The Berlin Wall
Image by Dguendel under Creative Commons License.

Germany, Berlin Guide (A): The Berlin Wall

Overnight on June 15th 1961, a barrier went up to completely divide Allied West Berlin from Communist East Berlin and the GDR. Over the following years the Berlin Wall was increasingly fortified until it became one of the deadliest border-crossings in the World. Take this tour to explore the remnants of this historic barrier, and relive the tragic events of people attempting to cross the 'death-strip' to freedom.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: The Berlin Wall
Guide Location: Germany » Berlin
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 13
Tour Duration: 2.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 5.0 Km
Author: Andie Gilmour
Author Bio: Hi, my name is Andie. I am originally from England, but after visiting Berlin many times I decided to move here permanently with my partner and four cats. I do guided tours, take photographs of Berlin and Brandenburg, and also design and program websites. I am fascinated by local history, and have found more than enough to discover here in Berlin, which I would like to share with you.
Author Website: http://www.andie.org.uk
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Friedrichstraße Station and the Palace of Tears
  • The White Crosses Memorial
  • Crosses on the Corner of Ebertstrasse
  • Tiergarten Soviet War Memorial
  • Statue 'The Caller'
  • The Brandenburg Gate
  • The Former Death Strip
  • Leipziger Platz
  • Potsdamer Platz
  • GDR Watchtower
  • The Wall at Niederkirchnerstraße
  • Checkpoint Charlie
  • The Peter Fechter Memorial
1
Friedrichstraße Station and the Palace of Tears

1) Friedrichstraße Station and the Palace of Tears

Road and pedestrian access into West Berlin was relatively easy to control: just build a physical barrier along the border - the Berlin Wall - with limited crossing points.

The railway network was more problematic, especially at Friedrichstraße station, which was surrounded on three sides by West Berlin and had lines coming into it from there.

Friedrichstraße also had long-distance rail links with countries inside and outside the Communist Bloc that still had to flow. The East Germans couldn't build a wall across the railway tracks, so instead they put border controls around the station itself. Passengers from the Western sectors could disembark at Friedrichstraße station, but if they wanted to leave the station they had to go through border control.

Many did stay inside the station, where they could buy duty-free goods in the hall that now houses a supermarket and fast-food restaurants. Others had come to visit family in East Berlin, but whereas they could return West, their East Germans relatives had to remain behind.

Passengers were processed in a glass-and -steel building North of the station, connected to it by an underground tunnel. Many tearful farewells took place here, and the building became known sardonically as der Tränenpalast – the Palace of Tears.

Despite the strict security, the interrogation rooms, the holding cells, and the ever-present Stasi, a lot of people still managed to flee to the West through Friedrichstraße Station. Some used forged documents, or ones borrowed from sympathisers in the West. Others took legitimate trains to Communist countries with less well-guarded borders.
Image by Beek100 under Creative Commons License.
2
The White Crosses Memorial

2) The White Crosses Memorial

The fortified border ran close behind the Reichstag and joined with the River Spree. Where East met West, a memorial of seven white crosses stands on the riverbank.

The river along this stretch was owned by East Germany and was patrolled by armed guards. Many refugees tried to reach Western Berlin by swimming across it; some even made it. One person who unfortunately didn't was Günter Litfin, who was shot dead in the water a short distance from here by East German Transportation Police on 24th August 1961.

Günter Litfin was the first person to be killed trying to cross the border, and his name is recorded on one of the white crosses that stand here as a memorial to the victims of The Wall.

Across the river, in the ultra-modern government building Marie-Elisabeth-Lüders-Haus, stand original sections of The Wall, each with a year and the number of people killed trying to cross in that year (258 victims in all).

A memorial of a different kind now stands near the white crosses on the North-East corner of the Reichstag building. Next to where the Berlin Wall ran, is a section of wall from a dockyard in Danzig. It was upon this wall that Lech Walesa climbed in order to organise a strike in 1980. From that protest arose the free trade union Solidarność, and so began a process of democratisation in the Soviet Bloc that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Image by Beek100 under Creative Commons License.
3
Crosses on the Corner of Ebertstrasse

3) Crosses on the Corner of Ebertstrasse

The White Cross memorial is duplicated across the road from the South of the Reichstag building, where one of the remembered victims also has a three-metre wooden cross dedicated to him.

