Once an unforgiving barrier between East and West, the Berlin Wall’s location now offers experiences of a different sort
It was hard to picture what this place looked like just three decades ago. Now, it’s vibrant and teeming with tourists streaming up and down the sidewalks, from museum to museum and shop to shop. On this sunny afternoon, I saw few reminders of what once divided this area. Nobody would think twice about crossing the street at Zimmerstrasse—except to be sure to look both ways, as the car and truck traffic on this busy street build steadily toward rush hour.
But striding along the eastern edge of the street, informative signs make clear that, for a good long time, this, right here, was the kill zone. Over the years, the East German government (officially the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) had expanded their original wall to a roughly 18-foot “security strip,” with everything from tank barriers called “hedgehogs” to electrified fences and control towers at regular intervals. On the other side, ordinary Germans could come up and touch the wall, but to approach it from the east would mean big trouble, even death, for those who dared.
Retracing the Iron Curtain
I was in Berlin, Germany’s capital which was once, famously, the most divided city in the world. Built hastily in 1961 and reinforced over the years, the Berlin Wall encircled all of West Berlin, which at the time was already an island of western freedom deep within the communist GDR. I was here to learn more of its history, and see how different it is today.
The Berlin Wall stood for decades as the ultimate symbol of the Iron Curtain, which divided the Eastern Bloc from Western Europe and the NATO powers. Following the Second World War, the victors—the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States—carved up the map of Europe. In Germany, the political spheres of influence met, and Berlin is where they got too close for comfort.
My starting point was Checkpoint Charlie. One of the few openings in the wall where you could pass from east to west—the gates were designated by letter; this one was C, or “Charlie” in military parlance—it was the site where Soviet and American tanks once faced off in 1961. Spies and defectors attempted hair-raising escapes here, and it was made famous in fiction, too, being featured in a number of James Bond films including “Octopussy” and “The Spy Who Came in From The Cold.”
Today, the guard shack and sandbags have been reconstructed, mostly so tourists can take photos with them. All around, a modern, glassy office complex rises, with souvenir outlets and fast food joints lining the street level. A general roar rose from the hundreds who have come to snap a selfie here.
A City Divided
I walked nearby to a small museum, and learned a lot more. Large photos exhibited the evolution of Checkpoint Charlie, from that humble shack to a massive 10-lane, covered mega-structure in the 1980s. (This version was never featured in the movies.)
Big maps display the sectors of the city, the western portion divided between France, Britain, and America. Film clips showed the shock and frenzied reaction that accompanied the Wall’s rapid construction. It was, in the eyes of the GDR, a long time coming. Living standards in East Germany lagged far behind their countrymen in the West.
While the GDR painted its construction as necessary to protect its socialist state from fascist elements, the simple fact was that, in the years between the Second World War and the 1960s, some 2.7 million Germans had already fled from East to West.
When troops appeared on the streets with workers on August 13, 1961, they tore up roadways and erected barbed wire and then, brick by brick, started building the wall. People fled, carrying everything they owned, even leaping from windows in the East—literally into the arms of those waiting to help in the West.
Pieces of Stories
Walking west along Zimmerstrasse, a number of plaques and monuments mark where the wall once stood, commemorating those who tried to escape over it (hundreds died trying). They also told lesser-known stories, like that of the “ghost stations,” underground metro stations that were abandoned in 1961 and only came back into use in 1990.
And then, somewhat incongruously, Trabiworld: A fun, gaudy testament to an unforgettably terrible automobile. While West Germany had Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Porsche, and BMW, the East had the Trabant. Infamously unreliable and clunky, they were nonetheless almost impossible to buy, given the many problems with production.
Here, at this sort of amusement park right in the heart of the city, dozens of these little cars have been stacked and lined up and painted in fun colors. Inside the gift shop are all sorts of Trabant memorabilia, as well as an old Russian army hat and even a piece of the Wall. There’s also the opportunity to sign up for a tour around the city in a Trabant.
I asked the young man behind the counter about the place. He noted that they have about 50 of the old East German cars on site, and the owner—a collector—once owned as many as 300. But why would anyone want to ride in a Trabant? “People love them,” he said, with a slight shake of the head. “These cars, it reminds them of their childhood.”
I don’t take a tour, but it’s a welcome moment of levity as I continued along, walking some of the Wall’s longest remaining stretches. Soon afterward, I arrived at Potsdamer Platz. Once one of the busiest intersections in Europe, it became a wasteland during the Cold War when the barriers ran straight through it.
The sun now set, the square flashed with light. Streets bustled, the sidewalks busy as teenagers and 20-somethings too young to remember any of the complicated history walk excitedly along to restaurants and bars. It’s a testament to the power of time, the possibilities of regeneration. A place once responsible for death and division now brims with life, and hope, and looks to the future.
If You Go
Fly: A brand-new airport opened in late 2020, Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) mostly serves European capitals, although a few routes fly transcontinental, including a scheduled nonstop to Newark on United Airlines.
Getting Around: Berlin has one of the fastest, cleanest, most efficient public transit systems in the world, including both S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains.
Stay: Built in Bauhaus style, the Berlin Marriott sits just steps from Potsdamer Platz. Settle in and have a drink in their 10-floor atrium, then retreat to one of the rooms, which are outfitted with platform beds and sweeping views.
Take Note: One of the longest remaining sections of the Wall, the East Side Gallery stretches almost a mile and includes some 100 paintings. It is the longest open-air gallery in the world.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.