information is on the Tränenpalast website.

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7. DDR Museum (Museum of East Germany)

So here’s a fun one!

If you’ve had enough of the serious, sinister and heartbreaking side of East German life, poke around the DDR Museum. It’s got lots of artifacts that you can get all touch-y feel-y with, including hopping into a typical East German car, the Trabant or Trabbi for short, or sitting down in a comfy chair to admire the beauty of East German interior design.

It’s seriously interactive, and one of the few places where it might be fun to take kids!

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Some childhood friends…

Ok, I’ve only got really terrible photos from way back when so you’ll need to go and have a look yourself. Or just take a peek at the DDR Museum website.

And by the way, these days it gets pretty busy so book tickets online and zoom past the queues and jump into that Trabbi in no time!

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6. East Side Gallery

This one hardly needs any explanation because EVERY SINGLE BERLIN TOURIST visits this famous landmark. I haven’t been to the East Side Gallery in years, and I’m not that interested in walking along this stretch of the Wall with tons of other people.

I know it’s actual Berlin Wall but the original paintings have more or less disappeared. It’s been painted over and over, restored a few times, and now reminds me nothing of what it was like in the early 1990s. Back then it was a symbol of hope, of free expression, of euphoria, of a chance of a better life. I still remember some of the iconic images.

Now it’s just touristy.

You can see people meandering along this stretch of the Wall as your train rattles by on its way to and from Ostbahnhof station.

East Side Gallery (original photo taken 25 July 1991) | Photo credit: Joachim F. Thurn, German Federal Archive (CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE)

But, of course, go and see it for yourself. After all, it is a piece of the Berlin Wall (and it’s free!).

More info on the East Side Gallery website.

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8. Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate)

Yep, it’s the symbol of a historic Germany, of a divided Germany and of a reunified Germany.

It’s Prussian, it’s grand, and I remember it with guards patrolling in front of it.

I’ve seen it a hundred times and I still don’t get sick of it. One of these days when I’m in Berlin, I will get up very, very early and take photos of it without any people milling about. Or maybe I’ll be too lazy like always…

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9. KGB Gefängnis Potsdam (KGB Prison)

If you want to venture further afield and get totally off the tourist trail, take a day trip to Potsdam and have a look around the former Soviet KGB Prison. The full name is actually the Central Remand Prison for Soviet Military Counter-Intelligence but that’s a bit of a mouthful so let’s just call it the KGB Prison.

It’s only been open for a few years, and documents some of the Soviet military counter-intelligence activities in East Germany. Like the Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen, it’s a grim, cold and depressing sort of place. Prisoners were usually Soviet military personnel, and if they received a trial at all, were either sentenced to death or sent to the Gulags in Siberia.

Whilst you won’t while away hours and hours, if you want to look behind the Iron Curtain and learn more about Soviet interrogation techniques and torture methods, this is your place.

Keep in mind that it’s only open in the afternoons and you may want to plan some fun adventure in Potsdam after.

At the entrance to the KGB Prison | Photo credit: jbdodane via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Admission is free though for a small fee, you can organise a guided tour. More details, including how to get there, is on the Gedenkstätte website.

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Lastly, if you want to traipse around with a group, I’ve heard some good stuff about Context Tours and their Walking the Berlin Wall tour. Whilst not cheap at €85 p/p, with a max of six people on the tour, I’d imagine it’s pretty good value.

So, happy tracing the Berlin Wall and learning more about Berlin’s past as a divided city!

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The East Side Gallery isn't the only place to trace some East German, Iron Curtain or Soviet history in Berlin. There are plenty of other options to step behind the Berlin Wall. Here are some ideas for finding out more about Berlin's past as a divided city. 🌐 Queensland & Beyond

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15 Comments

  1. Mir ist das mit der Mauer immer so fern, weil ich mich ja nicht mehr dran erinnern kann, dass ich immer vergesse, dass du das noch so richtig miterlebt hast. Deine Einleitung fand ich richtig schön und spannend. Ich habe das Gefühl da haben wir noch nie wirklich drüber geredet und ich wusste viel davon gar nicht, also von deinen persönlichen Erfahrungen. Irgendwie konnte ich mir das aber auch im letzten Jahr zum ersten Mal so richtig vergegenwärtigen, dass ihr da gelebt habt und was für eine Einschränkung das war und wie seltsam die Vorstellung heutzutage ist.

