I still remember the scenes on television when the Berlin Wall began to fall: people climbing the towering concrete slab segments, dancing and celebrating, brandishing hammers, chipping away from both sides.
From my distant vantage point, I sensed something important taking place. What I didn’t grasp was the echoed meaning, a lesson for the world beyond Berlin, a wall whose vestiges never cease to make an impression on visitors and residents alike.
Living in Berlin now, I find it difficult to believe it's the same city I saw on television, a city once divided by a 155 km (91 mi) wall that effectively cordoned off one hunk from the other for 28 years. Although another 27 years have passed since the wall came down, endless physical reminders illustrate a remarkable history and illuminate why that history matters.
Pause for a moment and consider it: A wall driving through a city. The physicality. The mentality. It’s worth a closer look to try and understand it better.
But Berlin is a big place, and the wall is imposing. And you only have so much time. So where to begin?
First, a primer and maybe a few surprising facts that you didn’t know about the Berlin Wall, from why it was built to how the way it fell was actually a mistake. Then, a few thoughts as to where you might best focus your time in Berlin to learn about the wall, the lasting impact it has had on the city, and the lessons it continues to teach the world.
Built after so many had already fled
Why build a wall in the first place?
When the Second World War ended in 1945 with the defeat of Germany, the nation’s capital city of Berlin had been divvied up by the Allied powers and divided between the Soviets, who controlled the eastern end of the city, and the Western allies — the United States, France, and the United Kingdom — who minded its west.
Just after the war, border crossings between these sectors also allowed movement between East and West. Between 1945 and 1961, as the Soviet Union and the East German government tightened their hold, an estimated 3 million people (or one-fifth of the population of East Germany) fled to West Germany, and Berlin served as a preferred point of exit.
Concerned about the impact of the brain drain of young, educated professionals heading west, East Germany made a move.
A wall… for West Berlin
East Germany’s response was to build a wall between the two sides of the city, referring to the barrier as the “Antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (“Anti-Fascist Bulwark”). Its purported aim? Keep enemies out of East Germany. However, most everyone knew its true, unspoken purpose was to keep the fast-fleeing East Germans in.
One misconception that many have about the Berlin Wall is that it surrounded or walled off East Berlin. In fact, the wall ran the circumference of West Berlin, effectively creating an isolated, western island in the middle of East Germany.
West Berliners had free movement, but if they wished to go anywhere they had to fly over or drive through East Germany. East Berliners, though, were now firmly stuck in East Germany and the Eastern Bloc.
Not just one wall, but two
Construction of the barrier officially began on August 13, 1961: Residents woke up one morning to the rollout of barbed wire fence dividing the city in two. Rivers of poured concrete, continuous “improvements,” and reinforcements would mark the next 28 years.
Another common misconception about the Berlin Wall is that it consisted of a single wall. Instead, the barrier was composed of one inner wall, one outer wall, and a “death strip” in between that was monitored by guard dogs and filled with traps. Guard towers were placed every 250m (820 ft), and the area between the two walls was illuminated at night by high-powered lamps.
This setup, along with East German soldiers who were ordered to shoot anyone in the “no man’s land” of the death strip, meant escaping from one side to the other was difficult at best, deadly at worst.
Resistance, escape, and death
Not all those intent on escaping were deterred. Despite the efforts of East German authorities, some 5,000 people found a way to make it across.
Some literally jumped from their apartment windows over to the other side once they noticed the barbed wire rolling out. Some built hot air balloons; others tunneled and sought passage underwater. The necessity of escape became the mother of invention as would-be escapees pursued weaknesses in the wall’s infrastructure.
For more incredible and ingenious escape stories, visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum whose stories illustrate many fantastical escape plans, from the ingenious to the hare-brained.
Not all who attempted escape succeeded. Between 138–200 people are estimated to have died trying to cross from one side of the Berlin Wall to the other, including 90 victims of East Germany’s shoot-to-kill orders. You can find these stories at the Berlin Wall Memorial.
The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989: A happy accident
Friends who grew up in the era of the Berlin Wall often tell us that as the wall stood, its collapse remained unimaginable. Even as cracks began to emerge in the Soviet sphere of influence, and talk of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) caught hold, the Berlin Wall seemed a constant. Something forever, something permanent.
As it turns out, the actual fall — or opening — of the wall was the result of a mistake.
The East German government had announced at a press conference on November 9, 1989 that it planned to loosen restrictions to allow greater free movement of people. A representative read a public pronouncement and took questions. When pressed by a journalist as to when the regulations allowing people to cross into West Berlin would go into effect, the government representative didn’t know the official answer. As it sometimes does, pride got in the way. Fearful of showing ignorance, he made something up: "As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”
With that prompt, East Berliners flocked to the border crossings to see if the news was indeed true.
The East German government was unprepared. Without guidance from superiors as to what to do with the crowds, the commander of the now famous Bornholmer Straße border crossing opted against violence, ordered his guards to open the border, and allowed East Berliners to cross.
History is strange. A confluence of events. Some deliberate, most haphazard, much up for debate. But in this case, there was no violence. A symbolic fall, followed then by the rapid physical dismantling of a wall — a symbol — brick by brick, slab by slab. Then, a dismantling of East Germany and the Cold War that had divided Europe for almost 50 years.
The Berlin Wall today
Although much of the Berlin Wall was gone by the summer of 1990, a few standing segments remain.
The East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain has taken over a kilometre of the wall and turned it into an outdoor street art gallery. What was once a symbol of repression now stands as a feat of artistic, political, and social expression.
To understand the workings of the Berlin Wall and how the “death strip” was designed and built, visit the exhibition at Bernauerstrasse. This outdoor exhibition exposes a cross-section of the two walls and border strip running 1.4km (0.8 mi) long.
For more historical information and stories of those who escaped or lost their lives trying, be sure to check out the nearby visitor centre, or download one of its mobile phone tours.
Find the Wall: Look down
As you walk around Berlin, cast occasional glances down and around. Signs of the Berlin Wall lurk just about everywhere like raised inlaid bricks that mark the length of where the Berlin Wall once stood.
To appreciate the enormity and absurdity of the wall, imagine a massive concrete slab atop each of those inlaid bricks, then carry it and your mind down roads, across lawns, through streets and courtyards — intersecting neighbourhoods and communities, and the lives of friends and families.
Cycle the Berlin Wall: The Mauerweg
If you really wish to experience the full extent — and get a sense of the impact — of the Berlin Wall, there’s perhaps no better way to do so than by cycling the length of it.
The city has erected trail markers for the Mauerweg (Wall Way) that take you the full 155km (96 mi) around what was once West Berlin. As you cycle through forests and empty fields and along lakes and farms, sometimes zigzagging to follow the uneven border, you’ll pass by memorials and historical markers that chronicle what life was like during the time of the wall. Stories of land swaps, valiant escapes, and failed attempts at crossing dot your way.
When we cycled the entirety of Berlin Wall in one day to raise money for the Planeterra Foundation, we would often stop for a moment and look around in these open, green spaces. To wonder, to absorb, to reflect.
What sort of fear and paranoia conspired to build the Berlin Wall in an empty field like this?
History answers that in part. Maybe the pieces of the wall you visit will give you some added perspective. In those fragments lie the ghosts of barriers past, a reminder of what the world once was, and a message to not let history repeat itself.
G Adventures runs a number of departures to Germany encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this enchanting country as you’ve never seen it — check out our small group trips to Germany here.