The shadow of The Berlin Wall traces across the face of Germany’s capital city like a duelist’s scar. In some places it’s the faintest reminder – an inlaid path of stones, or a memorial plaque – but elsewhere it springs full-blown to life, entire sections standing as living memorials. Indeed, The Wall and all the history that surrounds it is ever present, but it is neither celebrated nor downplayed. Instead, in its remnants one hears the subtle but insistent echo, “nie wieder” – “never again!”
For the better part of the 20th century, through two world wars, Berlin was at the center of global conflict. During the Cold War that followed, the city became a metaphor for a planet divided along the ideological fault lines between East and West. And The Wall itself was more than a symbol – it was a hard, dark reality that split a city, and a people.
In 1945, in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in World War II, the nation and its capital were partitioned among the four victorious Allied powers, the US, Great Britain, France and Russia. As tensions between the Western powers and the Soviet Union mounted, Berlin became a flash point and an exit for Germans seeking escape to a better life in the West.
To stem the flow of refugees, in 1961 the East German regime began erecting barbed wire barricades encircling the western sector of the city. Over the years, the border hardened into a series of concrete barriers, abandoned buildings and watchtowers. The stream of escapees slowed to a trickle; only the most daring made it across and some paid with their lives.
The Wall divided the city until its fall in 1989 when East German control collapsed. But while much of it came down within days, some segments still stand, adorned with brightly colored street art reminiscent of the defiant graffiti that once covered the concrete. A few of the buildings that stood on the demarcation of East and West are preserved, windows blocked up, dark reminders of those who risked their lives in a dash to freedom.
Finding Middle Ground
At its height the Berlin Wall snaked around the Allied-controlled western half of the city, effectively creating a geopolitical ‘island’ in the midst of Communist East Germany. However for visitors today to Berlin most of the iconic sites of the capital are in or near the area called “Mitte” (“middle”).
Even though the city undertook to expand Mitte’s borders in 2001 to include the western districts of Tiergarten and Wedding, when Berliners talk about Mitte, they’re really referring to this old center that is the historical heart of Berlin. It’s an imminently walkable area with most of the city’s landmarks and points of interest in easy reach.
It was here we found ourselves strolling down the main corridor of Mitte, the famous east-west boulevard Unter den Linden. Further north, the River Spree meanders through the old district in sight of many of the city’s landmarks, including the 1960-era Berliner Fernsheturm, the 1,200-foot-tall television tower that looms over Alexanderplatz and dominates the city’s skyline.
For us, the first stop of the day was another landmark, Germany’s Reichstag building, which houses the country’s parliament. Opened in 1894 as the home of the (far less democratic) German Imperial Diet, the domed structure has had a checkered history, both as a symbol of democracy and as a foil for it. In 1933 the suspicious fire that nearly destroyed the building also gave rise to the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.
Subsequently the Reichstag stood mostly derelict until the 1990 reunification of Germany when the building was restored. The glass dome atop the structure offers spectacular views across Mitte and the rest of Berlin beyond, plus a spiral walkway with a timeline of the building’s history which in so many ways mirrors the nation’s. Visible under the dome is the chamber where the country’s lawmakers meet.
The restoration has kept many traces of the events which have marked the Reichstag – the 1916 inscription Dem Deutschen Volk (“To the German People”) over the entrance, scorched walls from the 1933 fire, graffiti from Russian occupation.
Today the Reichstag is Germany’s second most-visited tourist attraction, so it’s little surprise that adjacent to the dome is a restaurant. Here we stopped to gather our strength and fortify ourselves with an afternoon nosh – some tea and famous German pastries; a three-tiered chocolate torte, lemon cream pie piled with meringue, and crumb cake.
Thus renewed, we walked the few blocks south, where we came upon the iconic Brandenburg Gate, a neoclassical structure topped with the statue of a Greek goddess riding a four-horse chariot. When it was built in 1791, the grand edifice replaced an earlier, simpler city gate that was actually the westernmost reaches of old Berlin. The gate marks the beginning of Unter den Linden, which leads east toward Museum Island, aptly named for the dozen or so institutions of art, history and culture on and around this isle in the middle of the Spree.
Along the way is Humboldt University and Bebelplatz, a public square that has a most unusual memorial. It was here, again in 1933, where some 20,000 books deemed “subversive” by the Nazi Party were burned. Today tourists and Berliners alike crowd around a unique and moving reminder of the event, a glass square set into the pavement. Visible below is a room filled with empty white bookshelves –enough to hold 20,000 books. A plaque is engraved with a prophetic line from an 1821 play by Heinrich Heine which translates: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, in the end they will also burn people.”
Isle of Culture
Further east along Unter den Linden we pass another example of Berlin’s love for the neoclassical, a small memorial called the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse). This “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship” was originally built in 1818 to house the royal guards, but by 1931 it had been repurposed as a memorial, a role it has performed in various guises under different governments ever since.
Next door to the memorial is the Zeughaus, the oldest building on the boulevard dating back to the beginning of the 18th century. It houses the German Historical Museum which offers a huge collection of art and artifacts spanning the country’s story for the past 500 years or so.
From the Zeughaus our steps turned along the narrow street that runs beside the Kupfergraben Canal, a branch of the Spree that flows around Museum Island. Across the canal we can see the Berlin Cathedral and the Altes Museum, one of five major museums on the island. It also includes the National Gallery, the Pergamonmuseum, as well as the Neues and the Bode Museums. So highly regarded is Museum Island that in 1999, the entire complex was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
In addition to the Zeughaus, other cultural landmarks ring the island, including the the DDR Museum with interactive exhibits portraying life in East Germany before The Wall fell, and at the southern tip of the island the Märkisches Museum chronicles the art and culture of the city.
There’s more, of course, and for those of us who are museum geeks, this little corner of Berlin could eat up our entire time in the city. So reluctantly we move beyond Museum Island to the far side of the Spree.
A short cab ride further south along the river, across from the gigantic Mercedes Benz Arena, we come to the East Side Gallery, where The Wall once again casts its long shadow. Here on the river front, a nearly mile-long stretch of the original Wall is covered with graffiti from some 120 artists. The art is sometimes provocative, sometimes joyful, but it underscores the reality of the once-divided the city that seems a world away from the unfettered charm of today’s Berlin.
Circling back along the southern edge of Mitte, more reminders, more contrast between then and now. The next stop is that alliterative remnant of the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie. The little white guard shack is surprisingly nondescript given the sinister larger-than-life part it played in spy fiction of the 1960s. One dubious signal of the triumph of the West; this one-time symbol of confrontation is today a favorite tourist stop, so of course there’s a McDonald’s just across the street.
Around the corner is a much more impressive reminder of life and death in Communist East Berlin. The Wall is an enormous panorama created by Austrian artist Yadegar Asisi. Inside the round steel building, we mount the viewing platform and seem to look directly out over The Wall and the barren border strip beyond. The 50-foot-high image depicts an autumn day in 1980s divided Berlin. With clever use of sound and lights, the life-sized scene seems to take over your entire field of vision, creating an enduring impression of the city – and a world – as it once was.
The Wall no longer divides, and the city which stands astride its remains has become its own monument to unity.