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Tear down the wall

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Modern Berlin is vibrant. Its streets are always busy, though never uncomfortably crowded. Its people are a multicultural mix who speak a variety of languages, with German predominating, of course. The population is pretty stylish. That it’s a pretty open, liberal society is apparent in various ways, from the casual beer drinking by people on subways cars on the street (not drunks; just people enjoying a beer); the many sex shops and clubs; even the sweet, candy-cotton waft of e-cigarette smoke.

And it certainly seems economically healthy, with all the construction projects foiling Jean’s photography attempts, the many high-end designer shops available, the architecturally beautiful new malls like Bikini Berlin,  and the relative scarcity of homeless people—far fewer than you see in large Canadian cities.

Berlin Dome
The Berlin Dome—one of the rare older buildings in modern Berlin

Berliners are well-supported in their desire to move around. Admittedly, the new airport is stuck is some sort of construction limbo, and the current one seems a bit dated. (It’s convenient that you go through security right at your gate, and disembark from the plane right where your luggage is, but there’s a notable lack of airport services.) But the transit system… amazing! It took us a few days to figure out it—the light rail (M trains), the surface trains (S-Bahn), the subway (U-Bahn), the regional train, the buses. But then—sometimes with help of Google Maps—it got us everywhere we wanted to go.

Berlin transit map
Berlin transit map

We did notice some police presence—always around the Jewish synagogue, often at the main train station: one day we emerge to a whole lineup of police officers at the ready with riot gear. But it seemed clear this was about protecting, not repressing the population.

I think that’s why all the memorials to The Berlin Wall struck me so profoundly. The contrast with the present was so stark.

That Berlin was a city once divided by all wall into communist East and democratic west was the main thing I knew, going in. Today almost all of the Wall is down, and you can’t tell East from West—not by architectural differences, or weird road designs, or anything.

The main memorial remaining is the Gedenstätte Berliner Mauer, on a street once completed divided into east and west. Now just one wall segment remains, with an outdoor exhibit.

The closest train stop to it is the Nordbahnhof S-station. This station was below East Berlin, so the West Berlin trains that ran through it at that time were not permitted to stop there. This and few others like it became “ghost stations.”

U Station, Berlin
The end of the line—U station trapped behind the Berlin Wall, 1962. Source:

The communist regime quickly realized these stations could be used for escape attempts, so they set up guards. Only thing is, the guards then escaped, so they started locking the guards in their posts to prevent this. In case of fire? The guards would have been doomed. I learned about this and about other—mostly unsuccessful—attempts to escape from these increasingly fortified ghost stations via informational posters put up at this station.

Berlin station posters
The Nordbahnhof S-station then and now (pretty much). Source:

It all just seemed so weird—this enormous amount of government time and money spent on keeping a population imprisoned in its country.

The Berlin Wall exhibit itself naturally gives the history of the building of the Wall. The initial version was a little too easy to scale, so they kept “improving” it with various features that made climbing and escaping more difficult. I hadn’t realized that they’d ended up with two parallel Walls, with a fairly wide, guarded space between each.

One Berlin Wall
The green space on the left is bordered by yet another wall…

There was also a photo exhibit of people who had died attempting to escape (or from just being in the wrong place). Many were teenagers and children.

A rebuilt Church of Reconciliation chapel stands at one end. The original church was dynamited in 1985, its walled-on facade proving too much of a PR nightmare for the East German regime.

Statue by Berlin Wall
Photos, artifacts, and this statue commemorate the original Church of Reconciliation. Photo by me.

Later we visited a couple museums that focused on what life was like in East Berlin. The Lonely Planet description of the DDR Museum is pretty accurate:

The ‘touchy-feely’ DDR Museum does an entertaining job of pulling back the iron curtain on an extinct society. In hands-on fashion you’ll learn how, under socialism, kids were put through collective potty training, engineers earned little more than farmers, and everyone, it seems, went on nudist holidays.

Lonely Planet

The interactive approach was kind of fun, while also being educational. You got to sit in a 1970s style living room, try to determine your factory’s target output under central planning principles (very difficult), and gauge whether your choice of clothing and accessories would meet with government approval.

DDR Museum
Photo from the official DDR Museum site

This is a good place to go if you want your faith restored in capitalism. It explained how the economic central planning led to product shortages (except for privileged government members), though it also kept basic food stuffs really cheap (which I hadn’t realized). And it just made innovation impossible—lack of trade meant they couldn’t build on others’ work, and lacked the incentive and materials needed to come up with similar improvements themselves. This was perhaps most evident in the one car available to East Germans (if they saved their money a long time): the Trabant.

Tranbant Sales Girl :)
The Trabant: A car model that didn’t evolve for 30 years

The above photo was taken at the History of Berlin museum, which tries to bring all of Berlin history to life through a series of multimedia exhibits. We didn’t get as much out of that one (though the teenagers there seemed to like it), but it did include a tour of a nuclear bunker.

Now, we have toured a nuclear bunker in Canada: the Diefenbunker. This is a huge, amazing facility designed to keep the Government of Canada operational during a nuclear attack.

These German nuclear bunkers couldn’t be more different. Designed for ordinary people—though there were only enough of these for about 0.5% population (with no real plan for how the unarmed guards in charge were supposed to manage this triage)—only the very basics were available. In the vestibule, you were to strip, shower, then enter the bunker, in which almost all floor space was taken up with stacked bare cots.

Bunker Bedding
Welcome to the apocalypse

The space, our tour guide pointed out, would quickly very hot with the 3000 or so inhabitants crammed in. The toilets and sinks were quite limited for this number of people, and there were no showers or mirrors inside. Kitchens were also small, and designed just to heat up big pots of canned food. An air filtration system, with backup generator, was designed to work just 14 days. Then it was back out into the nuclear wasteland with you.

The whole idea really gave me the willies.

We took a bit of a break from Wall memorials til later in the week, when we stopped in at the Trãnenpalast, or Palace of Tears, the preserved pavilion where East Berliners had to say good-bye to visitors. The small exhibit does a very good job of showing of what the border-crossing experience was like, and giving examples of families and lovers who were torn apart by the political rift. Quite emotional.

The Wall only came up once more, on our tour of Potsdam the last day—I hadn’t realized the Wall stretched so far. A small fence by the river marks the spot where the view-blocking Berlin Wall once caused much unhappiness.

Building walls. Who in this day and age would still think that’s a good idea?

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