    Reply
    • Hm, ja, kann ich verstehen, dass dir das mit der Mauer nicht so bewusst ist. War schon komisch, aber ich bin irgendwie echt froh, dass ich das noch mitgemacht habe. Und ich war so stolz darauf gewesen, Jungpionier zu werden! 🙂

      Ich glaube, da haben wir auch noch nie drueber geredet, dachte eigentlich immer, das interessiert dich jetzt nicht so. 🙂 Wieso hast du dir das im letzten Jahr jetzt mehr vergegenwaertigt?

      Reply
      • Mich hat das früher auch nicht so richtig interessiert, aber eben weil es mir so komplett fremd war und ich mir nie richtig vorgestellt habe wie es war da zu leben und dass meine ganze Familie tatsächlich so gelebt hat. Ich finde gerade “Ost/West” und “Mauer” sind inzwischen (oder für mich bzw. Leute, die es nicht erlebt haben) so leere Phrasen, die hab ich als Kind ständig gehört und wusste irgendwie worum es geht, aber halt auch nicht so richtig. Verstehst du, wie ich meine? Wie so ein Wort, das einfach ist und man versteht es, aber denkt nie über seine tatsächliche Bedeutung nach. “Mauer” klang auch immer nicht so schlimm, also nicht wie “komplett eingesperrt”. Keine Ahnung, warum mir das gerade jetzt so klar geworden ist. Vielleicht was im Fernsehen gesehen und mal länger drüber nachgedacht?

        Reply
  2. Nice selection, I have to say that the more subdued ones were my favourite especially Bernauer Strasse, because you can still grasp the living reality. I still don’t get East side gallery. lasted 10 minutes…The Stasi prison was fascinating, though i would have rather had it given by a local, sadly my german is greetings and numbers only….
    I did have fondness for the Palace of tears, because i had actually used in in 1987 as a tourist, for a day visit to East Berlin…..

    Reply
    • Ok, your mentioning of crossing the border in 1987 made me curious as to your age! (Obviously you don’t need to answer that.) Do you remember what your impressions of East Berlin were at the time? I’ve read a few accounts of people describing the border crossing as very scary, and then East Berlin as drab, sad, grey, depressing, derelict, … I didn’t experience life as drab and grey but I can also understand that coming from a very bright and advertising-heavy West Berlin would make people feel like that. Curious to hear what you remember.

      Ah, interesting about the Stasi prison. I wondered who would be taking the English tours as I expect most former inmates wouldn’t be very fluent in English (though some might scrap some Russian together…).

      And yeah, I don’t quite see the fascination with the East Side Gallery these days either. Back in 1990 it was a bright symbol and expression of newfound freedom and hope, but it’s been painted over so many times now, it’s really lost its appeal and has become one of those tourist traps. And then, there’s this big saga about pulling the piece of the wall down for real estate development – I haven’t caught up with whether that’s actually going ahead or whether courts have stopped this now or what.

      Reply
  3. This post has been on my list to read for ages, so glad I finally did. First, a great list of places to visit, some of which I’ve been to but the rest of which I now desperately want to go to – last time in Berlin my son was a bit too young to be interested in all this but now he’s rapidly becoming a history fanatic and it will be easy to get him to explore this stuff with me.
    But secondly, the intro with your tales of growing up in East Berlin are fascinating. Could you write more about it? Please??

    Reply
    • Oh, Amanda, just realised that I hadn’t actually responded to you! Sorry!!

      From what you’ve mentioned elsewhere, your son sounds like the perfect curious little traveller so I’m positive he’d find some of the museums very interesting! The DDR Museum is a lot of fun – have you been there (by yourself, I mean)?

      I still have some very vivid childhood memories from before the wall but when I think back, the emotions that are trigger by certain places or memories are even stronger. And sometimes I find it hard to reconcile the ultra cool and funky Berlin of today with scenes from life 30 years ago (gosh, saying that has just made me feel really old…). I’d like to write another post about tracing history in eastern Germany but I haven’t explored as much there in recent (well, almost 18 years) as I would now have liked. Time for a Germany trip!!!! 😀

      Reply
  4. Thanks Kati, this was a really fascinating post! It made me realise how little I know about divided Germany, I’d definitely like to hear more of your stories too 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Sam!
      Sorry for the slow response but so glad to hear that you found the post interesting! 🙂 I think not many people in Australia know about Germany’s past as a divided country (beyond some vague ideas about the Cold War and the Wall), it’s just so far away. 🙂 I’ll have to think of some more stories to tell, for sure.

      Thanks heaps for commenting!

      Reply

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