That victim is Heinz Sokolowski, who was shot dead by border guards close to here on Dorotheenstraße on 25th November 1965. Sokolowski was born in Frankfurt Oder during the First World War, fought in the German army during the Second World War, was captured by the Soviets and taken to Russia where he was re-educated with anti-fascist ideology. He returned from captivity in 1946 and lived in Prenzlauer Berg in the Soviet Sector of Berlin. He worked for the Soviet occupation forces, but was arrested in 1953 and charged by a Soviet military tribunal for alleged espionage. He spent ten years in a Labour Camp in the USSR before being handed back to East Germany in 1963. He applied for an exit visa to the West, but was turned down, and was thereafter hounded by the Stasi, the East German secret police. His attempted flight to the West across the barbed-wire border behind the Reichstag building ended with fatal gun-shot wounds in the abdomen.

Another of the victims commemorated by a white cross is Chris Gueffroy. He was hit in the chest by ten shots whilst trying to cross the border, and died in the 'death-strip', on 6th February 1989. The Berlin Wall fell just nine months later.
Image by Tilemahos Efthimiadis under Creative Commons License.
4
Tiergarten Soviet War Memorial

4) Tiergarten Soviet War Memorial

During the heavy fighting for the Battle of Berlin at the close of the Second World War, an estimated 70,000 people were killed in just ten days: 22,000 troops of the Soviet Red Army, 20,000 German soldiers, and at least 30,000 civilians. There are many grave-sites in and around Berlin, and the one in the Tiergarten is the resting place for over 2,000 Soviet soldiers.

The memorial was dedicated on 11th November 1945 in the presence of all four occupying powers. At the time it lay in wasteland, the Tiergarten having been incendiary-bombed to burnt tree-stumps and the Reichstag building reduced to rubble.

However, the memorial was located in the British Sector, and after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 an agreement had to be reached to provide access to the Memorial for a permanent Russian Guard of Honour. Accordingly, throughout The Cold War, Soviet soldiers were bussed in every day from East Berlin, sometimes through crowds protesting against the Wall outside the blocked-off Brandenburg Gate. The Guard of Honour, whose sentry buildings can still be seen behind the memorial, were themselves guarded by British soldiers.

The memorial and cemetery were finally handed over to a united Berlin in December 1990 as part of the agreement for the withdrawal of Soviet Troops.
Image by David Arvidsson under Creative Commons License.
5
Statue 'The Caller'

5) Statue 'The Caller'

In the centre of avenue Straße des 17 Juni stands a bronze statue of a man with cupped hands around his mouth, as if shouting down the avenue at The Brandenburg Gate and East Berlin. The statue is called 'Der Rufer' or The Caller, by the Berlin-born artist Gerhard Marcks, and was erected in May 1989. An inscription around the plinth translates that the figure goes through the world crying 'Friede' : 'Peace, Peace, Peace'. This call, together with one for 'Freiheit' – freedom – was taken up by many East Germans during 1989 in demonstrations across the GDR. It was eventually realised by the opening of the borders on 9th November 1989 and the fall of The Wall.

This wide, long avenue originally connected Berlin with the outlying town of Charlottenburg and was called Charlottenburger Chaussee until 1953. Then it was renamed by West Berlin to mark the striking of workers on the construction of the Soviet show-piece Stalinallee on the 16th June 1953. This turned into a mass uprising throughout East Germany the next day, which was brutally suppressed by the Red Army and Volkspolizei who shot dead at least 55 protesters.

It was primarily the disparity of wages and working conditions between East and West Berlin that led to the closing of the borders overnight on 12th August 1961. Up until that date, approximately 20% of East Germans had left the Eastern Bloc.
6
The Brandenburg Gate

6) The Brandenburg Gate

The Western Gate in Berlin's city walls has been a famous symbol of Berlin since it was commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm 2nd of Prussia in the late eighteenth century. During the Cold War it was entirely closed off and the Berlin Wall ran in a semi-circle in front of it on the Western Side. Pariser Platz on the Eastern side became part of the Death Strip and was only used by GDR Border Guards and Soviet troops.

The Gate became a focus for protests against a divided Germany. As the then governing West Berlin mayor Richard von Weizsäcker described it in the 1980's 'The German question is open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed'.

