Traces of the Wall: Relive History in Berlin

Berlin Wall 1961-1989 © picture-alliance/dpa Enlarge image A ribbon of cobblestones marks the path of the Berlin wall through the inner city. (© picture-alliance/dpa) When thousands of Berliners descended on the newly opened border on November 9, 1989, preserving an important piece of history was the last thing on anyone's mind. In the days that followed, sections of the Berlin wall were hastily removed to accommodate the throngs of East Germans who wanted a glimpse of the West. Overnight, a 100-mile ring of concrete and steel was suddenly bereft of its tragic purpose.

Public opinion was more or less unanimous; the wall had to go. Thousands chipped away at the bulwark with chisels and hammers to break off a souvenir chunk of a relic that was clearly not long for this world. Aside from the colossal inconvenience of the wall, there was a sense of historic urgency surrounding the its removal. The Berlin Senate later surmised that the hurry to eradicate any trace of the wall was attributable to a sense that a complete and permanent removal would ensure the irreversibility of a change that had literally swept in overnight.

The GDR border police set to work dismantling the border they had guarded for nearly 30 years, now under the supervision of the West German Bundeswehr. Just a year later, on November 30, 1990 they reported that the task was complete. Most of the wall had been pulverized into hundreds of thousands of tons of gravel for building roads to connect the two halves of the city.

As the demolition work was going full bore, a small group of historians and civic activists in the East and West began pressing to preserve parts of the wall. On August 13, 1991, the Berlin Senate resolved to create a memorial at Bernauer Strasse, but by then it was one of just three sites where a major section of the wall remained intact.

By the mid-nineties, it was clear that the city had missed an opportunity. An almost unrecognizable new metropolis was sprouting under a forest of construction cranes over the old no-man's lands. Volker Hassemer, a Berlin Senator responsible for urban development, said plainly in 1995 that if remnants of the wall were not preserved, then “Quite soon nobody will believe that such a thing was put into the middle of a metropolis.”

Within a decade of the wall falling, Berlin achieved something momentous; it became commonplace for Berliners to cross between East and West Berlin without thinking much of it. Today, the city is working to ensure that the world remembers just how extraordinary an every day trip across town is in Berlin.  A nearly 100-mile bike trail, a GPS-guided multimedia tour, and a "history mile" in the middle of the city are just a few of the ways Berliners and visitors can experience the wall.  Our list of highlights with links to further resources follows below:

Looking over the Wall at Bernauer Strasse

Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse

When the East German Army closed the border along Bernauer Strasse in 1961, desperate people leaped from the windows of apartment buildings whose West-facing facades had suddenly become part of the world's most heavily guarded border.
Today, Bernauer Strasse is the site of Berlin's main memorial for the victims of Germany's division and the longest preserved piece of the west-facing Wall. It is also the only place where the desolate buffer zone known as the “death strip” that lay between East and Eest is preserved.

Mauerguide © picture-alliance/dpa

Mauerguide: Walk the Virtual Wall

The thin ribbon of cobblestones that traces the path of the former border through Berlin does a fine job answering the question, “Where was the wall?”, but it cannot begin to describe the impact that the closed border had on people's lives.

To make a walk along the wall truly come alive, the city of Berlin designed a GPS guided tour with handsets that show photographs, historic footage, and interviews with witnesses.

Checkpoint Charlie © picture-alliance/dpa

Checkpoint Charlie Museum

Historian Rainer Hildebrandt and a group of student activists and East-German dissidents opened the House at Checkpoint Charlie Museum in the no-man's land where Friedrichstraße dead-ended at newly-built wall in 1963. The small museum documented protest against the inhumanity of the wall.

A bustling shi shi shopping district has grown up around the tiny museum – still one of the most popular in Berlin. The exhibitions document protest against the wall, including daring escapes by tunnel, hot air balloon, and home-made helicopter.

Kani Alavi © picture-alliance/dpa

The East Side Gallery

Along a three-quarter mile stretch of the Spree River you can get a feeling for how insurmountable the wall once felt. The 12-foot tall ribbon of concrete blocks the view of the riverfront just yards away and stretches to the horizon as you walk down the sidewalk on Mühlenstrasse. 

In 1990, over 100 artists from across the world transformed this formerly grey stretch of East-facing wall into an open-air gallery.  It's brightly-colored murals recall the  graffiti-covered West-facing wall.  The East Side Gallery remained grey until 1990; East Berliners were not generally allowed to touch the wall, let alone paint it.

Two decades have taken their toll on the bulwark former GDR leader Erich Honecker once boasted would stand for 100 years.  The wall is crumbling and the murals are flaking away or obscured by graffiti. A group of the original artists is currently working to restore the gallery to its original condition just in time for 20th anniversary celebrations on November 9, 2009.

Graffiti in the Wall Park

The Mauerpark: Relaxing in the No-Man's Land

The Mauerpark (Wall Park) is a great place to soak up Berlin's easygoing atmosphere. On summer evenings, students and other young revelers lounge in the grass studying, play Frisbee or kick a soccerball around until past dusk.

One would never guess that the small park between Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg is in the former death-strip if it were not for a 100-foot section of the wall along the park's Northern edge. Today, the guard towers and razor wire are gone and graffiti artists try to outdo one another on the old East-facing wall while Berlin's American football team, the Adler (Eagles), plays in the old GDR sports complex adjacent to the park.

Chapel of Reconciliation © picture-alliance/dpa

Arisen from the Rubble: The Chapel of Reconciliation

Until 1961, congregants came from both the French and Soviet sectors to worship at the evangelical Reconciliation Church on Bernauer Strasse.  For them and many other Berliners, crossing between the sectors had been commonplace. In August of 1961, the western wall around the church became part of the new border fortifications, and the church was stranded in the middle of a no-mans land.

East German authorities demolished the church in 1985, but a new chapel made from the rubble of the old one using an ancient building technique called rammed earth construction was inaugurated on the eleventh anniversary of the fall of the wall, November 9, 2000.

Traces of the Wall

Freedom Without Walls © German Embassy Washington

Radio Report: Twenty Years After the Fall of the Wall

Twenty Years After the Fall of the Wall Audio File

Efforts are underway to bring a section of the Berlin Wall to Cincinnati, so journalist Ann Thompson from local station WVXU traveled to Berlin on a RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) fellowship to report on the way the city remembers its division and reunification.

(© WVXU Cincinnati, Ann Thompson)

Celebrate Freedom in Germany

© German National Tourist Office

This special anniversary year is a perfect time to travel to Germany and explore history while celebrating freedom and unity together with the German people. The Germany National Tourist Office offers a comprehensive guide to exploring the history of German division and reunification in Berlin and beyond in the brochure "Welcome to a Country without Borders" and practical travel tips on its Website.

Berlin's Official Berlin Wall Sites

Alexander Platz in Berlin

The City of Berlin maintains two official websites about the Berlin Wall. The city's permanent Berlin wall site contains comprehensvive information about the history of the wall and the remaining traces of the wall, including instructions for a bike tour of the entire border.  The official 20th Anniversary site, Mauerfall2009.de, is focused on the festivities happening throughout the year in Berlin.

Traces of the Wall Gallery

Looking Through the Wall at Bernauer Strasse

Take our virtual tour of Berlin wall sites. 

Berlin Wall in the United States - Interactive Map

The Berlin Wall in the United States

What happened to the 96-mile ring of concrete that once surrounded West Berlin? Some pieces are in Germany, but many also found their way abroad, including over 50 complete segments in the United States. Browse our interactive map to see where they are.