Robert Hampton

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8th June 2012

Wall to Wall
Posted by at 12.39am | 4 responses | Out and About

Checkpoint Charlie "You Are Entering The American Sector" signMy history lessons in school were heavy on Germanic stuff. World War II featured prominently, of course, but I was always slightly more fascinated by the post-war era, particularly the political situation that led to the division of Germany and the erection of the Berlin Wall.

Die Berliner Mauer carved its way through the city, separating West Berlin from the country of East Germany entirely. It wasn’t a neat separation, as the wall zig-zagged and wiggled its way through the streets to reflect the borders of the post-war occupation zones. Roads were blocked and railway lines severed. People living on the same street found themselves separated from their neighbours. The only access to and from West Berlin was via a handful of road, rail and air corridors. For East Germans and East Berliners, crossing the border was deliberately made as difficult as possible.

Berlin WallUS President Reagan’s demand to the Soviet authorities (“Tear down this wall!”) was belatedly acted upon in 1989. 23 years later, there is little of the Wall left, and what remains is in various states of decay.

Reunification and reconstruction has removed most of the physical evidence of The Wall but it still makes its presence felt in some ways. There are still two distinct “city centres” recognisable in East and West Berlin. To this day, the city’s tram network abruptly stops at the former border (The West Berlin authorities abandoned trams while East Berlin retained them), although there are plans to extend it into the West.

My knowledge of the Berlin Wall was largely limited to that gleaned from playing the eponymous Scenario in SimCity 3000 (which, as it turns out, is not accurate). In order to rectify this, Andrew and I set out to find ourselves some Cold War relics.

Our journey started at the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, which was one of the few border crossings between East and West Berlin, for those fortunate enough to obtain the appropriate travel documents.

Checkpoint Charlie Checkpoint Charlie

What was once a potent symbol of the Iron Curtain is now a tourist trap. Where armed border guards once stood, grinning tourists pose for photos with actors in military uniform. For the princely sum of €2 visitors can have a souvenir “visa” stamped in their passport – surely defacing an official document in this way isn’t legal?

Embedded in the pavement is a strip showing the route of the wall. The intention, as I understand it, is to eventually depict the entire length of the wall in this way. A set of information boards nearby depicted the history of the Wall in the context of the cold war. The Berlin Airlift and The Cuban Missile Crisis were prominent – for a moment I was catapulted back to school history lessons, only this time without the crotchety Mr Sutcliffe losing his rag at the slightest provocation.

Pavement strip showing line of wall Checkpoint Charlie information board

A short walk away, on Niederkirchnerstraße, we encountered one of the few significant chunks of wall still standing.

Berlin Wall remnant parallel to Niederkirchnerstraße

Until 1989 this was one side of the feared “death strip”. Beyond the wall itself was No Man’s Land, patrolled by East German border guards with orders to shoot on sight anyone who tried to flee across the wall. Now, it looks slightly pathetic; the concrete has been worn away by successive souvenir hunters, revealing the rusting steel underneath. In a final ironic twist, what’s left of the wall here has been fenced off to protect it.

Hampo in front of the Berlin Wall

We continued on to Potsdamer Platz. In the 1920s this had been one of Berlin’s trendiest areas. After the war, however, the Wall cut straight through it, leaving it largely as waste ground. It has now been totally redeveloped, with new skyscrapers housing the corporate headquarters of Sony Europe and Deutsche Bahn amongst others.

A few small fragments of wall have been preserved here too. I’m not sure if the hundreds of pieces of chewing gum on the left wall section are authentic or have been added later.

Berlin Wall fragments at Potsdamer Platz

Not far away, there is the Brandenburg Gate, an imposing structure which for many years was cruelly sequestered behind barbed wire. The Gate is forever etched in my memory as being the backdrop for so many of the news reports at the time the Wall fell. As a seven-year-old, I didn’t fully understand what was going on, but the scenes of jubilation as East and West embraced left a lasting impression. No dancing Berliners today though, you’ll just have to make do with one awkward Scouser.

Brandenburg Gate

Near the gate, at the north end of Ebertstraße, there is a memorial cross, dedicated to those who were killed trying to flee to the West. It’s hard to conceive how desperate these people must have felt to risk their lives trying to get across the border.

Berlin Wall Memorial

We continued towards the fringe of the city centre, passing various government buildings, including the Reichstag and Bundestag. After a brief walk along the bank of the River Spree, we ended up at the edge of the city centre, near the shiny new railway station, Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

Berlin Wall in InvalidenfriedhofA quick dash across the busy Invalidenstraße and we were in the Invalid’s Cemetery, one of the oldest graveyards in Berlin.

In the 1960s, the Berlin Wall cut right through this cemetery, and many of the gravestones were toppled or destroyed to ensure that the guards had a clear line of sight. A short section of the Wall is still in situ and preserved, in much better condition than the sections we saw elsewhere.

A cycle path runs through the cemetery, and we were constantly jumping out of the way. The Berlin authorities have created The Berlin Wall Trail, a well signposted route making it possible to walk almost the entire length of the wall, and it was this that we were now following.

Watchtower surrounded by new apartmentsBeyond the cemetery, there is lots of new development taking place. Among the new apartment buildings, looking rather incongruous, stood an old watchtower. It is allegedly open to the public, but was sadly closed when we passed.

