Thirty years after its fall, Berlin Wall Memorial is a chilling reminder of the past
By MICHAEL ABRAMS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 1, 2019
Thirty years ago on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.
A remark by East German government spokesman Guenter Schabowski at a news conference that evening sent first hundreds, then thousands of people to the Wall’s east-west border crossings.
Schabowski had announced that the government had passed a regulation that would allow East Germans to travel to the West. It went into effect immediately, he said.
For months, thousands of East Germans had been protesting against their government, wanting more freedoms and the right to travel where they wanted.
In August 1989, hundreds of East Germans crossed from Hungary into Austria at the so-called Pan-European Picnic on the border between the two countries, the first tear in the Iron Curtain that had split Europe since soon after World War II.
With pressure building, the East German government decided to let its citizens travel to the West. By November 9, the dam had burst and an unstoppable flow of people headed for the gates.
Thousands had crossed into West Berlin by midnight, and the wall that had divided the once and present German capital for a little more than 28 years was no more.
Soon after, all border crossings between East and West Germany were open, and less than a year later, on Oct. 3, 1990, East and West Germany were reunified.
That is, more or less, the end of the story.
The beginning was on August 13, 1961, when the East German government began building a barrier to prevent its citizens from fleeing the country.
The Wall surrounded the American, British and French sectors of the city, dividing them from the Soviet sector and splitting Berlin down its center. The inhuman border would separate families and friends for almost three decades.
West-facing windows on buildings near the Wall in East Berlin were bricked up to prevent people from escaping to the western half of the city. Later, buildings close to the Wall were torn down and the Wall itself was modernized, built taller, and had barriers, spotlights, guard towers, watchdogs and more added to deter people fleeing to the West. That area became known as the “death strip.”
The best place to see what life in the shadow of the Wall was like is at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauerstrasse. Its centerpiece — a monument made up of two tall, rusted steel barriers that enclose a section of the original Wall, a guard tower and some of the obstacles a person would encounter trying to escape East Berlin — was unveiled in 1999 for the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.
The memorial has been expanded over the decades. Today, it runs for about a mile along Bernauerstrasse and features a visitor center, a documentation center with a viewing platform, and one of the longest sections of the Berlin Wall that is still standing.
Rusted metal poles mark where the Wall once stood along Bernauerstrasse. At irregular intervals, information tablets tell the story of the Wall and the people divided by it.
The most moving part of the complex is the Window of Remembrance, which commemorates the 136 people who died trying to cross the Wall to freedom. Photos of each person who died, including eight East German border guards, adorn a rust-covered steel wall. Family, friends and visitors often leave flowers or remembrance stones by the pictures.
The first to die, Ida Sieckman, succumbed to injuries she suffered when she jumped out of a third-story window to try to escape to the West, nine days after the Wall was built in 1961. The last, Wilfried Freudenberg, perished when his improvised balloon crashed on March 8, 1989. The Wall fell just eight months later.
On the facades of buildings abutting the memorial grounds, more large photos tell the story of the Wall and the people it affected. One picture shows an East German soldier jumping over the barbed wire to freedom — a famous photo from the 1960s when the Wall was being built.
And on the corner of Ackerstrasse and Bernauerstrasse, an oversized image shows people in the East and the West watching as the Wall is built in 1961.
Paths of stone slabs mark where tunnels once ran under the Wall. One was an escape tunnel to the West, while the other was used by the East German secret police, the Stasi, to move agents back and forth between East and West Berlin.
The foundation of one of the houses on Bernauerstrasse that were torn down to keep people from escaping — and to make room for the “death strip” — is visible at another spot.
The Chapel of the Reconciliation has been built where the Church of Reconciliation stood until it was destroyed by the East German government in 1985. In front of the chapel, stones outline the foundations of the church.
Permanent and temporary exhibits at the Documentation Center chronicle the history of the Cold War and the Wall. From the center’s viewing platform, you can get an idea of the challenge it would have been to cross the death strip and the Wall to freedom.
Nearly 60 years after the Wall’s construction and 30 years after its fall, it is still a moving and chilling sight.
Three decades after it came down, almost all of the barrier that once ran nearly 97 miles around West Berlin and through the city is gone — torn down, in part, to erase the memory of Germany’s Cold War division.
Only a segment near Checkpoint Charlie and the wondrous piece of art that is the Eastside Gallery — the longest remaining section — still stand.
But nowhere else can you get a feeling for what it was like, living in the shadow of the wall that divided Germany for nearly 30 years, than at the Berlin Wall Memorial.
Know and Go
The Berlin Wall Memorial is on Bernauerstrasse between the S-Bahn stop Nordbahnhof on the S2/S25 lines and the Bernauerstrasse subway stop on the U2 line.
Entrance to the Visitor Center and the Documentation Center with viewing platform are free. They are open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The open-air exhibit and memorial grounds are open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
There is a small self-service restaurant behind the Documentation Center. The Berlin Wall Memorial’s website is www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en