Cold War Walking Tour
Image by Schütz, Klaus under Creative Commons License.

Germany, Berlin Guide (A): Cold War Walking Tour

No place on Earth stood at the heart of the 20th Century conflict between the ideological poles of Communism and Capitalism like Berlin. A divided city in a divided Germany in a divided Europe in a divided world. Discover the surviving traces of the Cold War on this tour that includes the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and astonishing Soviet architecture. Step this way to discover what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.
This article is featured in the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" on iTunes App Store and Google Play. You can download the app to your mobile device to read the article offline and create a self-guided walking tour to visit the attractions featured in this article. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and it works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

Download The GPSmyCity App

Download 'GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities' app for IOS   Download 'GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities' app for Android

Walk Route

Guide Name: Cold War Walking Tour
Guide Location: Germany » Berlin
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 7
Tour Duration: 3.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.5 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: Alexanderplatz   TV Tower   Marx and Engels Forum   Palace of the Republic Site   1953 Uprising Memorial   Wall Remnants   Checkpoint Charlie  
Author: Josie Le Blond
Author Bio: Josie is a freelance journalist and translator currently living in Berlin. She graduated from Birmingham University in 2009, where she read History and German.
1
Alexanderplatz

1) Alexanderplatz

Let’s start our tour at the old centre of the East German capital, Alexanderplatz. After the war, architects were commissioned by the City Council to rebuild this area as a symbol of a new, modern Berlin with wide open spaces and futuristic architecture. In the early 1960s, the entire eastern city centre was radically redesigned. You can still see the fruits of the revamp along Karl Marx Allee from Alexanderplatz right the way down to Frankfurter Tor. Buildings were constructed using prefabricated concrete panels. This meant they were standardised, cheap and quick to assemble. City planners wanted East Berlin to be traffic friendly, with plenty of open space and public parks for citizens. The square itself, behind the train station, was redesigned in the late 1960s by the winners of an architectural competition. A large department store, called ‘Centrum Warenhaus’, was added on the site of what is now the Galleria shopping centre to form one side of the square. This was the largest department store in the GDR. In 1969, The Fountain of International Friendship was added as a centrepiece, and in the same year the Urania World Time Clock was built. Both quickly became popular meeting points for East Berliners. In 1989, Alexanderplatz was one of the central sites of the peaceful revolution. On November 4th, nearly one million people gathered in a political demonstration demanding freedom of the press, freedom of opinion and the right of free assembly.
Image by Pokrajac under Creative Commons License.
2
TV Tower

2) TV Tower

The Fernsehturm or TV Tower (you can’t miss it, just look up) is, at 368 metres, the highest building in Germany and among the highest structures in Europe. In the early fifties the GDR Government began plans on a new transmission tower in Berlin that would broadcast state television. The original site, outside the city in the Müggelberg mountains, was abandoned when designers realised that it would stand in the flight path of the planned airport at Schönefeld. At the same time a grand government building had been commissioned for the site near Alexanderplatz on which the Old Prussian palace had stood. We’ll talk more about that later in the tour. During the sixties, plans for a giant state skyscraper on the Spree River morphed with designs for a transmission tower. A Soviet colossus was envisaged that would be visible from all over the city, particularly by the enemy in the West. During the planning stage the marshy site on the far side of the river was rejected in favour of the dry sandy soil in front of the train station. An anecdote goes that Walter Ulbricht, Head of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of the GDR, gave the final word on the tower’s location. Standing over a model of the city he said, “There comrades, you see, it belongs there.” Building began in 1965 and construction continued non-stop until it was officially opened on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the GDR, 7th October 1969.
Image by Kindrob under Creative Commons License.
3
Marx and Engels Forum

3) Marx and Engels Forum

Moving on now, through the park in front of the TV tower we come to the Marx and Engels Forum, which consists of a wide, circular open space. The centrepiece is a bronze statue of the founders of Socialism, created by sculptor Ludwig Engelhart. Karl Marx is shown sitting down beside his partner Friedrich Engels who is shown standing. Together they were responsible for writing the Communist Manifesto in 1848, the founding political text of East German Socialism. In front of the statue are several plaques and behind it stands a marble mural. Together, they depict scenes from the historic struggle of the working class. After the Second World War, the houses that stood on this area were almost completely destroyed. The square stayed empty and the final ruins were pulled down in the 1970s to make way for this memorial. It was completed three years before the fall of the wall in 1986. After German reunification, the site became the focus of an intense discussion. Many wanted the memorial destroyed, seeing it as a relic of a lost society they would rather forget. Others wanted to keep it as a reminder of that society, a symbolic piece of recent German history. Just like the remnants of the Wall and the site of the old Palast der Republik, which will be the next stop on our tour, this statue is among the surviving relics of the GDR which are under threat in reunified Germany. Take a good look, this statue may not be here for much longer.
Image by Bronks under Creative Commons License.
4
Palace of the Republic Site

