To mark the 25th anniversary of the “Mauerfall”, we selected 25 of the best Wall-related sites in the city…
Bornholmer Strasse Border Crossing (officially: Platz des 9. November 1989)
This is where the wall fell first, on the night of November 9th, 1989. The border crossing succumbed to the pressure of ordinary East Germans from the heavily populated workers’ quarter of Prenzlauer Berg. The memorial and display show a minute by minute reconstruction of events that fateful evening. Read more on Traces Of A Border.
Among the last prestigious urban building projects of the GDR, this Utopian park was inaugurated in 1986 on the occasion of former Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann’s 100th birthday, a monumental bronze bust of whom looms on its Western edge (on Griefswalder Strasse).
Spanning 25 gloriously ungentrified hectares in one of Berlin’s most gentrified neighbourhoods (Prenzlauer Berg), it’s a prime memento of the district before the Wende, it provides housing, leisure and cultural facilities, including a cutting-edge planetarium. Be sure to take a look at the manhole covers, which still carry their ‘Made in the GDR’ stamp.
Baumhaus an der Mauer / “Treehouse On The Wall”
This ramshackle two-storey summer house and garden in Kreuzberg was built by Osman Kalin, a Turkish immigrant living in West Berlin. The garden was originally founded on a piece of wasteland that officially belonged to East but was accessible from the West thanks to the GDR not bothering to wall it off properly. Kalin cleared and cultivated the area, growing vegetables and flowers right in the shade of the Wall. Despite pressure from both sides – the Volkspolizei once ordered him to chop his sunflowers because they were threatening to grow taller than the Wall – the project has miraculously survived to this day.
The Stasi Museum
Travel east along Karl-Marx-Allee and Frankfurter Allee and you will reach the huge complex that housed the Ministry of State Security, aka the Stasi – “the shield and sword of the (communist) party” as the organisation liked to refer to itself. This is where all political oppression was organised under its head Erich Mielke, who led the Stasi for 30 years.
It’s possible to view his former office as well as learning how protesters and dissidents stormed the buildings in January 1990 to prevent the further destruction of surveillance files. The fifth floor of the building is still home to the organisation responsible for making the Stasi’s archives available for those that were spied upon.
In the suburb of Hohenschönhausen, along an inconspicuous side street just east of the Ringbahn, lies a vast complex whose intimidating exterior walls of concrete and barbed wire herald one of the most infamous prisons of the GDR. Often called simply ‘the Stasi prison’, it became both a brutal symbol of repression and a state-run secret right in the heart of the city, where political dissidents and other ‘troublemakers’ were brought in vehicles disguised as ordinary delivery vans to be ‘corrected’: a euphemism for psychological torture and ritual humiliation.
The only way to see the interior of the prison is via a guided tour. Some – though not all – of the guides are former prisoners, who take groups through the network of cells, interrogation rooms and courtyards, telling detailed stories of the abhorrent conditions and techniques used by the perpetrators, and the horrific fates suffered here. (Tam Eastley). To see more photos, click here.
Step through the entrance of a recently refurbished block of flats in the East Berlin neighborhood of Hellersdorf and you’ll find yourself in a place that feels like it was abandoned in 1989. Each of the five rooms is like a still life of the days before the Wall fell. The kitchen has a collection of food packaging, while one wall consists of screwed-down plywood for easy access in the event of a burst pipe. The living room has a TV and hi-fi system, both luxuries which would have cost many months’ wages.
Of the two bedrooms, one is configured as a master bedroom, the other as more of a study, with a desk, typewriter and a collection of books, records and medals. In the bathroom, a roll of rough toilet paper hangs menacingly, waiting to scratch the behind of any who might dare to engage with it; perhaps thankfully, the bathroom is non-operational. The neighbouring flat is a modernised show home, complete with brightly coloured furniture and laminate flooring: a few steps away in distance, but worlds away in feel. (Richard Carter). Read more here.
Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo – Marienborn/Dreilinden
Since Checkpoint Charlie is already world-renowned (and – let’s face it – fairly awful), we have decided to highlight the city’s other two main checkpoints. Checkpoint Alpha was one of a few places on the inner-German border, some 200km west of Berlin, where car travellers coming from West Germany could enter the GDR and the Transit Motorway to Berlin. Here, passengers and cars were thoroughly inspected for contraband and, on the way out, for hidden East Germans trying to escape. A large part of the border installations has been preserved, and you can tour the rather ramshackle buildings used by Stasis, VoPos and Border Police (the border was manned by three separate agencies on purpose – this made it harder for border guards to plot any escape plans of their own).
