It’s one the most potent symbols of the 20th century – but more than 27 years have passed since the Berlin Wall ceased to exist.
Each anniversary, television shows those unforgettable images from Berlin in 1989; thousands swarming over the wall; massive traffic jams as blocked roads were re-opened; and the bewildered look of the East German guards.
However, the reality is that, on the ground in the German capital, little remains of the Wall that was, for 40 years, the world’s most prominent symbol of division between capitalism and communism.
We’ve walked the streets of Berlin’s east; stayed at the notorious Checkpoint Charlie district; and spent time listening to the stories of the Wall and life in its shadow.
Some chunks of remaining concrete Wall are obvious, not the least because of the still colourful graffiti and murals painted on the western side.
There is also a specialist Wall museum – and replica guard huts at Checkpoint Charlie.
But, at the same time, much of the wall’s path has now been incorporated into more recent architecture – and you need to look for lines of bricks across roadways and footpaths to get an idea where other parts of the barrier once stood.
This is understandable, as life in a huge modern city like Berlin moves ever onward.
But the enormous significance of the Wall and the events that surrounded it should be adequately marked, if only as a lesson of history.
Imagine, if you can, the feelings of people on both sides of Berlin when they awoke on August 13, 1961 to see a structure effectively dividing the city in half, with work to erect a more permanent division in full. In some cases, families were separated by the barrier – and resorted to shouting messages through barbed wire.
We were told that, by 1989, the Wall ran for 155 kilometres, contained 302 observation towers, 259 dog runs and 20 bunkers – all guarded by more than 11,000 soldiers.
The so-called ‘Death Strip’ varied from 30 to 150 metres; was floodlit; and contained lines of signal wire, barbed wire, a bed of nails and raked sand bunkers.
About 5,000 people are thought to have escaped through the Berlin Wall during its existence, out of an estimated 10,000 who tried.
In Berlin, they tell some wonderful escape stories – and some that certainly didn’t have a happy ending.
Our favourite, however, was the tale of Austrian lathe operator, Heinz Meixner, who must have cut a strange sight when he pulled into Checkpoint Charlie in his red Austin Healey Sprite convertible sports car, on May 5, 1963.
The car’s windscreen was missing and its tyres were half-flat.
Heinz knew that the barrier at the checkpoint was three-foot high – and, without a windscreen, his car was a few inches lowe than that. So, when an East German guard directed Meixner to pull over to a customs shed, Heinz instead floored the accelerator and ducked.
The convertible slipped under the barrier and sped into the capitalist West, complete with the driver’s girl friend lying between the seats and mother in the boot.
As the physical scars of the Wall and its 40 year stand-off fade amid passing generations, these type of stories are part of a priceless social history that we should never allow to be lost.
The Berlin Wall largely became ineffective early in 1989, when Hungary opened its borders with Austria amid the collapse of the communist Iron Curtain.
Astonishingly, the days of the Wall were numbered. And the rest, as they say ……….
The German capital is truly a remarkable city that played a huge role in the tumultuous 20th Century.
We recommend spending time in the eastern suburbs and searching out the relics of the Wall. It is as rewarding as visiting the many structures that mark the city’s earlier history of Nazism and two world wars.