Nature reclaims the Death Strip. Pioneer birch trees have self-seeded, creating a winding, shady memorial that runs through the heart of Berlin. There are also cherry blossoms, a gift from the Japanese government. But it’s the thin, silvery trunks of the birch trees and the dappled, dancing shadows they cast on the path that shape the view.
Pieces of graffiti from the Platz checkpoint from November 9, 1989 are right above me. They stand side by side with larger-than-life photos of a night 30 years ago, when human error led to the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall. The barricade of concrete and barbed wire separated the neighborhoods and families of the city, the capitalist west from the communist east. The 30m-wide scar across the city, 155km long, still characterizes much of Berlin’s urban landscape and influences development today.
I don’t remember the day the wall fell. I saw the jubilant pictures and photos, of course, but like many millennials born in the later years of the Soviet Union, this is an event that I learned mostly in school.
I came to Berlin as the 30th anniversary approaches in 2019 to walk the Wall and hear the stories of those who have lived alongside it. What I discovered is that even in spaces where the structure has long since disappeared, the ghost of the wall still casts its shadow.
To understand why the wall came into being in the first place, you have to go back to the 1940s. Berlin lay deep in East Germany, and after World War II Stalin expected to take it over. control. When the city was divided between the Allied powers, his response was to try to starve the Americans and the British to get them out. The Berlin Airlift transformed West Berlin overnight into a symbol of Western bravery against Soviet oppression; the city took on a propaganda value that made it nearly impossible for any party to negotiate a withdrawal.
In the 1950s, some 3.5 million East Germans entered West Berlin, recovered their refugee papers, and then legally left the Soviet Union. The population exodus was a serious concern for the East German authorities, so from 1961 they surrounded West Berlin with an increasingly impenetrable wall. They have a shoot-to-kill policy in place. Other potential escapees have been killed in crashes or committed suicide without making it across. According to the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (the Berlin Wall Memorial), more than 140 people have died.
I picked up my rental bike and met tour guide Lauren in Berlin on Bike at Kulturbrauerei, a beautifully restored red brick brewery in the Prenzlauer Berg district. It is estimated that there are 500,000 cyclists on Berlin’s roads every day, and the city has invested heavily in bicycle-friendly infrastructure to meet their demands. I’m not the bravest of cyclists, but the combination of well-planned cycle paths and bike-conscious motorists made for a stress-free start.
We zigzagged through the predominantly residential areas of what was once East Berlin. Unlike its western counterpart, there was no money for post-war reconstruction here. Poor immigrants lived in the densely populated apartment buildings next to the railroad tracks, many buildings shattered by bomb damage and bullet holes. The windows facing the Death Band were walled up, there were lookout posts in the attics, and soldiers stood guard on the rooftops. It is estimated that one in three East Germans living here was under Stasi surveillance, but despite the constant fear, there was nonetheless a network of silent resistance. The Sionkirche had a secret library of Western literature; the church of Gethsemane was a meeting place for opponents of the regime; and places such as the Sonntags Club provided a safe space for homosexuals and other persecuted groups.
When the wall fell, it was the cheapest real estate in town: a land of squats, artist studios and frenzied techno nights.
The Mauerpark – a vast urban park built into the void left by the wall – buzzed with the energy of outdoor karaoke singers, graffiti artists and flea market traders. The war damaged buildings had not yet been demolished, and the central terrain they stood on was precious. Then the developers moved in and a period of rapid gentrification began. Four-fifths of those who lived here in 1989 left, undermined by a wave of expatriates.
The Mauerpark is hanging on, for now, but the well-to-do residents of the ever-growing number of luxury apartments surrounding it are in an ongoing battle with Berliners for whom the slightly dilapidated park is both a memorial and a symbol of their resistance. Parking the bikes in the shade, we stopped for a beer at the Mauersegler beer garden and talked about the rising cost of living, bunker-like architecture of some of the latest apartments and buildings. attempts to prohibit buskers from gambling.
We walked along the canal, where Europa City is filling in the dead land left by the removal of the wall. A small guard tower, overshadowed by new apartment buildings, was purchased by local residents to protect it from encroachment and demolition. It constantly reminds them that not so long ago everything they did was watched.
Around the corner is a second memorial to 24-year-old Gunter Liftin. When the wall was erected on August 13, 1961 (something that happened so quickly, so secretly, that not even the U.S. Secret Service saw it coming), Gunter was working in West Berlin, but lived there. ‘East. Trapped by roadblocks and barbed wire, he tried to escape by swimming across the canal. No official announcement had been made on the shoot-to-kill policy. Gunter was shot at the water’s edge with his hands in the air. He is buried in St Hedwig’s cemetery, in addition to what remains of World War I and WWII graves torn apart by the wall. Beaten past the point of identification, all that remains is a plaque with the names of those known to have been buried here.
The visit ended next to the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer. Here there is the last intact stretch of spooky concrete wall and a thought-provoking photo montage of all who have died trying to cross to freedom.
It’s an uncomfortable place to stand even now. Yes, the wall served its purpose: it put an end to the mass migration from East Germany and, therefore, also calmed the flashpoint that was Berlin in the 1950s. The wall stabilized Europe, but in doing so he recognized an eternal division in Berlin. It is estimated that it will take 55 years to reconnect the infrastructure distributed between the two cities, so at least another generation remains. And mending broken lives, broken identities can take even longer.
Rooms at the Radisson Blu Hotel Berlin (www.radissonblu.com) start from EUR 128 per night for bed and breakfast. The Berlin Wall Guided Bike Tour costs EUR 19 from Berlin on Bike (www.berlinonbike.de).