Checkpoint Bravo was where the Transit Motorway entered West Berlin. Currently, it’s the site of Businesspark Dreilinden – eBay’s German headquarters sit right at the spot where East German border forces used to check incoming and outgoing vehicles. West Berlin-bound drivers would usually breathe a sigh of relief after passing the checkpoint, having just bounced along 160 km of East German potholed motorway at a strictly enforced 100 km/h. Here the pedal could hit the metal on the AVUS city highway, some 10 kilometres of arrow-straight road that was originally built as a race and test track for Germany’s motor industry in the 1920s, and where occasional motor races were held until 1995. The grandstand is still there, and so is the race controller’s box, on the top floor of the AVUS motel.
Cold War Allied Monitoring Station, aka Teufelsberg
There are a range of myths attached to the 115 metre-high Teufelsberg and the strikingly macabre, disused listening station at its summit. David Lynch, it is said, once tried to buy the complex; underneath the rubble lies one of Albert Speer’s projects – a Nazi military college, apparently. Whatever the truth, with a mythology and name like that (it means Devil’s Mountain), visiting or simply looking upon Teufelsberg is enough to conjure those powerful and uniquely Berlinisch resonances of secrecy, eavesdropping and threat, division and trauma. Even in blazing hot sunshine. (Kevin Braddock)
In 2006, the city opened this 160 km (100 miles) long walking and cycling trail, which follows the former border patrol areas of the Berlin wall all the way around. It’s signposted with small black and grey signs, but carrying one of the many available commercial maps doesn’t hurt. If your time is limited, try the sector from Bornholmer Strasse (see above) to Hauptbahnhof, or onwards to Brandenburg Gate, by rental bike, and you will pass several items on this list along the way. Check out the city’s excellent website for a very detailed description of the Trail – or of course buy our book, which details our very own walk around the entire trail during 2014.
Sentry box on top of apartment building (back of) Kopenhagener Strasse
Follow the Mauerweg south from Bornholmer Strasse. From the top of the cycle and pedestrian bridge (Schwedter Steg) just south of Behmstrasse, look southeast. Look over and slightly left of the Aldi, and on the top floor of one of the apartments on Kopenhagener Strasse you’ll see a square box that today is a penthouse but was once a built-in watchtower. Such integrated structures can be seen all along the inner-city stretches of the former wall. Speaking of Aldis: if you plan to tour any stretch of Mauerweg away from the tourist-heavy city centre, you’ll find your food restocking options are limited to Aldis and Lidls – there’s loads of them in the cheap land of the former death strip – and not much else.
On sunny Sundays, thanks to the flea market and public karaoke, this park contains more tourists than you can shake an Ampelmann keyring at. But on any other day it has a completely different vibe; much quieter and with more space to allow a decent impression. There’s a basketball court, a petting zoo (Moritzhof), a playground with, ironically, two sports climbing walls (Schwedter Nordwand) and of course the heavily graffitied remnants of the inner wall up on the embankment.
This is Berlin’s official site of remembrance for the Wall, the divided city, and the victims of the communist dictatorship. It consists of a 1.3 km long stretch of former death strip, with an open air exhibition on the history of the Wall in general as well as the stretch on Bernauer Strasse in particular. Workers are toiling flat out to ensure the renovated Documentation Centre, with its attached viewing platform, can re-open by 9 November 2014.
Part of the Bernauer Strasse Memorial is the Chapel of Reconciliation – featured in our book “100 Favourite Places”. Adjacent to the Bernauer Strasse Wall Memorial is the Nordbahnhof, one of the underground ‘Ghost stations’ on S- and U-Barn lines that linked West Berlin districts, but ran under the East Berlin borough of Mitte. The station entrances were bricked up, but western travellers on the trains would see the heavily guarded dimly lit former stations from the windows. Inside the station is an exhibition on the GDR’s Ghost Stations, which you can also read about here.
