The Cold War and the DDR

Once the dust had settled after WWII, Berlin’s troubles weren’t over by a long shot. Berlin was divided, like the country, into four ‘occupation zones’ (US, British, French and Russian), which swiftly morphed into two countries, the capitalist BRD in the west, and the communist DDR in the east. It was the latter which provided […]

Once the dust had settled after WWII, Berlin’s troubles weren’t over by a long shot. Berlin was divided, like the country, into four ‘occupation zones’ (US, British, French and Russian), which swiftly morphed into two countries, the capitalist BRD in the west, and the communist DDR in the east. It was the latter which provided Berlin with another of its most famous landmarks – the Berlin Wall – built in 1961, ostensibly to keep the West out, but in fact to keep its own people from escaping there. Seeing this most famous of Berlin’s sights is a must-do for any trip to Berlin. However, the wall no longer exists in one piece, since after the fall of communism in 1989 much of it was destroyed by Berliners themselves, famous pictures and all. Still, there are several large sections left, such as the East Side Gallery (U-Bahn Schlesisches Tor; free and always accessible).

There are other remnants of the wall scattered over towards the western end of the city centre, of which the Berliner Mauer Gendenkstätte und Dokumentationszentrum (Berlin Wall Monument and Documentation Centre; www.berliner-mauerdokumentationszentrum.de; U-Bahn Bernauer Straße; free; 10-18:00 daily) is one of the largest. Perhaps the most famous point on the wall was the crossing point between East and West known as Checkpoint Charlie (U-Bahn Kochstraße), scene of a standoff between American and Russian troops in 1961 and one of the enduring symbols of the Cold War. Today the checkpoint, which was dismantled in 1990, has been reconstructed by a couple of local ‘entrepreneurs’ who will allow you to take their photo for a mere 1€ a pop. However, once you can fight through the camera-wielding tourists, there is the Mauermuseum (Checkpoint Charlie House; www.mauermuseum.de; 12.50€ (7.50€ concessions); 12-20:00 daily). This documents the desperate attempts to escape from the east to the west either over, under, round or straight through the wall, and is a good experience despite the high entrance price. There was no greater symbol of the division of the world into opposing blocs than the Berlin Wall, and what remains of it provides the best insight into this troubled time in history for the city and the world.

If Communist chic is what floats your boat, there’s more to see in Berlin, like: DDR Museum (www.ddr-museum.de; U-Bahn Alexanderplatz; 5.50€ (3.50€ concessions); Sun-Fri 10-20:00, Sat 10-22:00)- an interactive museum, featuring ‘the Trabant experience’. As you do. Alexanderplatz (U-Bahn Alexanderplatz) – this was the showpiece of the DDR, a great concrete plaza dominated by the 336m high Fernsehturm (www.berlinfernsehturm.de; 9.50€ (4.50€ concessions); 9-24:00 daily), Berlin’s tallest building and a great landmark to navigate by. Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Normannenstraße (Stasi Museum; www.stasi-museum.de; U-Bahn Magdalenenstraße; 4€ (3€ concessions); Mon-Fri 11-18:00, weekends 14-18:00) – the repressive nature of the DDR didn’t just extend to the wall, and this museum documents the activity of the Stasi, one of the most extensive and feared secret police organisations ever to operate.

Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen
(www.stiftung-hsh.de; Tram M5 to Freienwaldestraße; 4€ (2€ concessions), Mondays free; 9-18:00 daily; guided tours compulsory) – near to Normannenstraße, this infamous prison was the main Stasi detention centre for Berlin. Check ahead for English tours (2pm every Saturday plus on request – tel. 0049 3098608230), and watch out when asking for directions – many former Stasi employees still live in the area and don’t take kindly to being asked for its location.

One country again
Eventually, thanks to the incredible inefficiency of the Communist system in Germany and elsewhere, in 1989 a series of peaceful people’s revolts toppled country after country in Eastern Europe. In November 1989, the protests centred on Berlin, and when it became clear that the government wasn’t going to stop them, thousands of Berliners literally tore down the Wall overnight. The best place to understand just how much has changed since then is the Reichstag (U-Bahn Friedrichstraße, S-Bahn Unter den Linden; entrance to the dome and roof free, to the Bundestag public gallery by appointment only; daily 8-22:00). Originally built under the German emperors between 1884 and 1894 to house the parliament which they had grudgingly granted the German people, the Reichstag today houses the parliament of a united (and democratic) Germany again. The fortunes of the Reichstag have reflected the fortunes of democracy and peace in Berlin – the building which had housed the Weimar Republic’s Parliament burned down in March 1933, a fire blamed on the Communists by the Nazis and used as an excuse to revoke democratic civil life for the duration of Nazi rule. In 1999 the reunified German parliament finally moved back into the building, the dome and interior rebuilt in a modern, open style. An important element of this was public, open access to the roof and dome, with an accompanying exhibition on the history of German democracy and excellent views over the city. The only downside of this is that too many people want to take advantage of this – the queues can be fearsome! It’s probably best to go at night or in the morning – otherwise, take good company or a good book for the wait.

Berlin has suffered a lot after the last 100 years, and its people enjoy their freedom more than most. So get out there, and enjoy it like a Berliner!
John Latham

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