Tracing the Berlin Wall’s history 30 years after its fall

The East Side Gallery in one of the most famous sights in Germany’s capital. Painted on a mile-long stretch of sections of the former Berlin Wall are colourful murals by 118 artists from 21 countries.

Planning for the East Side Gallery started just a week after the Wall fell in November 1989 and it was officially opened the following September. What had been a heavily fortified border between the East and West – with at least 10 people were killed on this section alone – became the world’s longest gallery. From an “Edifice of Inhumanity” artists have transformed this into a “Structure against Inhumanity”.

The East Side Gallery

As part of the 30th anniversary events marking the fall of the Wall last week (which I covered in my last blog), one section facing the River Spree has been painted white and was used as a blank screen on which footage from 1989 was projected.

Today, most of the Berlin Wall has gone, which comes as a surprise to many visiting the city. Most of the wall was removed in the year after it was toppled on November 9th 1989 and the land has been re-developed with new buildings. Spaces like Potsdamer Platz, which was in no-man’s land when the Berlin Wall stood, has been completely re-developed (although a former watchtower remains and can be visited) and had a bustling winter market when I visited last weekend.

Aside from the East Side Gallery, other sections of the Wall remain (including parts preserved as part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, which I’ll cover in a future post). But visitors mostly need to make do with a line of cobblestones that mark path of the former border through the centre of Berlin or the Berlin Wall Bike Trail that covers the full stretch.

But even if the Wall has largely been removed, memories of the deadly border remain.

Towards a Wall

At the end of the Second World War, the Yalta agreement, which divided Germany in four zones of control, also split Berlin into four – with the Americans, French and British in the West and the Soviets in the East. As West Berlin was essentially an island in a Soviet-controlled land, access roads and rail routes to and from West Germany were agreed.

But from June 1948 the Soviets blockaded West Berlin as they were unhappy about the three Western Allies joining together to form a single administrative structure with one currency. The Soviets hoped that West Berlin would give in to pressure and this part of the city would also fall to them. For almost a year the only way to get supplies to the western-controlled parts of the city was by plane. It became known as the Berlin Airlift and saw almost 2.3 million tons of goods transported on 212,612 flights. At peak in May 1949, a plane landed every 63 seconds.

The Soviets set-up their own puppet state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), in 1949 and in 1952 the border between East and West Germany was closed on Stalin’s orders, to stop East Germans escaping to the West. Berlin was an anomaly, however, as it was geographically in East German territory, but three of the four zones were western-controlled. It meant that East Germans were able to escape to freedom through West Berlin. The Soviets tried again to bring West Berlin under its control in 1958 in an attempt to close this loophole, but as was the case with the blockade a decade earlier they failed.

East German leader Walter Ulbricht became increasingly concerned about East Germans escaping to the West via Berlin. “It is not possible that a socialist country such as the GDR can carry out a peaceful competition with an imperialist country such as West Germany with open borders,” he said. By 1960 around a fifth of the population had left East Germany. In the decade some one million refugees from the East escaped through West Berlin.

Many people in East Germany became fed-up with constant surveillance, attacks on freedom of speech and restrictions on the types of goods they could buy. But with a dwindling population, there were skills shortages in East Germany, meaning there weren’t enough doctors and teachers, and factories weren’t achieving their output targets.

But it took until July 1961 for Ulbrich to persuade Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet leader, that the border with West Berlin should be closed. Work finally began in the early hours of August 13th of that year – less than two months after Ulbricht said that “no one has the intention to build a wall” – on erecting 100 miles of border around West Berlin to stop East Germans from escaping. West Berlin was sealed off in less than 24 hours.

When the Berlin Wall was erected, the East Germans said that it was an ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ and would stop a world war from occurring. The Allies made verbal protests when they discovered that the Wall being built, but they were measured in their response as the last thing they wanted to do was start an all-out war. “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war,” said US President John F. Kennedy in August 1961. Two years later he returned with his rousing declaration, just metres from the border at Brandenburg Gate – “I am a Berliner.” He wanted to covey a message of solidarity to the East Germans. But it would take until November 1989 before the border was finally opened.

