Behind the Wall in Berlin
By Bill Dhalle
Once again the capital of a unified Germany, the new Berlin is still very much a work in progress.
The Pearl on the River Spree still bears scars from the devastation of the Second World War, and from nearly 40 years of division brought about by the Cold War and the construction of the Berlin Wall. These scars still mar both the physical and mental landscapes of the city.
With the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (a.k.a. East Germany, Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR) and reunification with the West, the two halves of Berlin were once again whole and the city began a long and difficult healing process, which still continues.
Today, Berlin struggles to embrace it’s turbulent past while preparing itself for a promising and exciting future as one of the central cities of the European Union.
For anyone with even a passing interest in “the other Germany,” as the DDR was often referred to, visiting the former East Berlin can offer a glimpse of what life might have been like behind the Berlin Wall.
Cold War Era Sites
While Berliners may have felt a collective sigh of relief at the end of the Second World War, their suffering and angst was far from over. In the years following the end of the war the tensions between the East and West grew, culminating in 1961 with the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Today, some of the most interesting historical sites in Berlin have ties to the Communist era of the DDR. While the spotlight is often taken by places like Checkpoint Charlie and Brandenburg Gate, I’d like to focus on some less frequented sites.
Old names die hard, and that is certainly the case in the eastern areas of Berlin where many streets, parks and squares have retained their communist inspired names. Karl-Marx-Allee is a sprawling four-lane boulevard that has been called East Germany’s answer to des Champs Elysées in Paris.
KMA stretches from Alexanderplatz in the Mitte district, to Frankfurter Tor in the Friedrichshain district. The boulevard was born from the post-war reconstruction of the Soviet-occupied zones of Berlin. Called Stalinallee from the end of the war until 1962, it was built to represent the socialist ideals of the New Germany.
Just about all the buildings were designed in the “wedding cake” style of “Socialist-Realist” architecture. In fact, some of the buildings are said to have been copied from structures in Moscow.
Today, KMA is full of stores, cafés and apartments. Many of the buildings are now under protection order as landmarks. Along some areas of the street there are historical markers that describe the buildings and their significance.
Walking along KMA is a great way to get a peek at a truly historical section of Berlin, but it is a long walk from Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor.
If you need to take a break, you may want to stop by Café Sybille (Karl-Marx-Allee 72; on the right side of the street if you are going east from Alexanderplatz). Not only does Café Sybille have great coffee and snacks, but also houses and displays many artifacts which illustrate the history and significance of Karl-Marx-Allee.
Just a few doors away from Café Sybille is the Karl Marx Buchhandlung (Karl-Marx-Allee 78), a well-stocked bookstore selling titles focusing on Berlin architecture and on Karl-Marx-Allee itself. If you’ve seen the film, “The Lives Of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen” in German), then you’ve seen the Karl Marx Buchhandlung, as it was featured in the closing scenes of the film.
East Side Gallery
What today is called the East Side Gallery is the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. Today, this approximately 1.3 kilometer stretch of Berlin Wall remnant is a huge open-air art gallery, said to be the largest such gallery in the world.
A trip to the East Side Gallery is worthwhile if for nothing more than to stand next to the longest remaining portion of the Wall, to try and grasp what it must have been like to live on either side of this concrete and metal barrier.
Walking alongside the wall, it is hard to shake the feeling of oppression that still emanates from the crumbling concrete, especially on a cloudy and drizzly day. It is even harder to comprehend that the purpose of its creation was to stifle the sort of free and independent thought that spawned the very artwork that now adorns its surface. To me, this makes the East Side Gallery one of the most interesting and emotionally moving places in Berlin.
Running along Mühlenstraße between the Oberbaumbrücke bridge (which Franke Potente ran across in the film “Run Lola Run”) and the Ostbahnhof rail station (formerly East Berlin’s main railway station), the East Side Gallery was created in 1990 when an international gathering of artists used this section of the Wall as their canvas.
The gallery is home to roughly 106 different murals, each painted by a different artist. Two of the most famous murals are the Trabant mural (with the infamous East German car smashing through the wall) and the “Kiss of Death” mural (with Soviet premier Leonoid Brezhnev and East German leader Eric Honecker in a lip-locked embrace).
Although it is under protection order as a historical landmark, the East Side Gallery has fallen victim to the ubiquitous graffiti that permeates Berlin.
Sections of the gallery were restored in 2000 to reverse the effects of vandalism and aging. Sadly, even these restored sections have again fallen victim to the spray can. Nonetheless, the East Side Gallery is a place that no visit to Berlin should be without.
Palast der Republik
This former seat of the East German parliament, and former home of bowling (yes, bowling) in East Berlin would normally be at the top of any DDR era “places to see” list.
However, the Palast der Republik, or more precisely, what’s left of it, is not long for this world. Demolition of the 1970’s era building started in February 2006 after a long fight to save it. So if you want to see the remnants of the symbol of the DDR, you’d better hurry: as of August 2007, the center section was just about gone.
If you feel underwhelmed by what’s left of the Palast der Republik, then relief is a short walk away. From the Palast, walk across the Schlossbrücke bridge and head in the direction of Alexanderplatz.
