Berlin is famous for its wall. Well, Berlin is famous for the fact that it once had a wall that not only divided the city into east and west, but also entirely enclosed it. While Berlin was forced to exist as an island in the middle of the communist sea, the wall itself became a symbol of freedom for all German people. After years of separation, once the borders opened in 1989 the Berlin Wall couldn’t be removed fast enough and everybody wanted to have a piece of it. But 25 years later, what is actually still left of the original Berlin Wall?
The first thing that needs to be understood is that the Berlin Wall was not just simply a wall, it was actually a whole sector fortification. What started out as simple barbwire fences and blockades on the streets eventually became a really sophisticated and constantly improved border system, consisting of an east wall, the inner wall or Hinterlandmauer and a west wall, the Berlin Wall. Between those two walls there was usually an alarm fence with an additional thorn pavement called “Stalin’s grass”, a patrol road with flood lights, a control strip with watch towers, a ditch with a row of tank traps and sometimes even a section guarded by dogs. The whole area between the two walls was painted white and known as the death zone, as intruders were to be shot immediately.
Although these two walls and the death zone were part of the whole border fortification, the actual separation between the east and west sectors happened at the outer wall, the west wall. This was the wall that was actually called the Berlin Wall. By the time it was torn down it was already the 4th generation wall, constructed out of pre-cast vertical concrete elements, 3.6 meters tall and topped with a round concrete tube. This final version of the wall was actually slightly set back from the actual border, making it even illegal to touch or approach it from the western side of Berlin. So, how much of this real-deal Berlin Wall and how much of the border fortifications are still left in 2014?
Berlin Border Fortifications
The photo shows the border fortifications with the Berlin Wall of the 4th generation, the death zone and the east wall, the so-called Hinterlandmauer. It has been suggested that the watch tower in the photo did not actually belong to the border fortifications, it was rather taken from a factory or military area and re-located here to complete the image of the Berlin Wall border fortifications of the Bernauer Straße.
Not the Real Deal
East Side Gallery
Sorry, but this was never the Berlin Wall. In fact, since the river was part of the eastern territory, the actual border was located on the opposite side of the water, the Kreuzberg side. People seemed to mistake it for the Berlin Wall because it was constructed of the same kind of pre-cast concrete elements. But as the name already suggests, it’s a gallery and not the Berlin Wall.
Yes, Mauer means wall in German and in fact the Berlin Wall used to be right here where the park still stands, but it has long vanished. It used to be at the bottom of the park, along the west side of Schwedter Straße and for some strange reason it got moved further west a few years before its complete destruction. So even the sign on the street, indicating the location of the wall between 1961-1989 is not correct, as the wall only stood in this location for a few years.
A really great place if you like costumes, American flags, Mc Donald’s and fake passport stamps, but unfortunately all this has nothing to do with the Berlin Wall or the actual Checkpoint Charlie. The real checkpoint was torn down in 1990 and the former control house can be found in the Alliiertenmuseum. What you see here today is a nicely constructed tourist attraction.
Potsdamer Platz Surveillance Tower
This was in fact an old East German watch tower, but it was not part of the actual Berlin Wall. In old photographs and maps you can clearly see that the tower was situated away from the wall on eastern territory as a surveillance tower of a sensitive area, but never included into the wall fortifications.
The real Berlin Wall
This is one of the two remaining original watch towers that were included in the sector fortification in the center of Berlin. Regular watch towers had a 2×2 meter footprint, but this was a 4×4 control tower that remained in its former location, although nowadays it seems out-of-place in a park.
Watchtower Kieler Straße
Even more out-of-place and almost completely built into a housing block stands the second remaining control tower in Berlin Mitte. Today it is a museum and a memorial site for Günter Liftin, the first shot victim at the border. Unfortunately, the caretaker of the tower, who happened to be Liftin’s brother, was not the most cooperative person and after three attempts it seemed enough to see the tower only from the outside.
A fenced off strip of Berlin Wall, stretching from Wilhelmstraße to the museum Martin-Gropius-Bau. On the other side of the Niederkirchner Straße a mark in the pavement with a single row of cobble stones can be seen to indicate the former location of the inner wall, the east wall.