Building the Wall

The first fence consisted of barbed wire, guarded by soldiers. This soon involved into a two-metre high brick structure, topped with barbed wire and broken glass, and a second wall was built behind it. In between, there was the ‘death strip’ with armed guards with orders to kill, monitoring the barrier from watchtowers, and patrolling with dogs. Vans travelled along either side of Wall transmitting propaganda.

Over the years the Wall continued to evolve and at the time the wall came down in 1989, plans were in motion for creating a high-tech wall, with infrared sensors and other features. The Berlin Wall included 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers, and was manned by more than 7,000 border guards. From 1962 men between 18 and 50 were required to serve in the army for 18 months.

“Stalin’s lawn” – metal spike gratings from the “death strip” that were used to prevent escapes, on display at the Berlin Wall Memorial museum

When the Wall was erected it divided streets and cut through parks. Houses that were in the way were bricked up – sometimes with inhabitants still inside – and then became part of the Wall or demolished.

Day-to-day lives were disrupted and the city was well and truly divided by the barrier running through the centre. Some 100,000 who commuted between the two sides of the city each day could no longer reach their workplaces. There were reports of West Berliners not being able to reach their allotments. Friends couldn’t meet at their favourite bar for a drink.

The Berlin Wall, and the society it enclosed, had a bad effect on East Berliners. Many in the East resorted to drug and alcohol use, while the suicide rate increased over the time the border stood.

At Bernauer Strasse, where the Berlin Wall was built through the middle of the street, residents were pictured in the first few days when it was erected jumping out of windows of apartment blocks so they could reach West Berlin. One woman opted to use a rope to escape, while others leapt into nets that firemen held. The first person to die escaping in this way at Bernauer Strasse was Ida Siekmann on August 22nd 1961. She jumped from the third-floor apartment, but the bedding on the ground was not enough to cushion her fall and she died a day before her 59th birthday.

The East German government ran the S-Bahn rail network, but as lines ran to the West, station in the East were blocked up so people couldn’t get onto trains and escape. They became known as ghost stations, with the only people standing on the dimly lit platforms being armed East German border guards. The West German government ran the U-Bahn, but in the 1980s they also bought the S-Bahn from the cash strapped GDR.

The Berlin Wall separated families. Most people living in the East struggled to obtain permission to cross for trips to the other side. Exceptions included those of state pension age and certain professions, such as musicians who the state thought would portray a positive image in the West through their performances. People occasionally got papers to attend special occasions, such as weddings, but even a dying relative wasn’t always enough to permit travel. With phone lines between the East and West cut, catching-up became even harder.

Border crossings

The Berlin Wall had eight official crossings, which were used by different categories of people. At Friedrichstrasse station, for example, West Berliners, West Germans and foreigners arriving in the GDR by train would report to a customs booth on the platform. When they wanted to leave the territory, they would need to first pass through a purpose-built customs clearance hall. It became known as the Tranenplast (Palace of Tears) because it was here that people departing needed to say goodbye to their friends and family who weren’t permitted to travel abroad.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the removal of border crossings, the Tranenplast became a nightclub, but a decade ago it was opened as a museum. There’s an original control booth where people would have needed to produce a range of passports, visas and stamps before being allowed to travel. Some would have needed to wait hours in this building before they could even approach the counter. The museum displays, in what today seems like a light and airy terminal, include pictures of emotional scenes of friends and family saying goodbye to their loved ones. For them it was a place of misery.

The Tranenplast (Palace of Tears)

Control booth at the Tranenplast (Palace of Tears)

Checkpoint C – called Checkpoint Charlie by western troops – was where the Allies, other non-Germans and diplomats crossed between the two Berlins. It was here just two months after the border was erected that there was a stand-off between US and Soviets over the right of American diplomats to travel uninterrupted to East Berlin, as had been agreed. On October 27th and 28th 1961 the gun barrels of 10 US tanks and the same number of Soviet ones were aimed at each other. The crisis was eventually resolved through back channel negotiations, but at one stage it looked like a world war could erupt.