When US President JF Kennedy visited the Gate in 1963, the Soviets drew a curtain of red banners across its archways to prevent the eyes of the Western World looking into the East.

On 12th June 1987 another US President, Ronald Reagen, gave a speech in front of the Gate in which he implored the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev to come here to this gate:

'Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'

The course of the outer wall of the border fortifications is now marked with a double row of cobblestones in front of the Gate, which continue up Ebertstraße and for most of the rest of this tour.
Image by Sven Gross-Selbeck under Creative Commons License.
7
The Former Death Strip

7) The Former Death Strip

The 2,711 concrete slabs that make up 'The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe', inaugurated in 2005, were erected on wasteland that was once the death-strip between the outer and inner Berlin Wall. As such it gives a feeling for the width of the border fortifications at this point. All the land between the double-cobblestones running up the middle of Ebertstraße to the buildings rising beyond the memorial was an area where to step was to risk arrest, or being shot at.

In the beginning, the border was defended with a barrier of breeze-blocks and barbed wire, but over the years the fortifications became more sophisticated and more deadly.

By the 1980's the outer wall, facing West Berlin, was 12ft high and topped with a concrete pipe to deter attempts at climbing over or the use of grappling hooks. Before anyone even reached it, they had to negotiate a 10ft high inner wall, steel spike mats, a barbed-wire signal fence, tank traps and anti-vehicle trenches, a continuous strip of smoothed sand to show up footprints, motion-detecting automatically firing machine guns, and regular patrols of guards with dogs. At frequent intervals there were also watchtowers manned around the clock by armed soldiers with binoculars and searchlights.

This barrier extended around the entire 96 mile border with West Berlin and along railway tracks and service roads running from The West.
Image by Bill Cunningham under Creative Commons License.
8
Leipziger Platz

8) Leipziger Platz

The elegent octagonal form of Leipziger Platz was laid out according to the wishes of Friedrich Wilhelm 1st of Prussia in 1732 and put to ceremonial and residential use. It was reduced to ruins by the street-fighting and bombardments during the Battle of Berlin, and any remaining buildings were torn down by the Soviets for border installations.

The row of double-cobblestones bisecting the square mark the course of the inner, East German, side of the border. A few sections of the wall are preserved here, though the graffiti was added after re-unification: whilst the outer wall was colourfully and sometimes humorously decorated by graffiti artists during The Cold War, the Eastern side was grey and untouched.

Another three sections of the wall from here were donated to the United Nations, where they were installed outside the UN building in New York.

Leipziger Platz has now been reconstructed to its original harmonious form, albeit with modern architecture, but the former line of The Wall demonstrates how rigorously the East Germans stuck to the Soviet Sector border agreed at the Yalta Conference, with total disregard for historical precedents.

The parallel outer wall ran through nearby Potsdamer Platz, and again you get a feel for the width of the barren hinterland that ran between the two barriers.
Image by Gianni D'Anna under Creative Commons License.
9
Potsdamer Platz

9) Potsdamer Platz

By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Potsdamer Platz was one of the busiest squares in Europe, lined with hotels, department stores, and restaurants. A monument from that time, when trams, horse-drawn buses, and newly invented automobiles bustled here, is a replica of the first traffic lights erected in Europe.

By the end of the Second World War the square was almost totally destroyed, and the wasteland became the converging point of the British, American and Soviet sectors. Any remaining buildings were razed, and luminous white paint marked out the sector borders, later to be replaced with barbed wire and then The Wall.

With the building of The Wall, the only people to visit this desolate area were curious visitors from the West, who came by the bus-load to buy souvenirs and climb a platform to peer over into the East. They included US Senator JF Kennedy in 1962, Queen Elizabeth II in 1965, US President Jimmy Carter in 1973, and US President George Bush senior in 1983.

Nowadays Potsdamer Platz has been rebuilt with modern architecture, but then as now vendors sell mementos of The Wall, and you can even have your passport stamped with an authentic seal of one of the former occupying forces.
Image by Jorge Franganillo under Creative Commons License.
10
GDR Watchtower

10) GDR Watchtower

This watchtower dating from 1969 is now dwarfed by modern new buildings and has been moved eight metres to the East to accommodate their construction.

It once stood on the edge of the death-strip watching for people approaching the Eastern side of the border. These 'panorama observation towers' were also used to monitor high-security institutions like the Stasi (State Security) prison in Hohenschönhausen and the Stasi office in Weissensee.

