Lured by the ghosts of yesteryear, visitors come to delve into Berlin’s turbulent yet intriguing saga. Since formal German reunification in 1990, the significant imprints left by the Cold War and the former GDR, or DDR, have accelerated to overwhelming proportions. From the impact of the Berlin Wall to communist-style architecture, the city’s past remains ever present. An amazing European capital with a flair all unto its own, explore this world-class metropolis that speaks volumes of history.
By 1961, 2.6 million people had left the East for the West before the GDR government decided that it had had enough with its citizens “voting with their feet.“ The end result was the Berlin Wall.
Although the city’s notorious emblem of division crumbled in the autumn of 1989, the longest stretch of the eastern, inner wall remains along the shore of the Spree River. In 1990, over one hundred artists from 21 countries traveled to Berlin to create what is now the East Side Gallery. Since then, millions of visitors have strolled by to admire the artistic creations upon this 1300-meter concrete canvas. Works include the Mortal Kiss, which features former East German president Erich Honecker lip-locked with former Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, and Test the Rest–a Trabant barreling through the Berlin Wall on the day it fell.
To learn more about the Berlin Wall, visit the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial) in the western district of Wedding, where the free exhibition showcases an in-depth account of the initial days of the Wall’s construction. Along with the documentation center, original film footage shows tearful separations of families, daring escapes across rolls of barbed wire and jumps out of apartment buildings, which in many places, such as in this district, defined the line between East and West. Between 1961 and 1989, at least 136 people lost their lives in defying attempts to cross the heavily secured border into West Berlin.
Haus am Checkpoint Charlie has a fascinating array of Cold War history. It focuses not only on the ingenious efforts of East German citizens who defected to the West, but also on the Berlin Wall and the Berlin Airlift. An outdoor exhibition nearby also chronicles this once tense transit point between American and Soviet sectors.
True to the communist regime, the Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi—the GDR’s secret service—had employed at one point up to 91,000 workers with 180,000 informants, who observed, photographed and reported on its own citizens. In its history, the Stasi had arrested and convicted up to 250,000 people for various political reasons, many of whom ended up in a nightmarish prison.
At the Stasi Prison, former inmates lead the tours and tell first-hand accounts about life behind bars, including interrogation and torturing methods. First used by the Soviets after WWII, the Stasi took over the facilities in the 1950s and used them until 1989. The chilling story begins by entering the dreaded ‘U-Boat,’ where it is unfathomable to imagine oneself locked up with eight to 12 people in a windowless, subterranean cell for days and weeks on end. Yet, once outgrowing this section, labror camp inmates built other prison cells and interrogation rooms, where everyone, in one way or another, signed a confession statement.
Housed in the former ministry headquarters, the Stasi Museum exhibits surveillance devices and other security memorabilia. The highlight, of course, is Erich Mielke’s authentic offices, also known as the ‘lion’s den.’ As head of the Stasi, Mielke knew everything and anything about East German citizens, including top-leading government officials. It was no wonder he was in power for just over three decades.
Back in the Day
Open doors, comb through drawers and discover all sorts of mementos at the DDR Museum. The hands-on concept enhances the museum’s educational exhibition of daily East German life. Visitors can groove to music, critique the fashion, check out government-censored media and step into a fully-furnished model apartment.
A Trabant, East Germany’s answer to the VW Bug, is also on display as if it were in a dealership’s showroom. While waiting to sit in the driver’s seat and experience a simulated test-drive, a video explains how this car came to life with the help of some Duroplast, cotton fleece and granulated resin. Surprisingly enough, the Trabant was more expensive for citizens to buy used than new, since it took 10 years to receive after putting in an order for one.
Safari in the City
Soak up the sites of the urban jungle and go on a safari–a Trabi Safari that is. Whether admiring the monumental Stalinist architecture on Karl-Marx-Allee or the Sputnik-esque design of the television tower in Alexanderplatz, take a ride in a Trabant, and experience a one-of-a-kind expedition through Berlin.
Prior to setting out on the 90-minute journey down memory lane, drivers receive a crash course on how to handle this automobile from days gone by. As the caravan of multi-colored and animal-print Trabis drive by Berlin’s past on the streets of its present, passengers can listen to the tour leader via the car’s radio.
After a day of sightseeing, weary tourists can rest well at the Ostel. Entering the lobby of this “DDR design hotel,“ guests will be in store for a splash from the past with the blending of modernity and history. The Ostel offers tastefully decorated rooms with furniture and accessories that once filled many GDR homes. Either for the budget-conscious travelers, who are in touch with their inner youth-hostel spirit, or an en-suite double room for the romantic couple; there is something for everyone.
Always evolving and reinventing itself, Berlin’s wealth of history presents a multitude of opportunities to look into the mirror that reflects its past.