From the station, follow the double line of cobbled stones that trace the path of the former wall, to arrive at this park; the only place on the Berlin Wall Trail where West Berlin (Wedding) actually lies to the east. The former mainline station was closed down in 1950, and its shunting yards became part of the death strip when the wall was built in 1961. Today, large parts of the inner wall (Hinterlandmauer) are preserved, behind which is a huge climbing structure called MountMitte and a series of beach volleyball courts.
Towards the north end of the park, you can see the S-Bahn emerging from the North-South Tunnel. There’s a rusty old bridge from 1897 called the Liesenbrücke that carried the mainline trains that’s still in place, but the S-Bahn trains use a modern concrete one just next to it. Cross underneath the bridges and there’s another few meters of preserved outer wall, merging into the wall of the catholic St. Hedwig’s cemetery. As with many other cemeteries that were ‘in the way’ of the Berlin Wall, the graves and monuments there were ruthlessly ripped up and destroyed.
Former border crossing at Chausseestrasse
This was one of the checkpoints where German citizens could enter the GDR by car, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that today since the site where vehicle processing took place today is a nondescript Total petrol station. As you pass into Mitte, note the tram tracks in the middle of the road and the absence of any actual trams, which were rendered defunct when the Ghost Stations (see above) were reopened. The crossing is also remembered by some engravings of rabbits on the pavements by artist Karla Sachse – a reference to how rabbits were actually the only creatures that could come and go across the Wall without fear of being murdered. Read more here.
The small grey concrete tower that stands at the end of a cul-de-sac on Kieler Strasse goes unnoticed by most. Encircled by apartment buildings on three sides, it faces out towards the slushy water of the Berlin-Spandau ship canal. But this simple structure is arguably the most personal of the area’s many Berlin Wall memorials. It’s dedicated to Günter Litfin, who was shot dead while attempting to swim across the canal only 11 days after the border was closed and the Wall went up in 1961.
The memorial was inaugurated by Günter’s brother Jürgen, who renovated the long-abandoned tower, a task that included locating the main entrance’s metal steps, which had been taken away to make chicken coops in local garden allotments. Although the tower is often visited on official Berlin Wall tours, its secluded location is an important part of its effect. In a way, it has become a fortress of knowledge and memory, hidden from the view of the very city it once watched over so fervently. Full post here.
This monument for Wall victims was put in place in 1971 on the tenth anniversary of the building of the Wall, and is the oldest surviving monument to those that tried to escape from East Berlin. Originally placed at the actual locations where fugitives died, the citizen’s initiative that maintained them moved them to this central spot on the bank of the river Spree, next to the Reichstag, for practical reasons.
This glass-faced pavilion at Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn and railway station was the entry/exit checkpoint for all travellers coming into, and leaving, East Berlin by public transport. It got its name for the tearful goodbyes East Berlin citizens had to say to visiting relatives from the West. It is a listed building today, and contains a permanent exhibition on everyday life in the divided country.
Though admittedly touristy and in many ways superficial, this museum is nonetheless a reasonably good introduction of life in East-Germany. There’s a model of a WBS70 Plattenbau flat (just like the Museumswohnung – see above), and also quite a few vehicles, including a Trabi with a driving simulator that lets you navigate a Leipzig Plattenbau neighbourhood, an IFA moped, and a stretched Volvo limousine as used by the Party leadership.
Those who’ve seen ‘Das Leben der Anderen’ (The Lives of Others) won’t forget the scenes that took place in the back of one of these. After being criticised for ignoring the darker aspects of the GDR regime, the museum installed a prison cell and other Stasi-related paraphernalia, though it hasn’t lent the exhibition much in the way of extra gravitas. The restaurant does it best to serve authentic GDR fare – complete with menu items that are permanently out of stock.
This watchtower near Potsdamer Platz wasn’t used to monitor the Death Strip but to keep an eye on the House of Ministries (today’s Federal Finance Ministry) and the Academy of Science (today’s Berlin State Senate). It’s one of the few original mushroom type towers remaining: due to the narrow tower and cramped staircase within, it was difficult for the border guards to get out in a hurry. There is usually someone there to explain the tower, and for a small fee you can climb upstairs. Around Potsdamer Platz itself, there are also a few segments of wall left, but they are (temporarily) removed for construction on a new government building.