We pressed on. I have to admit I was feeling slightly tired by this point. We had been walking for several hours and, as interesting as our little tour had been, my aching feet were starting to annoy me. The stretch we were on at this point did not offer much in the way of interest; modern buildings were all around, obliterating any trace of the former wall.

Berlin Wall undergrowthThe exception was a small section we saw poking out from some undergrowth near a railway bridge, almost as if someone had forgotten to demolish it.

We had definitely left the city centre by this point and were in a residential area. The occasional Berliner Mauerweg sign reassured us that we were still on the right track.

Following these signs, we turned back towards the city centre and reached our next stop – Bernauer Straße, where a long stretch of wall stands, reasonably well-preserved.

Residents of this street found themselves in a particularly sad situation when the city was partitioned – their homes were in the East, but their front doors opened onto a street in the West. In August 1961 there were horrific scenes as some people jumped out of windows; three people lost their lives attempting to escape to freedom this way. The East German authorities later evicted the residents and pulled the flats down to prevent any further incidents.

Berlin Wall on Bernauer Straße

It’s an appropriate site for the Berlin Wall Memorial, an ongoing project to construct a permanent museum and monument to the Wall. We entered one part of the memorial: the grounds of the Church of Reconciliation, a chapel which found itself in No Man’s Land when the Wall was built. The original church was demolished by East Germany in 1985. A new chapel has since been constructed.

The former No Man’s Land at this site is now an open-air exhibition. We weren’t aware of it at the time, but this appears to be brand new for 2012 (Google Street View shows a building site here). Parts of the Church’s foundations have been excavated, and a few remaining bits of the inner wall are on show. Note, in the picture below-left, the giant street lights, which brightly illuminated the length of the wall to ensure that no-one could slip across under cover of darkness.

Site of Chapel of Reconciliation Berlin Wall remnants at Chapel of Reconciliation

We could have continued, but by this time it was getting late and we decided to call it a day. It had been a great afternoon. To see, up close and in person, these sites which played such a huge role in 20th century history, was an amazing experience.

There was one further surprise waiting for us. We headed for the nearby S-Bahn station at Nordbahnhof to catch a train back into town. After getting a Station Master tribute shot, we headed inside.

The first thing I noticed was a brass strip in the floor at the station doorway, similar to that marking the Berlin Wall. This one, however was labelled “SPERRMAUER 1961-1989” and indicated where the station entrance was walled up. It became clear that this was one of the notorious “Ghost Stations” created as a result of the East/West divide.

Hampo in front of S-Bahn Nordbahnhof Sperrmauer 1961-1989

As already mentioned, the building of the Wall caused disruption to railway services in the city. Some railway lines were simply severed, with services split into “West” and “East” lines. Some lines could not be dealt with so easily, however, as they criss-crossed between East and West.

The North-South line on which Nordbahnhof lies is a case in point – it linked two important parts of West Berlin, but crossed East Berlin en route. Therefore all the stations in East Berlin were closed, with trains passing through non-stop. The station entrances were bricked up, and armed guards stood sentry over the abandoned platforms.

Nordbahnhof was one of four such stations on this section of route. It closed on 19 August 1961 and finally reopened on 1 September 1990.

A permanent exhibition has now been installed in the station (part of the aforementioned Berlin Wall Memorial) detailing some of the history of the Ghost Stations, along with some period signage.

Nordbahnhof ghost station display Nordbahnhof original signs

The awkward situation with the ghost stations (labelled on maps of the time as “stations where trains do not stop”) is one of many aspects of life in Cold War Berlin which seem incredible to modern eyes. Yet this, along with so many other things, seems to have gradually became accepted (however reluctantly) as a fact of life. In the 1980s, did the typical commuter trundling through Nordbahnhof on his commute even register the dimly-lit platforms flashing past his train window, or what they symbolised?

As we rumbled through the tunnel back to our starting point, I pondered how many times we had casually crossed from East to West today while following the Wall’s course. We take freedom of movement for granted, but it’s sobering to think that a little over two decades ago that freedom was restricted for many people.

The Wall is an extraordinary part of 20th century history, but definitely one that is best consigned to the dustbin of history. I’m sure Berliners do not miss it one bit.

Well, actually, that’s not true – if this graffiti is accurate, at least one person still feels a certain nostalgia for it…

"Rebuilt the Wall"

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4 Responses
  1. Comment by Luke O'Rourke
    8th June 2012 at 6:50 am

    Hello from Canberra Australia, I love reading your blog. In Canberra there is a piece of the Berlin Wall outside our German social club not many people know it’s there. When I found out it was I was suprised there is a piece of the wall in my city. Many thanks for this interesting blog post about the wall. I aim to to take photos of our section of wall and upload to my flickr ( for the world to see.

  2. Comment by Robert
    8th June 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Thanks Luke! Just been checking out your Flickr page, some interesting stuff there.

  3. Comment by Steve
    9th June 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Just finished reading your latest post. It was very interesting and informative.
    I haven’t yet been to Berlin, so haven’t seen ‘The Wall’ in situ, but it’s on my list of places to visit.
    I have seen some sections though. There are a few set up as a memorial in the trees behind the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I at Deutches Eck in Koblenz.

  4. Comment by Tredwell Stairs
    12th June 2012 at 12:08 am

    I don’t think I’ve ever met an Englishman who isn’t absolutely taken with Berlin once they’ve been. The fantastic U-bahn and S-bahn networks hel, of course.

    Although I do have sonme German friends in Baden-Wurtemburg who don’t like Berlin at all – apparently it’s ‘too dirty’.