It is more than a little ironic that Berlin’s most popular tourist attraction, for the most part no longer exists! For 28 years, the Berlin Wall symbolised the Cold War and the division of Europe between the democratic and capitalist west, and the communist one-party states of the east, even if the communists did try to proclaim themselves as ‘democratic’ with the official name of the former East Germany being the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR).
Construction of the wall began shortly after midnight on 13th August 1961 when thousands of East German soldiers and police rolled out massive lengths of barbed wire, cutting streets in two and preventing East Germans from travelling into West Berlin. Shortly afterwards, the barbed wire was replaced with a wall made of concrete slabs.
The Berlin Wall was a desperate measure by the East German communists, to stem the population flow from east to west which had seen 3.6 million Germans migrate between the foundation of the DDR in 1949, and the wall being erected in 1961. If the population drain had been allowed to continue, it would have soon brought the DDR to a point of economic and political collapse.
Although very euphemistically entitled the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier’ by the DDR authorities, it was rapidly reinforced on the East German side with the area behind the wall being cleared, trenches dug, barbed wire fences put in place, and a further inner wall, the Hinterlandmaurer, built on the other side to enclose the intervening death strip. Floodlighting at night and watch towers manned by trigger-happy guards were put in place to try to ensure no one escaped from the ‘communist paradise’ of the DDR 😉
Many people did still try to escape, some successfully but many were killed or died in the process. This is one of several memorials commemorating some of the victims.
The demise of the Berlin Wall came almost as quickly as its creation twenty-eight years earlier. In the Autumn of 1989, the DDR once more started losing its people in large numbers as Hungary opened its border with Austria. Demonstrations and demands for reform grew quickly within the DDR and on 9th November 1989, the communist authorities bowed to the inevitable and announced on DDR television that all restrictions on travel to the west would be lifted immediately.
Crowds gathered at various checkpoints along the Wall that evening, eventually overwhelming the border guards by their sheer weight of numbers. People started to dance on top of the wall whilst others began to attack parts of it with sledgehammers, chipping away pieces of concrete as souvenirs. Over the following months, large sections were demolished and removed.
Today, other than a few preserved sections such as that in the photograph at the beginning of this post, there is very little left of of the Berlin Wall and its associated fortifications. This former East German watchtower pictured here, sits slightly incongruously in a side street near Potsdammer Platz. In the meantime, the two city halves have visually merged making it difficult to discern whether one is in the East or the West.
Other short sections of the Wall have been preserved, including the remains of artwork or graffiti, (depending on your point of view 🙂 ), with which West Berliners decorated their side of the wall, with explanatory boards placed in between, explaining the history of the Berliner Maurer. The example in the photograph below is located on the line of where the Wall once stood, also not far from Potsdammer Platz.
In recognition that visiting tourists will want to know where the Berlin Wall once stood, a double row of cobblestones has been placed showing the line of its former course.
Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and subsequent German reunification, the derelict area between the original Wall and the Hinterlandmaurer, has been prime land for redevelopment. Some older, often war-damaged buildings located in or adjacent to the ‘security strip’ have been renovated and restored, whilst elsewhere, completely new construction has taken place.
The picture below shows an area of the ‘security strip’ just south of the Brandenburg Gate. On the right, in the foreground of the photograph, is one corner of the Holocaust Memorial about which more in text and pictures in a future post. Immediately beyond are a series of newly-constructed cafés and restaurants, where even in late October when we visited, it was still possible to sit at outside tables.
However, the apartment blocks beyond the cafés and restaurants are located in the former East Berlin and were built by the communist regime post-1961. They are colloquially known as Luxusplatte – luxury flats, but still built in the typical communist manner using concrete panels. Only very faithful Communist Party members were allowed to live in them, that is only those who could be trusted not to try to escape to the west, because they lived so close to the Wall 😉
One of the buildings that lay within the former ‘security strip’ was that which housed the British Embassy until the breaking off of diplomatic relations at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The building itself was subsequently badly damaged by allied bombing. When the newly reunited Germany once again made Berlin its capital city in 1999, the British government decided to rebuild its embassy on the same site with the new building pictured below, being officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 18th July 2000.