It is near the former crossing that you can find the Checkpoint Charlie Wall Museum, which charts the history of the wall. Much attention is given to the creative ways that people escaped from East Germany, including Inke and Holger Bethke who flew from West Berlin in two light aircraft, in Soviet camouflage and insomnia, to attempt to rescue their brother from eastern part of the city (one of the aircraft used in the rescue is on display). People were people smuggled across the border at Checkpoint Charlie in specially constructed cars (you can see the vehicle used by West Berliner Kurt Wordel to rescue 55 people from the GDR in a special compartment under the bonnet). You can also see the stereo cabinet that a 24-year-old escaped in.

Time Out Berlin described the museum as: “A little tacky, but essential for anyone interested in the Wall and the Cold Wall.” I found the displays very text heavy and a little bit disorganised, but there were still some interesting artefacts to see. They have what are apparently the cobbles, rescued by a souvenir seller, from the section of road where the US and Soviet tanks faced each other in 1961.

The museum was founded by Rainer Hildebrandt in 1963 following the success of a small temporary exhibition at Bernauer Strasse, which was visited by 200,000 people in its first six months. Hildebrandt, who Der Spiegel described as “the most prominent opponent of the Wall in West Berlin”, wrote a regular column in a West Berlin daily newspaper shining a spotlight on the crimes of the GDR and he gave lectures around the world about the Berlin Wall. He also helped many East Germans to flee across the border, allowing his apartment to be used for planning the escapes. In its early years, the West German government provided subsidies to Hildebrandt’s museum, but in the 1970s these were dropped as it sought to have a more constructive working relationship with the GDR.

Hildebrandt’s work was, however, not without controversy. He sought to reconstruct a section of the border near Checkpoint Charlie – including features, such as a watchtower, that never actually existed at this point. These plans didn’t come to fruition, but he did manage to install a replica of the former Allied guard booth on August 13th 2000, to coincide with the 39th anniversary of the wall being erected. Nearby is a copy of the famous sign: “You are now leaving the American sector” (the original is on display on the top floor of the museum).

Replica of the former Allied guard booth at Checkpoint Charlie

Berlin authorities have recently introduced a ban on actors posing as US soldiers at soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie after claims they were ripping off tourists who wanted their photographs taken here. The surrounding area is very touristy, with shops selling a range of Berlin Wall related merchandise – including what is claimed to be chunks of the actual former border itself.

Original sign on display at Checkpoint Charlie Museum


In the 28 years of the Berlin Wall’s existence, some 40,000 East Germans managed to successfully escape to the West, some through particularly creative means. An electrician called Holger Bethke fled on a makeshift 40 metre zip line, which he had created by firing a cable from the attic of an East Berlin apartment block using a bow and arrow. His brother, Ingo, attached the cable on the other side of the border, so Holger could escape. Others used a similar method for escaping.

Wolfgang Engels managed to escape across the Berlin Wall in 1963 by ramming a stolen tank into it. He was shot at twice by border guards and got caught on the barbed wire, but West Berliners pulled him to safety. Meanwhile, in August 1988 a family of four managed to successfully cross the border in a small crop-duster plane.

Perhaps the most amusing account, however, comes from an East Berliner who escaped by braking into the U-Bahn (which was sealed off to East Berliners, but services continued to run) and catching a train to freedom in the Western side. When it was discovered he was missing a border guard was sent to try and find him. The East German official himself went missing, as did another guard who was dispatched to find the lost pair. It was only when two more East German officials were sent – travelling together – did it become apparent that all three had defected to West.

Joachim Rudolph managed to escape by wading through a river soon after the Berlin Wall was first built. But unlike others who fled he wasn’t done with East Berlin and helped build a 400-metre tunnel – one of the most famous and successful of the 70 to be built under the border – to help others get away from GDR rule. It linked a West Berlin plastic straw factory at Bernauer Strasse with the basement of a house on Schönholzer Strasse 7 on the other side of the border.