4) Palace of the Republic Site

Over the river Spree and onto Museum Island we come to the site of the old Palast der Republik, a wide open space to the left of the Cathedral. Before the War the site was home to the Prussian royal palace, and seat of the Kaisers before 1918. The grand Prussian palace was badly damaged by allied bombing during the Second World War. It was finally demolished by the East German Government in 1950, who considered it a symbol of Prussian imperialism. Work began in 1973 on a cultural building which would also serve as the seat of the GDR Government or Volkskammer. Far from being a normal government building, the new palace was to be a public meeting place. It also housed two large concert venues, art galleries, a theatre, restaurants, a bowling alley and even a disco. The interior was luxuriously decorated and the foyer boasted a display of 1000 hanging lights, giving it the nickname “Erich’s lamp shop” after Erich Honecker, the leader who presided over the last years of the GDR. Just before German reunification in September 1990, asbestos was discovered in the building and its fate was sealed. The Palast der Republik was closed and over the next thirteen years the asbestos was removed to allow for demolition. Between 2003 and 2008, the building was demolished to make way for a reconstruction of the old Prussian palace. This process proved highly controversial among former residents of East Berlin. Many wanted to keep the building as a vital memorial to life in the GDR and the historic process of reunification. It was in this building in August 1990 that the Volkskammer decided to dissolve the GDR and reunify with West Germany. Many East Berliners have fond memories of concerts and evenings out at the Palast der Republik and the structure had served as a reminder that life wasn’t all bad in the GDR.
Image by Beek100 under Creative Commons License.
5
1953 Uprising Memorial

5) 1953 Uprising Memorial

You are now standing at the corner of Detlev-Rohwedder Haus, one of the largest surviving buildings from the Nazi period in Berlin. The building itself has an interesting history. Built in 1935, it served as the headquarters of the Nazi air force until 1945, when it was taken over by the Soviet military authorities. Under the GDR the building housed various ministries and government offices. In 1952 Soviet realist artist Max Linger created the mural on the side of the building to commemorate the establishment of the new East German republic. Notice the idealised view of life under socialism. Workers, farmers and dedicated youthful party members are shown working together to achieve their common goal of a new society. A year after the mural was painted this corner became a focal point of the East German worker’s uprising of June 1953. Workers organised a general strike that summer in protest against the East German Government’s introduction of longer working hours and pay cuts. The unrest soon caught on among the rest of the city’s population and huge crowds gathered here on June 17th chanting “Down with the Government” and “we don’t want to be slaves anymore, we want to be free”. As disorder spread to the rest of East Germany, the state reacted harshly and the uprising was brutally crushed by the German secret police and Soviet troops. In front of the mural there is a memorial to the workers who were killed during the demonstrations, showing photographs of the uprising. It was designed to reflect the shape of the socialist mural and provide a contrast between the GDR’s utopian dream and the oppressive reality.
Image by Jensens under Creative Commons License.
6
Wall Remnants

6) Wall Remnants

Here we have it, what you’ve been waiting for, the Wall itself. This is one of the largest surviving sections of the Berlin wall, along with the East Side Gallery, a kilometre long stretch at Ostbahnhof. Many visitors come to Berlin expecting to see something a bit more impressive than this decaying strip of concrete. It’s important to remember, however, that the concrete wall itself was the final hurdle in a series of formidable security measures designed to prevent citizens escaping to the West. Overnight on August 13th 1961 the East German military sealed the 140km Berlin border with barbed wire with orders to shoot those who attempted to defect. Over the following years the wall was reinforced until by 1975 it had become an infamous series of obstacles to escape. A second fence was added 100m further into East German territory creating a ‘death strip’ or no man’s land. This was covered with raked gravel, lit up day and night and guarded by dogs and armed soldiers from watch towers at 100m intervals. The wall itself was topped with a round pipe which created an overhang and made it harder to climb. Also would-be escapees had to contend with barbed wire, glass and nail beds. Despite these hindrances, 5000 East Germans succeeded in crossing the wall between 1961 and 1989, whereas 136 citizens lost their lives trying. Let’s move on now to our last stop, Checkpoint Charlie, to get a bit of background to the division of Berlin.
Image by Thesoul intruder under Creative Commons License.
7
Checkpoint Charlie

