Saved: December 29th 2012August 28th 2012
For my hellishly short stopover in Berlin (I had one day) I decided to concentrate on the sights of East Berlin, the section of the German capital once under Soviet control. The Berlin transport system quickly became my best friend, offering an amazingly efficient metro system that was both easy to navigate and cheap as hell too. My first stop was Treptower Park, home to a superb Soviet War Memorial.
It was just as I’d hoped it would be: large, heroic, overstated and unashamedly Soviet in every aspect. The entrance was heralded by a set of impressive statues, which in any other town would have been the monument itself, and along both end of a long walkway, magnificent murals of brave Soviet deeds were depicted. One that caught my eye was of a trio of Red Army troops battling with a Nazi tank. But none of this could compete with the main attraction: a huge statue of a man slicing a swastika in half with a humongous sword whilst cradling an infant. I shook my head in wonderment, admiring the work of a master Soviet sculptors.
My next stop was maybe Berlin’s most famous: Checkpoint Charlie – a setting
for many a spy novel. During the Cold War it had been one of the few available crossing points between East and West Berlin but was now a tourist trap full of gaudy stalls cashing in on its famous location. There was even a man dressed as a soldier flogging East German passport stamps next to a stall selling bags emblazoned with I Love Checkpoint Charlie across their fronts. Where the actual crossing had once stood, was a reconstructed guard post complete with sand bags and a couple of US soldiers posing for Euros. Crowds of sightseers and a never ending parade of tourist buses plied the intersection and so I decided to head back into the underground. Still, the historical significance of Checkpoint Charlie could not be faulted. I studied my tube map and worked out the best way to visit an actual section of the infamous wall itself.
It was hard to believe the Berlin Wall had been standing when I was at University. The Communists of East Germany claimed it was to stop the West conspiring against its people, but the real reason was much simpler: it was to stop people escaping to the
West. By the time construction started, 20% of East Germany’s population had already crossed over, most of them young, intelligent and skilled, and the Soviets wanted to put a stop to it.
The wall’s construction began at midnight on the 12th
August 1961. Soldiers tore up streets and placed barbed wire fences along the border. Then they had flattened a large area running parallel to the border, raking sand on top so anyone trying to cross would leave footprints behind. Over time, this section received the name Death Strip. By the morning of the 13th, the border between East and West Germany was closed. Four days later, the first concrete sections of wall appeared and troops had orders to shoot anyone who tried to defect. The effect was immediate. Families were split and any East Germans who worked in West Berlin now couldn’t get to work.
In total, about five thousand people tried to defect to the West. Most of them made it but a lot didn’t. Conrad Schumann, a young soldier guarding the fledgling wall, was the first man to cross. He did this two days after the wall began its life and jumped the
simple barbed wire barrier. Just over a week later border guards shot and killed their first defector, another young man (as indeed most of the escapers would turn out to be) who tried swimming across.
One of the most dramatic escapes involved a 19-year-old soldier called Wolfgang Engels. Wolfgang stole an armoured car and simply rammed the wall. The vehicle got stuck in the barbed wire and as he tried to flee on foot he got tangled up in it. While freeing himself, border guards managed to shoot him but West Berliners intervened and pulled him to safety. He made a full recovery in hospital.
Other escape attempts included tunnels, sewers and even hot air balloons. Unlucky people often fell back into the Death Strip where they would be shot. One infamous death involved a young man called Peter Fechter, aged just 18. On the 17th
August 1962 Peter and a friend rushed over the Death Strip, both managing to reach the wall. Border guards quickly spotted them and started shooting. Peter’s friend clamoured over the top to but then one of the guards got lucky. They shot Peter in the hip and he fell back to the
East German side. And there he lay screaming and crying as he bled slowly to death. The guards in the West did nothing because they feared it would invoke reprisals from the East, and the East German guards did nothing either, possibly worried about being shot by the West. It took one hour for Peter Fechter to die.
I found myself walking along a section of Death Strip, now covered in grass, with information boards and metal columns signalling where the strip had once been. Also notable were small placards with names etched onto them. They were the spots where people had died trying to cross the border. Some sections of wall were visible too, an ugly grey concrete barrier that had once traversed huge swathes of the city. Further on along Bernauer Street, a Berlin Wall Commemoration Centre had been set up, with a museum and a viewing platform above a watchtower and a rectangle of what the Death Strip had actually looked like. I climbed up it to witness firsthand the grim reminder of what Berlin had once looked like.
