I was last here in Berlin in 1971. Back then, during the Cold War, it was West Berlin (Allies), and East Berlin (the dirty Commie pinkos). Going over Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin remains one of my most memorable and nerve wracking experiences of my life. The four photos were taken by me back in 1971.
Now, after 45 years, I am going back, to a unified Germany, and more importantly, a unified Berlin. The Berlin Wall was in placed from 1961 (August 13) to 1989. I have seen two pieces of the wall in the U.S. One is located at the fabulous Newseum in Washington, DC. The other is located in the men’s room at the Main Street Station casino in downtown Las Vegas. I hear there is another section in the gardens of the Vatican.
The wall was constructed by East Germany, completely cutting West Berlin off (by land anyway) from West Germany. The demolition began on June 13, 1990, and completed in 1992. The barrier included 302 manned guard towers along large concrete walls. I could see the East German solders pointing their machine guns at me when I crossed at Checkpoint Charlie. It was circumscribed by a large area containing anti-vehicle trenches, land mines, trip wire machine guns, and a 24 hour patrol.
The wall was meant to keep the East Berlin and East Germans from escaping to the west. Obviously, nobody wanted to escape into East Berlin. I have numerous friends who got caught in this Cold War standoff. Some left relatives behind in East Berlin. Some went to the east on business and were subjected to strong interrogation upon each entry and return. Of course, the Eastern Bloc said the wall protected their citizens from “fascist” elements of the west.
Before the wall was built, 3.5 million East Germans defected over the border from East Berlin to West Berlin. Around 5,000 people tried to escape once the wall was built, with a death toll unofficially between 136 to 200. Between 5,000 to 10,000 managed to escape. Officially, 98 people were shot and killed trying to escape. Eight border guards were killed while on duty, but 1300 border guards escaped to West Berlin.
In fact, the week I was there, September, 1971, an enterprising East Belriner fashioned a car that would speed through Checkpoint Charlie. He lowered the little convertible automobile, removed the windshield, and bullet proofed the tires, engine and gas tank.
Other creative escape routes were devised. The three Bethke brothers devised the following: one brother floated an inflatable mattress on the Elbe River. The second soared over the wall on a steel cable he fired with a bow and arrow to a rooftop in West Berlin. The third brother was picked up by the other two in an ultra light plane they flew into East Berlin.
The big question is why the wall came down at all. Many say it was the erosion of political power in nearby pro-Soviet countries in Poland and Hungary. Others say it was weeks of civil unrest. When they finally allowed East Berliners to visit West Berlin and West Germany, the wall began to literally and figuratively come down. Needless to say, the removal of the wall paved the way for reunification of Germany.
The Berlin Wall (between East and West Berlin) stretched 27 miles and was between 11 to 13 feet tall. It also encircled the city of West Berlin and was 91 miles long. The wall was 1.2 meters wide.
The west side of the wall was covered with graffiti, the east side was not. There were eight border crossings. Over 70 escape tunnels were dug.
The guardhouse for Checkpoint Charlie is now located in the Allied Museum in Berlin-Zehlendorf. It has some rather poignant memories. When I crossed in 1971, I went with two American hippies. They harassed the guy, and strip searched the young woman. I told you the story before, as it was my very first travel email, and travel blog.
A July 1988 concert by Bruce Springsteen in East Berlin may have led to the growing sense of dissent in the walled city that contributed to the fall of the Wall, according to the CBC. “The Boss” told the crowd in German, “I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.”
West Berlin residents would often throw garbage over the wall into East Germany – knowing that the East Germans and Soviets could do nothing about it.
The Berlin Wall’s footprint is marked with a row of cobblestones in the streets of Germany. We walked along several blocks of where the wall once stood. The end of the Wall also signaled the end of the Cold War.
Grenzgängers, about 250,000 people, crossed each day to work in the West, receiving larger salaries, while living in subsidized housing, and not contributing to the Eastern economy. Yet that wasn’t the biggest loophole. Due to its power to purchase a wider range of consumer goods, the Western Deutsche mark was worth four to six times as much as the Eastern Deutsche mark. But basic goods, intentionally subsidized within the Socialist economy, and the desirability of the Western currency made the difference even more noticeable. This meant that not only Grenzgängers but also ordinary West Berliners, could exchange their money on the black market, and easily shop for what seemed like ludicrously cheap Eastern goods, as long as they didn’t want to buy Adidas shoes, or VW cars.
was the first person to be shot while trying to cross from East to West, on August 24, 1961. An apprentice tailor and a member of the center-right CDU, illegal in the East, Litfin had already been working in West Berlin, and even rented a flat there. But after his father died earlier that year, he decided to postpone his full-time move to support his family, as defectors were not allowed back. It was a fatal mistake. Litfin was profoundly shocked when he realized that his life, job and house had been sealed off. Like many in the first few weeks after the construction began, he simply hoped to break through with a well-timed run through what he thought was a poorly-guarded part of the barrier. But when he attempted to climb through some railway tracks, he was spotted by the transport police, and after repeated warning shots, killed by a bullet to the head. Sad.
The world is a different place now. Is it any better, here or elsewhere? My friends who had to endure the wall would say yes. What say you?
My walking tour guide was excellent. She is a young lady, half American, half Scottish, by the name of Lyle. Yes, her father wanted a boy! But despite her excellence, my two previous trips across Checkpoint Charlie into old East Berlin were more exciting to the senses. It even felt dangerous. Today was like a bunch of tourists strolling along Under den Linden.
But she did take us to some rather dark and mysterious places. One, the Holocaust Memorial, left totally up to one’s interpretation. Another, where we stood above Hitler’s underground Berlin HQ. This is where he spent his last four months, married Eva Braun on April 29, 1945, and committed suicide together the next day. He took both cyanide and a bullet to kill himself. He left instructions to be burned in a ditch above the bunker, but with Berlin under seige, his able assistant had to bury the flaming nodies after only a few hours. The Russians found the bodies and buried them in unmarked graves onthe outskirts of Berlin.
Another stop was the Luftwaffa headquarters of Herman Goehring. It later became the home of the coalition government, despite everyone’s reluctance to use this building, one of the few left intact from the war. The Germans still strongly dislike this building, since it now houses the tax collector.
There were more uplifting places we visited. But our guide wanted us to learn the darkest side of Germany, a perspective not only gained here, but in other places in the world. She ably pointed out the dark side of American and British atrocities as well.
Enough of this serious stuff, it is time for a beer!!!