This is one of the longer remaining stretches of Outer Wall, and especially notable because of its location right in the city centre. It runs right alongside the excellent ‘Topographie des Terrors’ exhibition (centred on the horrors of the Nazi regime), with the equally fascinating current Finance Ministry (which started life as Goering’s Air Force Ministry and has radiators made from aircraft aluminium, corridors lit by lamps modelled on aircraft propellers, and a main hallway lit by runway lamps – unfortunately it can only be visited by application to the Finance Ministry, or on Monuments Day in September) over the road, the Parliament of the State of Berlin (which started life as the Prussian Landtag) and the neo-renaissance Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition hall right next door.
This is as close as you can get to seeing 150 years of German history on less than a square mile – from Prussian government and 19th century bourgeois culture to the horrors of the Nazi era and the German division. The Air Force ministry is an encyclopaedia of modern German history by itself – after the fall of the Nazis, the GDR used it to house several of its ministries. Its far corner, on Leipziger/Wilhelmstrasse, was the scene of the workers’ protest of the 17th of June of 1953. That revolt was quashed by Soviet tanks, but when the communist regime finally did fall, the building was taken over by the Treuhandanstalt (Trust Agency), which was tasked with selling off all 4000, mostly bankrupt, East German state companies. And, in a strange continuum of German bureaucracy, when the federal capital moved back to Berlin in 1999, it became the seat of the German Treasury – possibly the most powerful institution in modern Europe.
Karl-Marx-Allee & Cafe Sybille
In 1951, the GDR launched the avenue as its first big building project, a showpiece for socialist ideals. Called Stalinallee after the war, its bombed-out shells and towers of rubble were removed to make way for a new order. The entire easterly segment features Soviet neoclassical design, with elegant apartment blocks clad in ceramic tile and adorned with latticed façades and bas-reliefs; all bookended by lavish, wedding-cake-style towers also designed by Henselmann – his identical domed towers at Frankfurter Tor radiate a Muscovite glamour.
Moving west from Strausberger Platz, Modernism is reclaimed. Two stunning concrete boxes straddle the Allee. On the south is Café Moskau, a hotspot for GDR officials, boasting a honeycomb façade, exuberant mosaic work and a gleaming mini Sputnik. On the north is the near-physics-defying Kino International, whose blazing-white upper storey overhangs the ground floor like an ocean liner plunked down atop a house. The GDR-era Café Sibylle maintains a collection of East German ’artifacts’, including the beard and an ear from the bronze statue of Stalin that once stood in the avenue. (Marian Ryan). Read more about design along the Karl Marx Allee here.
Perhaps the most famous existing part of the wall, both for its location right along the Spree and its array of colourful artworks (which were controversially repainted from 2009 onwards), the ESG was one of the few sections of the Berlin Wall plainly visible (and accessible) from the Eastern side, since it lined the 4-lane Mühlenstrasse that was used to drive state visitors from Schönefeld airport to the city centre. Therefore the Hinterland Wall, normally a very humdrum construction of 2 metre high panes, was given the full ‘Wall 75’ treatment – 3 metres high, and with the sewer pipe on top to prevent scaling.
If you’re coming to Berlin on one of the low-cost airlines, chances are you’ll land here. As you wheel your trolley to the railway station, look back at the terminal building. Schönefeld, “central airport of the German Democratic Republic”, was built to do the Workers’ and Farmers’ Paradise justice – and to impress visiting foreign dignitaries. Squint your eyes and it looks a bit like a smaller version of the now defunct ‘Palast der Republik’ – the GDR’s parliament building and conference hall on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse. From Schönefeld, you can also take bus tours of the non-operational, spectacular planning failure that is Berlin Brandenburg International Airport – but that, as they say, is another story.
John Le Carré fans should consider trudging out to Potsdam to see this bridge across the river Havel, which formed the border between West Berlin and the East German hinterland. The bridge was made famous for its spy exchanges.
This former border area, secured by artist-activist Ben Wagin to campaign against war and restrictions on freedom, is tucked away next to the Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus, right in the heart of the Government Quarter. A barrage of memorial stones, border installation remnants, graffiti slogans and other pictures and texts (not to mention the well-maintained foliage), the project has gradually decreased in size over the years due to the encroaching interests of property developers, but is still going strong.
If you want to brush up on the topic, you can find a list of Wall-related literature here and a list of Berlin’s best bookshops here. Several of the places featured here can be found in our own 100 Favourite Places guidebook (available here), while our recently-published Mauerweg book – which features two essays and photos about walking the entire Berlin Wall Trail – can be found here.