The demise of the Berlin Wall actually began in neighbouring Hungary. The authorities there had already
disabled its borders meaning East Germans could escape through Austria. With a deluge starting, the Hungarians took action and started sending East Germans back to Budapest. But all of them refused to go back to East Germany, causing no end of problems. Then the same thing happened in Czechoslovakia, followed by protests in East Germany itself. By November 1989 half a million people were joining in, gathering in East Berlin’s public squares, demanding the border be opened. Many gathered by the wall demanding the guards let them through. The guards didn’t know what to do and hastily rang their superiors. They wanted to know whether they should still shoot people attempting to cross over, even though it would be a massacre. No one would take any decision and so at 10.45pm the guards finally allowed people to pass freely. East and West Germans hugged each other and danced in the streets.
People began demolishing the wall on the 9th
November with some chipping away small pieces to keep as souvenirs. Soon these chippings turned to gaps, then into holes and then into unofficial border crossings. By June the next year, the official dismantling of the wall started leaving only
a few sections visible today. East and West Germany finally united on the 3rd
October 1990. I was nineteen years old at the time.
My next stop was Brandenburg Gate and to get there I entered Friedrich Street Tube Station. It was notable because inside it was still decked out like it had been during the Cold War. Old fashioned lettering told visitors which platform to go to, and the place reeked of a spy novel. For the Soviets, the station had been a massive headache because it was surrounded on three sides by West Berlin and even had a line originating from the West coming through. To combat this problem, they installed a border crossing inside the station, and added a few cells for good measure. With a whoosh of air, a train arrived and I was soon on my way.
Brandenberg Gate, a mighty columned edifice topped with the famous four-horsed chariot on its top, was an icon of Berlin. A parade of horses and carriages lined the square up to it, waiting to take tourists on a tour of the area if they so desired. During the Cold War is had been completely sealed off
but I walked underneath it easily and headed back into West Berlin towards a rather strange monument in a park just down the street.
The Soviet War Memorial was odd because of its location in West Berlin. It had been constructed long before the partition, commemorating Red Army troops who had lost their lives fighting the Germans in World War 2, and after Berlin was split, the memorial was inside the British Sector. This brought about an interesting development. The Soviets wanted to honour their fallen comrades by posting a few guards at the site, but with the border closed, how was this to happen? The answer turned out to be straightforward, even if it was a little odd. Every morning, a small van containing a couple of Soviet soldiers left East Berlin, crossed the border, usually with protesters haranguing them, and then dropped them off at the memorial. There the Soviet guards took station and were themselves guarded by British troops before being bussed back at the end of the day.
A large contingent of Japanese Tourists had beaten me to the site, snapping of photos of themselves from every conceivable angle. A couple of green tanks
parked by the entrance, each with a Soviet red star on the side, set the scene, which was another glorious piece of Soviet architecture. This one was of a massive soldier standing on top of a massive plinth.
Since I was back in West Berlin, I decided to do a quick tour of some of the famous sights. First stop was a harrowing climb up a never ending sets of steps to reach the viewing platform of the Victory Column. By the time I was at the top I was dangerously close to having a heart attack, but the views were worth it, stretching across huge areas of East and West Berlin. When my internal organs stopped quivering, I climbed back down and headed to the Reichstag.
Germany’s parliament building was crawling with tourists, most of whom were queuing to get tickets to enter the dome. I looked at my watch and then at the amount of people and realised I didn’t have time to join them and so headed instead back to a tube stop to take me back into East Berlin.
Alexanderplatz was dominated by the TV Tower which the Soviets had built in 1969.
It could be seen all over Berlin and still stands as the tallest building in Germany. Another snaking queue put me off visiting the viewing platform and so instead I had a wander around the square, seeing the famous World Clock the Soviets had built, as well as the array of bars and restaurants dotted around the area. I wondered what East Berliners from the 1970s thought of how their square had changed.
So my quick fire jaunt through the one of the more famous outposts from behind the Iron Curtain had come to an end. And even though it had all been a mad rush, I reckoned I’d seen the highlights, especially the remnants of the actual wall and Friedrich Street Tube Station. I caught my final train journey of the day back to my hotel in the West.
-Historical significance of the city
-Lots to see
-Great transport system
-Friendly locals who all speak English
-The sights are spread out all over the place
-Crowds of tourists swarming over the main places of interest
There are more photos below