7) Checkpoint Charlie

After the war the Allies divided Germany and Berlin into four sectors ruled by the Americans, British, French and the Soviets. In 1947 the British and American sectors were joined and the year after that the French sector also became part of what was to become West Germany. The same happened in Berlin, leaving the city and the country, in fact the whole of Europe divided between the opposing ideologies of Capitalism and Communism. West Berlin was now an isolated island surrounded by Soviet controlled East Germany. In June 1948 Stalin made a bold attempt to force the Western Allies to abandon West Berlin, cutting off all supply and communication routes to the other side of the city. The allies responded with a daring military operation known as the Berlin Air Lift, flying 500,000 tonnes of food and 1.5 million tonnes of coal into West Berlin over the course of one year.

Many German citizens, especially the young, who had found themselves under Communist rule decided to emigrate to the West where opportunities were less scarce. The trickle of East-West migration had become a flood by the early 1950s causing the new East German government to resort to drastic measures, closing the main inner German border in 1952. By 1961 3.5 million East Germans had escaped to the West, 20% of the total East German population. Berlin then became the main entry point to the West and pressure grew to physically separate the city if East Germany was to avoid bleeding to death through the open wound in Berlin. When the Wall was built so were the checkpoints. Checkpoint Charlie, reconstructed here for tourists, was the most famous of these which regulated traffic between the US and Soviet sectors. This was where diplomats and foreigners could cross into East Berlin and back again. There is a wealth of information about the Cold War, the Wall, escape attempts and the history of the checkpoint on the plaques along Friedrichstraβe to the north of the reconstructed barracks. That’s it from me, I hope you enjoyed the tour and will recommend it to your friends. Enjoy the rest of your trip.
Image by Denis Apel (Stardado) under Creative Commons License.

Useful Travel Guides for Planning Your Trip


Berlin Mementos: 18 Souvenir Shopping Ideas for Travelers

Berlin Mementos: 18 Souvenir Shopping Ideas for Travelers

Too many people and for very different reasons strove to set their foot in Berlin over the course of the 20th century. Today, the city proves just as luring a destination for numerous travelers who want to come and enjoy themselves in this fascinating European capital and, perhaps, bring home...
Best Cafes in Kreuzberg, Berlin

Best Cafes in Kreuzberg, Berlin

Traditionally, you may expect the cafes around Kottbusser Tor and throughout Kreuzberg to be dominated by ethnic Turks, particularly men, in rooms that do much to resemble the cafes of Istanbul. More recently, however, the ethnically Turkish and Arab communities that have typically inhabited...
A Self-Guided Food Walk in Berlin

A Self-Guided Food Walk in Berlin

Repeatedly scarred throughout its long and often depressing past, today's Berlin has made a comeback as a major bohemian hub which lures artists and creatively-minded folk from all over the globe in their droves. It may well not be considered a typical foodie destination yet, but in recent...
Best Bars in Kreuzberg, Berlin

Best Bars in Kreuzberg, Berlin

Kreuzberg and "Kreuzkölln" - the area where Kreuzberg and Neukölln meet, mostly along the canal in east Kreuzberg and north of Sonnenallée in Neukölln - has a constantly and rapidly evolving bar culture that makes it one of the trendiest alternative evening and nightlife spots in...
Best Food in Kreuzberg, Berlin

Best Food in Kreuzberg, Berlin

Kreuzberg is known for having great cheap, street food, particularly of the Middle Eastern variety. On almost every corner you can find a kebab or falafel shop, although the trick is knowing which to choose! While you can typically get a good, tasty wrap for €2.50-4, the quality, quantity and...
Best Cafés and Coffee Houses of Berlin

Best Cafés and Coffee Houses of Berlin

Cafes have a certain refinery and elegance that pubs lack; there is a mellowness that is rarely found in bars and clubs, and an ease and tranquillity that is not to be found in restaurants with their steaming kitchens, heavy plates, clattering cutlery, constant complaints and corrections and,...