Just across the bridge, in the plaza on the left side area (known as the Spreepromenade), facing the back of the Berliner Dom cathedral is the DDR Museum (Karl-Liebnecht-Straße 1).
Opened in July 2006, this highly interactive museum highlights all facets of life being the Wall, and even includes a mock-up of a typical East Berlin apartment, complete with Mocha-Fix Gold coffee and Globus peas in the cupboards.
East German Border Guard Towers
Tall, imposing, concrete guard towers once lined the city borders, keeping a watchful eye for anyone daring enough to try and cross the Berlin Wall into the West. Today, a handful of them remain as monuments and reminders of the past. There are two that are well worth a visit.
The first is in Mitte, on Kieler Straße, a 10-minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof (Main Rail Station). Surrounded by apartment buildings, this tower is now a memorial in honor of Günther Liftin, the first of many people who were shot and killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall.
The second tower, also in Mitte, is just across from Potsdamer Platz, on Erna-Berger-Straße. This tower is significant because it is the last of the round “mushroom” type towers to remain standing. Under a preservation order as a landmark, the tower was actually moved several feet after unification to accommodate the new building developments that have taken over this area.
While not a landmark per se, the Trabant Safari allows you to get behind the wheel of a Trabant, the 2-stroke engine powered East German “wonder car” that has become a cult symbol of the DDR era.
Also knows as a “Trabi”, the Trabant is a unique vehicle and driving one through the former East Berlin is an experience like no other.
The Trabant Safari puts you behind the wheel of one of these vintage cars, while a tour guide (either in another vehicle via radio, or in the back seat of your car) gives you not only a history of many famous DDR era landmarks but also gives you directions on where to turn and help in how to shift gears.
The Trabant is a very fun car to drive, but gear shifting will take some practice. If you are limited on time and want a great overview of DDR era landmarks, this is a great solution. Tours are offered in English, cost €35 per person and last about 90 minutes.
Berlin has plenty of options for dining with establishments catering to every taste, featuring food from every corner of the globe.
But if you want a traditional Berlin dining experience, it doesn’t get any “more Berlin” than at Tiergartenquelle (Bachstraße 6, Tiergarten). Tiergartenquelle is located under the arches of the Tiergarten S-Bahn station, making it very easy to get to.
Opened shortly after the Berlin Wall went up, this Berlin institution is a dying breed amidst the onslaught of “multi-kulti” dining that has developed in the city. Large wooden tables with benches for seating, combined with wood paneled walls covered in images of Berlin’s past make up the décor.
The menu is typical German fare combined with a great selection of local beers (the Schultheiss was my favorite). The food is fantastic, and the portions are enormous! This is a place to spend an evening, and not just rush in and out for a meal.
Perhaps the best reason to visit Tiergartenquelle, other than the amazing Berlin atmosphere, is the signature dessert, Kaiserschmarrn. This dish is served in the form of a piping hot, chopped pancake-like base, covered with cherries, sauce, almonds, powdered sugar, and topped with towers of whipped cream.
The Kaiserschmarrn at Tiergartenquelle isn’t so much a dessert, as it is a castle on a plate. When you order it, your server will warn you that it is “sehr, sehr große” (very, very big). Heed their warning. And don’t attempt to eat an entire Kaiserschmarrn alone. Bring help. Lots of hungry help. You’ll need it.
While there are plenty of places to stay in the former East Berlin, to give your DDR/Cold War era excursions a true “feel of the East”, I’m partial to an affordable and comfortable little place in the West, the Hotel Astrid (Bleibtruestraße 20, Charlottenburg).
The Astrid is not lavish, but extremely comfortable, quiet and clean. Best of all, the location can’t be beat: the Uhlandstraße U-Bahn, and Savingyplatz S-Bahn stations are each a three-minute walk from the hotel. Less than forty meters from the front door is a bus stop on the famous Kurfürstandamm boulevard, which makes it easy to catch the bus to Tegel airport.
Rooms rates start at around €60 for a single and include breakfast. The Hotel Astrid is located in a beautiful and ornate old building, which is under protection order as a landmark.
But, if you really want to feel like you are back in the DDR, then check into a room at Ostel (Wriezener Karree 5, Friedrichshain, a short walk from the Ostbahnhof). Ostel is a DDR themed hotel in which each room is decorated with items and styles from the former East Germany, complete with a picture East German leader Eric Honecker hanging above the beds.
Set in a former DDR-era apartment building (knows as a “plattenbau”), rooms at Ostel start at around €40 for a single, with breakfast available at an extra charge. Find accommodation in Berlin at All Berlin Apartments.
Bill Dhalle is an art director and self-proclaimed Berlin addict living in upstate New York. Prior to his career in graphic and web design, he worked as a train dispatcher. Bill began traveling to Europe in 1985, but it has been his recent trips to areas of former East Germany and to his grandfather’s birthplace in the Netherlands that have spurred his desire to write about his travels.
Helpful Web Links
Berlin’s transit authority with maps and info on public transportation
Drive an East German car, the infamous Trabant through the heart of East Berlin.
Dine here for a unique Berlin experience
An affordable and comfortable hotel in the Charlottenburg district
A unique DDR-themed hotel with room decorated with styles and items from former East Germany.