Today is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall. I made my first trip to Europe in 1988. I went with my “pre-wife” who was the US-born daughter of (West) German immigrants. The countries on our itinerary were France and the then West Germany with a quick stop-over in London on my way home. As part of our trip planning I told her that the only things I really wanted to do were 1) see a stage of the Tour de France and 2) see the Berlin Wall.
We did both of those things.
To get to West Berlin we took a train from West Germany. We crossed into East Germany where we were greeted by East German soldiers with machine guns and German Shepherds. While they thoroughly inspected the train inside and out the East German passport control officer worked his way down the train aisle. When he arrived at our cabin he threw the door aside and very sternly demanded our passports. He examined them and us very closely and then stamped them, allowing us therefore to continue. It was almost comical in its presentation. I think we were supposed to be intimidated but the appearance and behavior of the passport control officer was quite comical and stereotypical.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later we were underway again. We pulled into Zoo Station, at the time the main train station for West Berlin. We got off and made a bee line for Wilhemstrasse, which our trusty Lonely Planet guide assured was the place to see the Wall. Looking at Google maps of Berlin now we must have walked several kilometers at least. Wilhelmstrasse was a good place to go because one could see the Cold War and the then last 50 years of European and geo-political history in one location. Wilhelmstrasse at the intersection of Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse was the location of the Prinz Albrecht Hotel, which was used by the Nazis as Nazi SS headquarters before and during WWII. It was bombed to rubble at the end of the war and was then (and now) an open field.
When we arrived into the area the Wall was unmistakeable. Covered in graffiti it loomed easily 12 feet (4 m) high. There were a few wooden observation platforms near it; I climbed up and took a few photos (July 1988 Berlin Wall Wilhelmstrasse 1, July 1988 Berlin Wall Wilhelmstrasse 2) into the East. I could see men moving around in the observation tower and assumed they were looking at me. I could see the No Man’s Land area with the trip wires and maybe even land mines.
We walked back and went to Potsdamer Platz, which was nearby and prior to the war had been the center of Berlin’s social and cultural life. It too now was just an empty field. I took a few more photos and then we walked back to Zoo Station, walked down the Kurfürstendamm (aka the Ku-damm and the then center of West Berlin’s retail activity) and then caught our train back to West Germany.
It was a profound experience for me. I was able to look Communism and Totalitarianism in its face and see it for the horror that it is. That experience has stayed with me ever since and at times fueled my opinions of things that have happened in this country, as well. When the Wall came down in 1989 and Communism with it I was ecstatic for East and West Germany and for all of us.
In 2006 I went back to the now-united Germany and to Berlin (I had gone to Germany in 1996 as well but was unable to get to Berlin on that trip). The Wall had been down for many years now and it was quickly fading into history. As part of a bus tour we drove down Niederkichnerstrasse, the street that was immediately behind the Wall at the Wilhelmstrasse site. Strangely enough this was one of the only sections of Wall left in the city. We got off the bus at the next stop and I went back to Wilhelmstrasse with prints of the photos I took in 1988. There was a visitors center there now, the young woman behind the counter and I had a nice discussion of my photos and the possible location of the second set (I have forgotten where I took them but it was somewhere along the walk from Wilhelmstrasse to Potsdamer Platz). I took some photos from the same general location (the wooden observation platforms were gone now) (July 2006 Wilhelmstrasse Berlin 1, July 2006 Wilhelmstrasse Berlin 2, Niederkichnerstrasse). I showed a guy selling water and snacks my 1988 photos and told him in German that I had been here then and took them. He looked at them and gave a low whistle.
We later went to Potsdamer Platz, which is once again a center of social, cultural and retail life in Berlin. All through the city there is a marker in the pavement that shows the path of the Berlin Wall; the marker runs right through the middle of Potsdamer Platz.
I have always felt enormously grateful for that day in West Berlin in the summer of 1988. It was truly a life-changing day for me and an experience that is very difficult to get nowadays. Communism and totalitarianism are either veneered with Favored Nation trade status or extremely remote. I suppose the only equivalent place with as obvious a divide is the DMZ between North and South Korea. Not being able to post to Facebook from my hotel room in Shenzhen, People’s Republic of China does not have quite the same impact as seeing a 12 foot high graffiti-covered testimony to the failure of an entire political and governmental philosophy and a symbol of oppression of basic human rights and murderous violence.
Here is a map of the Berlin Wall’s route overlayed on a map of Berlin. Scroll down to Group 127 and then zoom in to see the location of my Berlin Wall photos.