I was on a plane when the news broke. This was in the day before cell phones and ubiquitous Internet. Imagine my surprise when my wife picked me up from the airport. I asked her what’s new and she told me the Berlin Wall has fallen.
To put this in context, you have to remember that the Berlin wall was built in the year after I was born and didn’t come down until the year my daughter was born. It was a constant. It was a known quantity. We found ourselves glued to the TV that evening as we watched incredulously people dancing on the iconic image of the Cold War.
I was able to travel to Berlin for the first time just over a year after the Wall fell. On that trip, I could find no trace of the Wall, but the city was still obviously West Berlin and East Berlin. East Berlin was still drab and colorless and, in some places, pockmarked with bullet holes from World War II. Russian soldiers were still stationed in eastern Germany, as this was in the days before reunification. It may have been my imagination or the rewriting of time, but it was my impression when I saw some of these soldiers in my travels that they looked a bit dazed and out of place.
The city is now quite different from the one that I first visited. East Berlin is now, in many ways, the more trendy and happening part of the city. But if you look for it, there are still places to connect with the history of the Cold War in Berlin if you have a bit of Ostalgie (Ostalgie is a German term referring to nostalgia for aspects of life in East or “Ost” Germany).
The famous gateway between the American sector of West Berlin and East Berlin was Checkpoint Charlie. Many a tense moment happened at this spot as tourists or spies traversed from one part of the city to the other beneath the watchful eyes of armed guards. It was also the spot for numerous escapes from East Germany. The original checkpoint was taken down shortly after the Wall, the current guardhouse is a recreation. It has two large portraits of border guards, a U.S. Soldier facing East and an East German Soldier facing West. The original guardhouse can be found in the Museum of the Western Allies in Berlin.
The Checkpoint Charlie Museum commemorates the courage and ingenuity of those who risked their lives (or lost them) trying to flee to the West. The museum is one of the most poorly organized museums I have ever been to but is still oddly wonderful. The museum was started near the American checkpoint before the fall of the wall and documents escape attempts from that day on August 13th, 1961, when the city woke up to find itself divided. Escape attempts included people who tunneled under the wall, hid in secret compartments in cars, and even occasionally flew over the wall.
On the Spree opposite Berlin cathedral is a museum dedicated to everyday life in the DDR (East Germany). The DDR Museum was founded in 2006 and has welcomed more than 6 million visitors since then who are curious about what life was like behind the Wall: “Coming of age and going to school; full employment and queuing for food; Stasi surveillance and the Berlin Wall”. Perhaps the most curious display is a living room with the “original GDR smell”.
East Side Gallery
The largest section of the Berlin Wall that is still standing (but is threatened by new development) is the East Side Gallery. Artists have painted this section of the wall with murals about freedom. 105 artists from all over the world painted these in 1990.
Berlin Airlift Monument
Just outside the Tempelhof International Airport, you can find a monument to the Berlin Airlift. One of the first crises of the Cold War was when the U.S.S.R cut off all access to Berlin from 24 June 1948 – 12 May 1949 in the Berlin Blockade. The Allies responded by flying supplies into the city in what became known as the Berlin Airlift. In total, the USA delivered 1,783,573 tons and the RAF 541,937 tons, totaling 2,326,406 tons, nearly two-thirds of which was coal, on 278,228 flights to Berlin.
The Brandenburg Gate
It is the place where U.S. Presidents John Kennedy declared himself a Berliner (meaning a resident of the city, not the well-known pastry), and Ronald Reagan called for President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. The gate is just outside the old parliament building with its new clear dome where you can look down on German laws being created. You can also find a great 3-hour “free” walking tour of the city that starts nearby.
The Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre
A section of the wall and one of the guard towers can be seen at The Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre. A visitor center here explains the history of the Wall. A memorial here commemorates those who died trying to escape from East Germany.
Berlin Spy Museum
The Berlin Spy Museum opened in 2014 in a city that was once teeming with spies. This museum (all 21,500 square feet of it) focuses on agents, double agents, spycraft, and espionage. It focuses on the spy business both from World War II and the Cold War.