The Berlin Wall's hidden secrets

Forget Checkpoint Charlie. For a real understanding of the Wall, seek out these hidden remnants of Berlin’s recent past

6 mins

Visit Berlin and you’ll be surprised how very little of the Berlin Wall remains. Sure, there are plenty of postcards with fragments of the wall attached. But there are very few places left where you can get a real sense of what it was like in Berlin when the city was divided.

Forget Checkpoint Charlie. The tiny hut that marked the crossing point between east and west is dwarfed by a gaudy collection of neon and fast food joints and manned by actors dressed as American Soldiers, demanding a fistful of euros to have their photo taken.

It’s understandable of course. The city is rebuilding itself at a breakneck pace. And no-one wants to be reminded of a painful chapter in the city’s history. But there are some quiet corners of the city where aspects of the Wall have been preserved. And the memory of those who lost their lives honoured.

Bernauer Strasse

1. Bernauer Straße, Mitte

Bernauer Straße is the only place in Berlin where visitors can still see a section of the border fortifications with all the various installations and barriers: the Hinterland and border walls (inner and outer walls), "no man's land", sentry path, and floodlights.

Because of the way the border was drawn in this area, the houses on the southern side of the street were in the Soviet sector, while the sidewalks in front of them belonged to the French sector. When the border troops started walling up the windows on the ground floor of these houses in August 1961, people attempted to escape to the western part of the city through the windows on the upper floors.

Make sure you visit the poignant memorial to those who lost their lives. And the weatherproof audio visual posts that help you visualise what the area was like before the wall and while it was up.

Ghost Stations

2. Nordbahnhof S-Bahn Station, Mitte

The Ghost Stations exhibition on display here recalls a special chapter in Berlin’s history of division: the closed-down and heavily guarded train stations of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines in East Berlin.

Between 1961 and 1989 these lines had a special status within the city’s public transportation system. The trains of these lines (today’s subway lines U6 and U8 and the north-south rail of the S-Bahn) no longer stopped at the deserted train stations in East Berlin and could not be used from there. But West Berliners continued to pass through them on their way to other parts of the west. The trains would slow but not stop, passing armed guards from East Germany who lined the platforms in the dimly-lit stations.

Invaliden Cememtery

3. Invaliden Cemetery, Mitte

The Invaliden Cemetery, established in 1748 on the orders of Friedrich II, suffered serious damage as the GDR border fortifications were gradually expanded to protect the nearby canal that formed the border with the west.

Entire sections of the cemetery were cleared to make way for the border strip and only the grave of the freedom fighter Friedrich Friesen, who played a vital role in the Wars of Liberation (1813-1815) and was revered by the GDR, helped to save it from being razed completely.

About 180 metres of the wall remain, with headstones either side, a reminder that it wasn’t only the living who were affected by the division of the city.

Erna Berga Tower

4. Observation tower, Erna-Berger-Straße, Mitte

The watchtower on Erna-Berger-Straße is one of the last of its kind. Its mushroom-shaped "panorama observation tower" consists of a slender rounded shaft, inside of which was an iron ladder used to reach the octagonal observation perch on top.

The narrow shaft was not particularly stable and also made it difficult for border guards to turn out quickly when needed. Introduced in 1969, they were soon replaced by more spacious, square-shaped observation towers.

Now surrounded by new construction, this tower was used to keep an eye on the recesses and uneven terrain between the former House of Ministries and the GDR's Academy of Sciences, and the Hinterland wall along Stresemannstraße.

Kieler Eck

5. Command Post, Kieler Eck, Mitte

Perhaps the best example of how rapidly Berlin is shedding its past and rebuilding itself, the watchtower for the former Kieler Eck command post is now surrounded by apartment towers. Built in the 1990s, the apartments obscure the view of the remains of the border fortifications that the command post was intended to help secure.

The command post is one of only three of the 302 watchtowers and observation towers that have survived. Since August 2003, the watchtower has been home to a memorial for the first fugitive to be shot and killed at the Berlin Wall.

Pushki Tower

6. Schlesischer Busch command post, Treptow-Köpenick

Set in Schlesischer Park, you could be forgiven for thinking that the former Schlesischer Busch command post was a lookout tower for visitors. Only the rifle hatches and the searchlight on the roof give an indication of its former role in the border regime.

In fact, this command post was responsible for 18 watchtowers and the electronic security devices in this section of the border. The square-shaped tower was made of pre-cast concrete components and had four floors. The base of the tower was underground and contained technical equipment and cables, as well as telephone lines connecting it to the surrounding observation towers.

Classified as a historical monument in 1992, the tower was painstakingly restored in 2004 in keeping with its landmark status. North of Puschkinallee you can also see a slab wall from the former border, now covered with graffiti.

East side Gallery

7. East Side Gallery, Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain

The longest section of the Berlin Wall still standing lies north of the bridge Oberbaumbrücke in the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain borough. This 1.3km long section of the Wall along Mühlenstraße was painted in the spring of 1990 by artists from  21 different countries who produced 106 large-scale murals.

You’ll already have seen some of the murals on postcards throughout the city. Some of the best-known images include Birgit Kinder's "Test the best," a painting of a Trabi breaking through the Wall, and the Russian artist Dimitri Vrubel's "MeinGott hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben" (Dear God, help me to survive this fatal love), a picture of Honecker and Brezhnev's brotherly kiss.

This is arguably the city’s most famous Wall landmark, so be prepared to share it with coach loads of tourists.

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