The story has been told in a recent BBC podcast series, Tunnel 29, which described how the project was filmed and funded to the tune of $7,500 by the NBC television network. NBC had originally intended to show the programme on October 31st 1962, just days after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but was persuaded by the US State Department to delay the screening until later in the year, for fear of provoking Eastern Bloc countries. When it was eventually broadcast it was watched by 18 million people.

Some 40 people, mostly West German students, put in long shifts to dig the tunnel, which was 80cm wide by 90cm high, through hard clay. The diggers had to deal with a pipe bursting, which flooded the tunnel and so they had to wait for it to dry out. NBC’s funding helped pay for tools, so more people could be involved in the project, and also steel rails to get the waste out more quickly. But it was controversial a TV station backing a scheme in this way. Miraculously over two days 29 East Germans – hence the name Tunnel 29 – were able to escape before the tunnel was completely flooded.

But the most successful tunnel was Tunnel 57, which was dug by students from the basement of an old bakery in West Berlin and ran 140 metres to underneath a toilet block in the East. As the name suggests, 57 people used it to successfully escape the DDR in October 1964. Some 100 people were signed up to use the tunnel, but the Stasi got wind of it and it was closed and one of the border guards was shot in the process. When the files were opened up after re-unification it was revealed that the killer was actually a fellow guard, who shot his colleague with an AK47 by accident. After one of the students found out that someone had died at the tunnel he became very depressed and later committed suicide.

Most of the tunnels built have long gone, but the locations of some are recorded on the ground at street level on Bernauer Strasse. However, one tunnel that no one actually escaped through because it was discovered by the Stasi has just been opened for public visits. The 110-metre long tunnel was originally dug in two months in the winter of 1970 and 1971.

Not everyone who tried to escape from East Berlin was so luckily. Some 140 people were killed attempting to cross the border and tens of thousands of East Germans were arrested. Some were caught near the wall as they tried to leave, but others were arrested by the Stasi for merely being suspected of attempting to flee.

The last person to die attempting to cross the border was Winfried Freudenberg in March 1989. The engineer, who worked at a state gas supply plant, built himself an inflatable balloon and managed to make it over to West Berlin, but lost control and died when he crash landed in Zehlendorf. Freudenberg’s parents were farmers who were forced to give up their business through forced collectivisation, while he had wanted to escape to the West because he became frustrated with his career prospects.

Sabine, his wife of only five months, had intended to join him in the balloon. But they were spotted as they were filling it with gas and there was not enough to lift two people; Winfried therefore took off alone. Sabine was arrested by the police the next day. Experts later discovered that the balloon had a flaw – the vent could be opened to let out the gas but not closed again.

“It was completely idiotic. Neither of us had any experience of balloons,” Sabine said in a newspaper interview at the weekend. “But we were young and in love and we wanted to leave East Germany. It was so restrictive there.

“I was convinced the wall would be there for another 100 years. If only I had known how quickly things would change, I would have stopped him. But obviously I didn’t know. No one knew.”

Stereo cabinet that a 24-year-old hid in to escape across the Berlin Wall – on display at Checkpoint Charlie Museum

Modern views 

In August 2011, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Berlin Wall being erected, a survey was published which recorded that a third of Berliners believed that the barrier had been necessary “to stop the exodus of skilled workers from the GDR and stabilise the political situation in the GDR and thus also in all of Germany”. And in the same year, the former East German defence minister Heinz Kessler, with his former deputy Fritz Streletz, released a book called Without the Wall, There Would Have Been War.

The title of the former GDR officials’ book and the survey results prove that despite the bloodshed that the the Berlin Wall not everyone thought that having a border running through Germany’s capital city was a bad thing.

East Side Gallery

But 30 years on from the Berlin Wall being opened to the West, most people see it as a positive that it has been removed. For a structure that brought terror on its people, it is fitting that in locations like the East Side Gallery the former border has happier connotations.

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