Anyone interested in finding out what life was like living with the Berlin Wall should come to Bernauer Strasse. The street was right on the dividing line between East and West and is now part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, an open-air exhibition (if that’s the right word) which includes a Memorial, Reconciliation Church, Documentation Centre and 80 metres of the Wall.
Before the end of World War II, the whole length of Bernauer Strasse, was the border line between the districts of Wedding and Mitte, and consequently when the city was carved up by the victors at the end of the war, the street became part of the border between East and West Berlin.
Although Wedding found itself in the Western French sector and Mitte in the Eastern Soviet sector, there was no physical barrier between the two, and people were free to travel anywhere within the city. There was however, a vast difference between how people lived in their respective sectors. The Western side of the city was not only more affluent, but it also had luxury shops, restaurants and entertainment venues for people to spend their money in – and East Berliners wanted to spend what cash they had in West Berlin; and as time went on, a steady trickle of people started to leave East Berlin for a better life across the border.
The 1945 Potsdam Agreement had left Berlin wholly located within the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and once people were in West Berlin, they could then travel out of the city – and out of the Eastern Bloc. The trickle of people from East to West turned into a flood and by 1961 it was reckoned that more than 3 million East Germans had left the GDR via Berlin.
To stop this hemorrhaging of people to the West, the GDR authorities decided to build a physical barrier, a barrier which over time became more and more difficult to penetrate – and there was no better example of how the Berlin Wall divided the city than Bernauer Strasse.
Bernauer Strasse was just an ordinary residential road lined with tenement buildings on both sides of the street, but the East/West border line didn’t run down through the middle, instead, it went right up to the front doors of the houses on the southern, Soviet side, leaving the rest of the street in the French sector.
On August 13th 1961, work started on constructing the Berlin Wall, which effectively meant that the buildings on the Soviet side of the street became part of the same physical barrier. The doors were locked shut, but those eager to flee East Berlin started using the upstairs windows to escape. The GDR authorities responded by forcing the residents out and then bricking up the windows and doors, but not before hundreds had escaped, although inevitably, some died trying. Below is a short film clip that shows these events unfolding.
With fewer opportunities to escape above-ground, people began to tunnel their way under the street: The largest tunnel was 12 metres deep and 145 metres long. For 2 days and nights between October 3rd-5th 1964, fifty-seven people managed to escape under Bernauer Strasse, but on the third night their secret was discovered by GDR border guards.
By 1965 most of the buildings on the Soviet side of the street had been torn down, although some of them were left with just their lower façades and were incorporated into the wall.
The archive pictures below show one of the tunnels (tunnel 29), and what was left of some of the apartments that were used as part of the wall.
The barricade divided the city for 28 years, and it was while the population were having a weekend lie-in on the night of the 13th August 1961 that GDR troops began closing off streets and erecting barbed-wire fences. Two days later, large square concrete blocks were added to make the barrier more permanent.
‘Improvements’ were made in 1962, 1965 and 1975, and ultimately became a series of obstacles between two walls with a ‘Death Strip’ in between. At Bernauer Strasse the Church of Reconciliation found itself slap bang in the middle of the Death Strip, and so in 1985, to make life easier, GDR border troops blew it up.
This video by Trabinator shows the church before and during the demolition.
Nevertheless, more than 5,000 people succeeded, one way or another, in making it across to the West by the time the wall came down. Approximately 3,200 were caught trying however, and given stiff jail sentences, but well over a hundred people were killed in the attempt.
The four-minute video below shows some of these escapes and JFK’s famous “ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) speech in June 1963.
You can find out everything you need to know about the Berlin Wall at the Berlin Wall Memorial Visitor Centre on the corner of Gartenstrasse and Bernauer Strasse. To get there I took the S Bahn to Nordbahnhof which also happens to be part of the Berlin Wall memorial site and includes an exhibition about Ghost Stations.
The city wasn’t only divided above ground, it was also divided beneath it as well, and Nordbahnhof was one of these Ghost Stations that was manned by armed guards to prevent trains from West Berlin stopping, and East German people escaping.
The Visitor Centre is the rusty-looking building at the intersection close to the station, and was my first port of call – and it should be yours too – but firstly, a word of warning: The memorial site is almost a mile long, and I only covered the first section, which still took me half a day, so you need to factor this into your schedule before starting out.
Apart from providing information, the Visitor Centre also has a film about the wall and a bookshop that I came back to in fear of spending too much time here instead of the Memorial.
The Visitor Centre is located in what used to be the West, so you need to walk across the road to visit the Memorial site. The whole area is divided into 4 sections and was an ongoing project when I came here in 2013. As I mentioned, I only covered Section A, mainly because this section was the most important section to see at the time, and probably still is.
Section A is sub-titled ‘The Wall and the Death strip’ which will give you some idea on what to expect. It doesn’t attempt to recreate the original border, but is left as it was when the wall fell in November 1989, but in a respectful way.
The gallery below shows four aspects of the wall – 1) The wall as seen from the street (western) side, 2) the wall from the Memorial side, 3) The old Inner wall and 4) some dismantled segments.
As you might imagine, there are plenty of information boards explaining everything, and in the centre of the strip is the Window of Remembrance showing the pictures of some of the 136 people who lost their lives trying to escape.
Towards the top end of the strip there’s a gap in the wall in order for you to make your way back across the road to the Documentation Centre. The main reason most people come here is to climb the steps up to the viewing platform for a bird’s eye view of the Death strip and Watchtower below (see featured pic at top of page)
By walking back across the road to Ackerstrasse you can enter an area that will allow you to peer into – but not enter – the Death Strip from behind the Inner Wall. The watchtower incidentally was originally positioned elsewhere and re-assembled here in 2009. At one point there were five of these watchtowers along Bernauer Strasse.
This was where I ended my tour of the Wall Memorial, but across Ackerstrasse is Section B and the Chapel of Reconciliation where the original church used to be. I think it’s worth pointing out though that not everybody wanted this reminder left behind, and it’s understandable in a way because it’s still fresh in people’s memory; but for the rest of us, this is without doubt the best place to come and get an insight into what life must have been like having to live with the Berlin Wall.