A Guide to the Berlin Wall for First Time Visitors
You might have heard of the Berlin Wall, or you might not. As for me, European history was not part of my school syllabus, and unfortunately, I was not one to seek history lessons outside of my school textbooks. So, while I might have come across the name in passing, I didn’t have the faintest idea what it was.
But the Berlin Wall is one of the main attractions in Berlin and in the whole of Germany. Your trip to Germany would not be complete without paying it a visit.
If you’re not sure what the Berlin Wall is and why you must include it on your itinerary, don’t worry — this article will tell you all you need to know.
Table of Contents
What is the Berlin Wall?
The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that was erected to divide Berlin from 1961 to 1989.
After the end of World War II and the defeat of Hitler, Germany was occupied by the Allied powers. They divided the capital city Berlin into four sections, each to be governed by one of the main Allied countries that were responsible for liberating Germany, namely France, the UK, USA, and the Soviet Union.
However, the political differences between the Soviet Union and the other Allied powers soon became apparent. The Soviets imposed harsh restrictions on the people in their section (East Germany), causing millions of them to flee to the West.
At least 3.5 million people (20% of the total population), many of whom were young, educated professionals left East Germany. Following this, the Soviet Union resorted to drastic measures.
So, one morning, the East Germans woke up to find that they were closed in by barbed wires and fences, and could no longer cross freely to the other side. The first concrete blocks were laid on 17th August 1961 to form the Berlin Wall.
To make it harder for people to cross, the Soviet built two walls running parallel to each other. These were separated by a no man’s land. What that means is that even if someone made it over one wall, they would often be shot down in the no man’s land before they reached the second wall.
During the three decades of the wall’s existence, over 100,000 people attempted to cross it by climbing over, jumping out of windows adjacent to the wall, flying in hot air balloons, crawling through sewers, and driving at high speeds through unfortified parts of the wall.
Of this number, 5,000 (including some 600 border guards) were successful, while at least 171 people were killed.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
As the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US began to thaw in 1989, the borders between East Germany and West Germany became more relaxed. On 9th November 1989, the East German government announced a change in their regulations. Starting at midnight the same day, citizens would be allowed to cross the country’s borders.
Following this announcement, throngs of people from East and West Berlin congregated at the wall, drinking and dancing in celebratory mood, all the while chanting, “Tor auf!” (“Open the gate!”). At midnight, they flooded through the checkpoints and long-separated families were reunited.
More than 2 million East Berliners visited West Berlin that weekend, in what was later known as “the greatest street party in the history of the world.”
People used hammers and picks to chip away at the wall, while cranes and bulldozers demolished section after section. On 3rd October 1990, almost one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of East and West Germany was made official.
Berlin Wall Today
Today, you can still see evidence of the Berlin Wall, marked by metal poles, lines on the floor, replicas, and even parts of the original wall.
The East-Side Gallery
Located close to the River Spree, the East-Side Gallery is a real section of the East’s inner wall and is undoubtedly the most famous remains of the Berlin Wall.
In 1990, artists from all over the world came to paint murals on the 1,300-metre (1 mile) long section. Most of the artworks carry messages of change, hope, and history, as a reminder of what had been and should never be again.
The gallery is now a heritage-protected landmark, and any act of vandalism done on the paintings is considered an offence. However, this has not stopped some people from leaving their marks. There is an ongoing project to restore and preserve the paintings.
The Brandenburg Gate
Constructed between 1788 and 1791, the Brandenburg Gate was not actually part of the Berlin Wall, but became one of the barriers separating East Germany from the West. Now, this 26-metre tall structure remains standing as a symbol of the country’s tumultuous history, as well as the peace and unity it later achieved.
Along the Berlin Wall, there were several checkpoints, named alphabetically, from A, B, C, and so on. Checkpoint Charlie (Checkpoint C), which was guarded by the US Army, is now a must-visit tourist attraction where you can take photographs and see the replica of the original sign saying, “You are now entering West Berlin”.
Checkpoint Charlie is linked to a museum that not only provides general information, but also reveals the means and attempts made by the people to escape East Germany.
Berlin Wall Memorial
On Bernauer Straße, a strip of the wall and a former watchtower were rebuilt especially for a memorial. This open-air museum offers historical audio and video materials about the Berlin Wall. There is also a viewing tower at the visitor center where you can see the wall from a different perspective.
How to Tour the Berlin Wall
- Self-Guided Tour – Touring all these remnants of the Berlin Wall is easily doable on your own. You can either walk from one place to another or use public transports. To get a better understanding of the things that you see, you can also rent a multimedia guide at any one of the collection points (Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate, and the Berlin Wall Memorial). Once you’re done, simply return it at any of the collection points.
- Guided Walking Tour – To get the most out of your visit, it’s best to go on a guided tour with a knowledgeable local guide. You might also get to hear some personal anecdotes from them. There are many walking tours to choose from depending on your budget and preference. This one, for example, combines the wall tour with Berlin Communist Tour.
- Underground Tour – Between 1961 – 1982, there had been more than 70 self-dug tunnels in attempts to escape East Germany, of which only 19 were successful. Learn all about them on this Berlin Underground Tour.
- Bike Tour – Another alternative is to tour the walls on two wheels. This bike tour takes you to all the important sites of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. You can book it on Klook. If you have never heard of Klook before, click here to find out more about this travel app and whether it is legit.
Final Thoughts on the Berlin Wall
For a city that is famed for its vibrant art scene and thriving nightlife, Berlin sure has a dark past. It’s hard to imagine that a mere 30 years ago, the country was divided into two, and hundreds of lives were lost trying to cross from one side to the other.
Visiting the Berlin Wall can help you understand what such divisions can do to the people affected by them. It’s an inspiring thing to see how Berlin and Germany bounced back from this tragedy and became a stronger nation because of it.
Instead of being afraid to face their horrible past, they gallantly use it as a reminder to themselves and others of what should never happen again in the history of the world.
Have you been to any place with a dark past? How did it affect you? Share your experience in the comments below.