Ask many visitors what drew them to Berlin this summer and the chances are that they will mention “the Wall.” Odd, is it not, that one of the major attractions of the German capital is a wall that is no longer there?
Berlin is a standard stop-off point on Europe’s dark tourism circuit, the city’s peculiar topography of terror encompassing a double dose of totalitarianism. It’s not often you can cover Hitler and Stalin in the same weekend. True, there are all sorts of other reasons for visiting Berlin, but the various memorials to the city’s troubled history still exert a strong pull on first-time visitors.
One wall, many stories
Most folk who don’t know Berlin come to the Wall with a murky mixture of misunderstandings, but the various exhibits and memorials about the Wall are, at their best, very educational — and at their worst rather problematic. The issue is one of emphasis. In trying to map the history of a divided Berlin, what story does one tell?
Does one go back to the currency crisis of June 1948? Should one emphasize the provocative posturing of the western Allies who occupied Berlin? Or should one look at the poor performance of the economy of the German Democratic Republic in 1960 and the first months of 1961, which some say impelled the East Berlin authorities to build the Wall to stem the tide of emigration?
The truth is that most visitors accept whatever explanation of the Wall is presented in the guidebooks they read and museums they visit. Most surely approach the topic with reverence, and those who do the rounds of Wall sights are united in thinking that “this should never have happened and this must never happen again.”
Bernauer Strasse memorial
The best spot by far for Berlin Wall tourists is the memorial installation just north of the city center along the south side of Bernauer Strasse. It is easy to reach, just three stops north of Alexanderplatz on the U8 subway route. From the station, it is an easy ten-minute walk downhill along the route of the former Wall to the Nordbahnhof train station.
But what a walk! Ten minutes on foot through a superbly planned memorial that maps several decades of Cold War history. Twice last month we took guests to the Bernauer Strasse site, and twice we left feeling we had gleaned just a fraction of what the entire ensemble has to offer.
There is a viewing tower, where visitors can peer over the Wall from the West into East Berlin — just as so many Westberliners did a half-century ago. There are two indoor exhibition areas, full of reportage, short films and artifacts that record the impact of the Wall on the everyday lives of Berliners.
Back in the open air, visitors can explore remaining stretches of the Wall, see the other deterrents that backed up the Wall, and listen to oral histories of those who tried to flee, failed in their attempted flight or had the job of protecting the borders of the German Democratic Republic. There is a deeply moving Chapel of Reconciliation — an absolute oasis of calm and peace in a busy part of Berlin.
The best free museum in Berlin
Take time, linger and ponder on the peculiar artifact of European history that once divided a city. You’ll pay not a cent to visit any part of the Bernauer Strasse memorial complex. Everything is free.
The outdoor facilities can be viewed during daylight hours. The indoor visitor center, the documentation center, the Chapel of Reconciliation and the viewing tower are generally open daily except Mondays from 09.30 until 18.00 (or 19.00 from April to October inclusive).
Everyday life in a divided city
From the lower end of the memorial complex at Nordbahnhof, S-Bahn trains run every five minutes direct to the city center, all stopping at Friedrichstrasse, Brandenburger Tor and Potsdamer Platz.
But before you leave, take a look at the display at the station showing how public transport around Berlin was disrupted in the decades when Berlin was divided. It’s a nice reminder of how Berliners learned to cope with everyday life in a divided city — a place that was a mere pawn in superpower politics.
East Side Gallery and more
No other memorial to the Wall in Berlin comes even close to matching the Bernauer complex. The East Side Gallery (on Mühlenstrasse between Ostbahnhof and the River Spree) is home to an important international artists’ initiative, but the area surrounding the wall is tacky in the extreme.
The strongly editorialized and distinctly biased exhibit at Haus am Checkpoint Charlie remains popular with US and Japanese tourists. It is outrageously overpriced with an admission charge of €12.50 that strongly deters some would-be visitors.
Those who skip it miss nothing. For years, the local Berlin government has been tussling with the owners of the Checkpoint Charlie museum, trying to curb their worst excesses, but the latter have stuck to their guns. The entire place lacks any dignity. Derided by the Berlin media for its tacky Disneyesque quality and grubby commercialism, it continues to be a source of wonder to many local politicians that anyone ventures near the place.
Perhaps those politicians are right for once. Our feeling is there is nothing at Checkpoint Charlie which is not handled very much better at the Bernauer Strasse memorial. So save your euros and head north to Bernauer Strasse for a truly thought-provoking Berlin experience.