Almost hidden behind the trees, opposite the southern side of the Reichstag there is a memorial for victims of the Berlin Wall, which used to run only a few steps away.
The memorial has white crosses with names of people who were killed whilst trying to escape over the wall from East Germany. Some of the crosses also have photos of the deceased, with stories of how they attempted to flee to a better life.
It was pretty sobering to read and hard to imagine that all of this was only going on a few decades ago. Particularly sad was the story of the man who was shot dead only a short time before the two sides were unified.
The Stasi Exhibition is not as well known as the Stasi Museum but it is well worth a visit. If you speak to the staff at the reception they will provide you with a free guide in English as all the exhibits only have a German text. Some of the exhibits include the apparatus that was used to spy on people including the sniff jars or odour collection jars. If you have seen the German film ‘The lives of others’ you will have seen the use of sniff jars. When suspects were questioned their scent was collected from individual seat covers placed on the chair they had been sitting on and retained in sealed jars for trained dogs to sniff if needed. The method has been used since the GDR days to sniff out known trouble makers in a crowd of demonstrators using dogs. There are a number of listening devices, the interception of mail and cameras also on display. This is an excellent exhibition of the history of the Stasi with free entrance.
In 1945 the war in Europe ended and the allies took over the administration of Berlin but there was soon a falling out between east & west as to how Berlin was to develop. The cold war had begun and was to last until 1990, the occupying powers eventually left Berlin in 1994. The exhibition is house in 2 different buildings and there is an outdoor exhibition in between. The Nicholson Memorial Library gives a history of the cold war and includes a section of a spy tunnel. A joint operation between the British & Americans who dug a tunnel 450m long and 6m underground into the Soviet section and tapped into the main telephone junction box to listen into thousands of telephone conversations between Berlin and Moscow. Unbeknown at the time the spy George Blake had tipped of the Soviets who let the operation go ahead so they could pass on misinformation. 11 months after the start of the tapping the soviets broke into their end of the tunnel and uproar followed. The other building is the Outpost Theatre which covers the events surrounding the Berlin Airlift. In 1948 the allies in the western part of Berlin wanted to introduce a new currency to also include the Soviet part. The Soviet were not happy with this proposal and wanted to get rid of the allies in the western part and attempted this by cutting off all surface routes to Berlin on the 27th June. If nothing had been done the population in west Berlin would have starved. The only way to get supplies into Berlin was by air and this continued until 12th May 1949 when the blockade was lifted. 2 millions tons of supplies had been brought into Berlin by 270,000 flights. Outside there is the original guardhouse from Checkpoint Charlie that was located on Friedrichstrasse, a French Railroad car and a British built Hastings Aircraft.
The Wall, whose total length was 155 km, was erected over one night - on August 13th, 1961. The division tore apart the city and the nation. It may sound impersonal so it's worth remembering that in fact it tore apart many families and friends. Not everyone was able to accept this division passively. Some desperate 'daredevils' tried to cross the Wall. About 150 of them paid for it with their lives.
3 200 were caught and imprisoned. Finally, after 28 years, the Wall fell and the moment came when Berliners from the opposite sides of the Wall could fall into each other's arms. But they can't forget the times of inhuman regime and don't want to forget about the victims.
The Stasi Museum is housed in one of buildings, that was once part of the Ministry of the Interior Complex. The Stasi were established in the early 1950’s and was presided over by Erich Mielke. The Stasi was the secret police of the GDR and its purpose was repression of the people and it did its work well. When the wall came down one of the buildings was turned into a museum in 1990. In theory you can have a look at your file and discover what information was held and who may have provided it, but few people have achieved this. The museum has various rooms with exhibits and includes Mielke’s Office. The problem with this museum is language. Everything is in German and as you wander about the different floors your are not quite sure if you are allowed to enter some of the corridors. I did ask about a guide book in English at the cash office but was met with blank stares. I know that guided tours in English are available for groups, if sufficient notice is given but its more of a problem for the independent traveller.
Between 1951 and 1989 the East German Stasi used the Hohenschönhausen Prison as a detention centre for prisoners that had not been convicted. These consisted of persons opposed to the regime but also later on persons trying to flee to the west. During the early days various method of physical torture were used on the prisoners but as time went on the methods became much more sophisticated and psychological techniques were used. The prison was located in a restricted military zone and did not appear on any maps, the prisoners were transported there in vans with blacked out windows, so they had no idea where they were being held. They were held in insolation and this was part of the techniques used by the Stasi. Due to the length of time prisoners could be held in the prison, in the end most were forced to confess.
At present you have to go round the prison as part of a group. You need to pick a tour carefully, most are in German though there is one in English at 2pm on Saturdays. I went on a Monday which is a free day and was put on a tour where the guide also spoke English.