Partially reconstructed and restored, this is still is the best example of the Berlin Wall in context with the other border fortifications. Bernauer Straße became a memorial site for the wall and here, besides the short part of the death strip, other excavations and traces of the past can be found today.
Hard to see and partially overgrown, on this street lies another short part of the Berlin Wall. It is not a memorial site and not fenced off, so this forgotten piece of the wall made for a nice surprise discovery while tracing it through the city.
The Inner Wall, the East Wall
Also hidden away and overgrown lies an unusual piece of the inner wall. Similarly to the East-Side-Gallery it was constructed out of the pre-cast vertical elements of the 4th generation wall, but was actually just the eastern wall of the former fortification system.
This piece of inner wall consists of the typical horizontal concrete planks, stacked between vertical steel posts. It was situated behind a row of buildings and not only the wall but also the original striped fence can still be seen. Only the sign stating “Halt! Grenzgebiet”, meaning “Stop! Border area” has long been removed.
Park am Nordbahnhof
A pretty long strip of inner wall can still be seen in this newly constructed park. What once used to be the rail yard for the Stettiner Bahnhof later became the death zone of the border area and finally a recreational area with beach volley ball fields fenced off by the graffiti enhanced former east wall.
In continuation of the inner wall at the Park am Nordbahnhof, the wall stretches along this oldest Catholic cemetery of Berlin. In fact the wall used to frame the cemetery on two sides, but nowadays only one stretch of the east wall remains along the train tracks.
Pieces of the inner wall can still be found on this famous war cemetery. Between the graves for former Prussian Generals, the original patrol road, the cleared death area and the eastern wall seem awkwardly out-of-place. During GDR times the cemetery could only be entered with special permission.
Quite a long stretch of wall remains in the south of Berlin between Neukölln and Treptow. Since it was constructed out of the same kind of horizontal concrete planks, the assumption is that this used to be the inner wall. But it could potentially have been the real deal if it was never updated to the 4th generation of the wall.
Traces of the Berlin Wall
Looking from Gartenstraße along Bernauer Straße is probably the best area in Berlin to trace the former wall. From right to left: the hollow steel posts represent the inner wall with a clearance strip in front, the steel band on the ground represents the alarm fence, the patrol road can still be seen in full width, the modern lamps dissolve into the original ones and the Berlin Wall can be seen to the left.
The Berlin Wall can also be traced through the many rusting steel rods that allow views but restrict passage. Eventually they turn into the remainders of the actual wall and provide an abstract wall experience. When looked at directly, these steel rods permit views, but when looking along them they give the impression of a closed wall that runs along the road.
In continuation of the wall memorial along the Bernauer Straße, the inner wall can be traced up to Schwedter Straße and the Mauerpark. Even if the street fronts have been partially overbuilt again, a clearance has been left behind the buildings consisting of the former patrol road and steel posts in representation of the former east wall.
The Berlin Wall can also be traced throughout the city by following the double row of cobble stones in the pavement. Here the wall cuts straight through the sidewalk and the Friedrichstraße.
In this photo the Berlin Wall can be traced through the park. It was erected set back on top of another brick wall of the former rail yards.
The wall in Bouche Straße was actually set right on the street and it can be traced as it turns at an intersection on Harzer Straße in Alt-Treptow.
The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was in place from 1961 to 1989 and it divided not only a city, but an entire nation. In fact, this wall was the front line of the entire cold war and the visual separation between capitalism and communism. The scars it left behind have slowly healed, but the German saying goes that even if the physical wall has disappeared, it still exists in people’s minds.
I personally don’t remember much of the wall itself as I grew up in the west of Germany and simply had no direct contact with the wall. Only after moving to East Berlin in the late 90’s and actually experiencing the leftovers of the wall, I slowly started to understand what it actually meant to have lived in the city during those divided times. While it will still be a while before the wall fully disappears from people’s minds, hopefully at least the original parts will be kept as a visual reminder that no wall can separate one nation forever…
How much did you know about the Berlin Wall? Have you been to the real deal places, or were you fooled by the others?