An iron ladder within the shaft reaches up to the octagonal observation area at the top that was designed to give 360 degrees of view. However, its narrow access shaft and top-heavy design meant the 'panorama towers' were eventually replaced with more spacious, square-shaped observation towers.

Of the former 302 guard and observation towers that once stood along The Berlin Wall, only this and three square-shaped towers remain. They are now all protected historic monuments.
11
The Wall at Niederkirchnerstraße

11) The Wall at Niederkirchnerstraße

A 200 metre stretch of The Berlin Wall still stands along Niederkirchnerstraße beside the Topography of Terror exhibition. It has been damaged by 'wall-peckers', souvenir hunters chiseling away pieces of the concrete, and is now protected by a fence.

The border strip here was very narrow - just the width of the street - and the government buildings on the North side were incorporated into the inner wall.

The Berlin Wall was referred to by the GDR government as an Anti-fascist Protection Wall, playing on the East German's fears of a return of the horrors of the Nazi era. The nature of those horrors are fittingly documented in the Topography of Terror exhibition here, which stands on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters and prison. Hermann Göring's Air Ministry building still looms over the street on the North side.

The Secretary for Security Matters in 1961, responsible for building The Wall, was Erich Honecker. He later served as the Head of State of the GDR from 1976 until its dissolution. As late as January 1989 he stated that “The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years, if the reasons for it are not yet removed.”

After unification Honecker was put on trial for initiating the shoot-to-kill policy at The Wall that murdered 192 East Germans. He escaped prosecution due to ill-health, and died in Chile in 1993.
Image by Sjaak Kempe under Creative Commons License.
12
Checkpoint Charlie

12) Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie (named from the NATO phonetic alphabet for the letter C) was the only road crossing for foreigners and Allied Forces personnel on foot or in a vehicle between the Eastern and Western sectors. It came to world prominence in October 1961 when a stand-off between Soviet and American tanks nearly sparked off a Third World War. The incident began trivially enough on 22 October 1961 (just two months after construction of the wall) with a dispute over whether East German guards were authorized to examine the travel documents of a senior U.S. diplomat and his wife passing through to East Berlin to attend the theatre. Events escalated out of all proportion and both the Soviet and the Allies massively increased their military forces and armoury. By 27 October ten armed Soviet tanks faced ten armed American ones a hundred metres away across the border crossing. Around the world, troops on both sides of the Cold War were put on alert, weapons were mobilised, and nuclear warheads primed. After sixteen hours of heightened tension, when it seemed a shoot-out could break out at any moment, the first Soviet tank started up its engine and withdrew five metres. The tension was relieved, and the world breathed a sigh of relief. To get an idea of what the Checkpoint grew to look like, and to learn about escape attempts across the border, a visit to the museum 'Haus am Checkpoint Charlie' is thoroughly recommended.
Image by Clément Belleudy under Creative Commons License.
13
The Peter Fechter Memorial

13) The Peter Fechter Memorial

On Zimmerstraße stands a memorial to the shooting of young building worker Peter Fechter on 17th August 1962.

Just a year after the wall was built, Fechter tried to flee the GDR together with his friend Helmut Kulbeik.

They hid in a carpenter's workshop next to the wall on Zimmerstraße and dropped down into the strip between the inner fence and outer wall from an overlooking window. They then attempted to dash across the 'death strip' before the border guards noticed, and climb the two metre wall topped with barbed wire into West Berlin.

As they climbed the wall, the GDR border guards opened fire. Kulbeik managed to scramble over the wall to safety, but Fechter took a bullet in his pelvis and fell back onto the Eastern side, screaming in agony.

Whilst hundreds of horrified onlookers on the Western side called in vain for someone to help him, neither GDR or FRG guards attempted to give him medical assistance, both sides apparently fearing to leave their posts or to enter the forbidden zone.

After an hour, Fechter eventually died a slow death through internal and external bleeding and his body was finally retrieved by East German guards. The event caused outrage throughout the world, and a spontaneous demonstration on the Western side shouted 'Murderers!' at border guards on both sides.

The memorial says '… er wollte nur die Freiheit.' - he wanted only freedom.
Image by Oren Rozen under Creative Commons License.

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