It is 60 years since the Berlin Airlift and what was a major stand off between the Soviet Union and the other victorious powers of France, Great Britain and the United States. The blockade followed a dispute between the Soviet Union and the other western powers over the introduction of a new Deutsche Mark by the Allies. The Soviet Union imposed a blockade around Berlin only allowing access by air. Josef Stalin hoped by this move to get rid of the Allies out of Berlin but for once he under estimated the stubbornness of President Harry Truman. For nearly 1 year supplies were brought into Berlin mainly via Tempelhof Airport and a newly constructed airport that is now Tegel Airport. Eventually Stalin gave in and normal means of transport allowed again. This memorial was completed in 1951 and is dedicated to the 78 pilots and crew members that lost their lives. The memorial stands in a small park at the front of Tempelhof Airport.
I decided to go for a stroll around the ellipse-shaped street of Majakowskiring with its upmarket houses. During the 1950’s this was the road that senior members of the GDR government lived in with its 1920’s houses, which were converted to suit their needs. During that period the street was well guarded and shielded from the outside world. For members of the Politburo this was not enough and after the Hungarian Uprising they became more nervous for their safety and a decision was made to build the secure Forest Community out at Wandlitz north of Berlin.
The Palace of Tears was a border crossing point located on the northern side of the Berlin Friedrichstrasse railway station. Opened in 1962 after the lower level of the Friedrichstrasse railway station became too small. S-Bahn & U-Bahn trains from west Berlin stopped at the station and passengers from the west could change trains or enter east Berlin. Those from the east could not leave and hence when distressing goodbyes were made it was named the Palace of tears. After reunification the building was given listed building status in 1993 and was a night club until 2006. On 15 September 2011 a permanent 550 square metre exhibition of the crossing points history was opened by Chancellor Angela Merkel in the restored building. Entrance to the museum is free but bags must be stored in lockers. If you are passing it only takes about 1 hour to look around and gain an insight to life during this period of recent history.
At the end of World War 2, thousands of tonnes of rubble from 400,000 damaged buildings were sent to Grunewald Forest to form an artificial hill 80 metres tall and called Devil’s Mountain. During the cold war the Americans built one to the largest listening posts in the world on top of the hill with uninterupted views to listen in the Soviets and East Germans. With the end of the cold all the equipment was removed and the station abandoned. Investors were going to build hotels and flats there was even talk of a spy museum. All of the plans have been abandoned and even with 3 layers of tall wire fencing the site has been vandalised. Having reached the post you can walk around the perimeter fencing to view the different structures and now listen to the wind blowing through the now empty towers.
Rathaus Schöneberg was the seat of the West Berlin Government from1949 to 1990. Completed in 1914, the United States of America donated a copy of the liberty bell in 1950, which is still in the clock tower, to celebrate the end of the Berlin Blockade. The town hall became famous on 26th June 1963 when John F Kennedy made his ‘I am a Berliner’ speech on the steps of the Town Hall in front of a huge crowd. The speech regarded as one of Kennedy’s best is commemorated with a plaque in German outside the town hall entrance. The speech is remembered for the 'I am a Berliner' part which Kennedy spoke in German and whether he got this part wrong and called himself a doughnut or whether it is an urban legend and he got it right.
This was a surprising memorial I found out about while walking to the Reichstag.
It is between the Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag, and it consists of a fence with white crosses with the names and dates of death of people who died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall.
It is a simple monument, but it's meaning and emotional effects are tremendous.
Chris Gueffroy was the last victim of Berlin wall. He died in February 1989, only nine months before the wall came down and everybody was free to go. The 20 year old was shot when trying to swim through a canal between Treptow (east) and Neukölln (west).
Gueffroy got a grave in East Berlin but the GDR officials chose the stone for it. His mother wasn't allowed to. Whenever there were flowers at his grave they were removed.
After the reunification the border patrol who had fired the shot killing Gueffroy, was sentenced to three and a half years. In 1993 the penalty was changed to two years of probation.
I thought I might have a further look at walking where the Berlin Wall once stood from Checkpoint Charlie to Bösebrücke. I had downloaded an 'app' for my ipod and off I went. Though I have been to Potsdamerplatz and the surrounding area lots of timse this was the first time I had walked down Erna-Berger-Straße. Located towards the bottom of the road stands Berlin's last remaining BT-11 watchtower. It is easy to miss unless you look up because it only has a slender cylindrical body. The watch tower was moved after reunification 10 metres to the East from its original position because of the construction of a building. This type of watchtower was introduced in 1969 and gave good all round vision but because the guard had to use a narrow steel ladder inside the cylindrical body it was difficult to make a speedy exit. With a narrow body the watchtower was also unstable and was gradually replaced by the more spacious square type. The watchtower was given historical monument status in 2001.
The headquarters of the former East German secret police is now open for you to explore. Visitors can look around the offices and conference rooms of secret police chief Erich Mielke, have coffee in the cafeteria they used, and examine a series of exhibits displaying bugging devices, spy cameras etc.
It is quite fascinating to walk calmly and curiously through what once was the center of an imposing police state. The low quality furniture and surroundings may say different things to people about the reality of the times of the former Soviet satelite state.
I'd recommend also seeing the 2006 German film "The Lives of Others," which won the US Academy award for best foreign picture. You will recognize the building exterior of the Stasi headquarters, which is the museum, as well as one of the delivery trucks that is in the main lobby - the type used to pick up and deliver those who were arrested. Rather frightening.