The long, grand boulevard of the Kurfürstendamm, referred to by Berliners as the Ku’damm, dates back to 1542 and takes its name from the Kurfürsten (Prince Electors) of Brandenburg when it was a bridle-path to their Grunewald hunting lodge. Since the days of the Kaiser this avenue has been lined with shops, hotels, theatres, restaurants and street cafés. Tall, black wrought-iron street lamps bow elegantly above bold pavement display cases introduced by the Nazis and the buildings are set well back from the road to allow plenty of room for promenading. The street corners have quaint kiosks and the old-style ‘Litfaβsäule’, columns plastered with advertisements of all the current shows and concerts. In summer the four rows of magnificent plane trees hide the parked traffic in the central reservation and in winter their branches sparkle with white lights.
Pavement display cases
After the Prussians defeated the French in 1871, Bismarck wanted the Ku’damm to become Berlin’s version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was widened to about 53 metres and construction started on some of the city’s most prestigious addresses. These buildings had ornate façades with columns, gables, towers, huge bay windows and grand entrances with equally impressive interiors. Over half these magnificent structures were destroyed during the bombing in the Second World War, but many have been lavishly restored.
Commerzbank at 59, Ku’damm
A good way to admire the Ku’damm architecture is to take a ride on the top deck of one of the buses that run up and down the boulevard. Haus Cumberland at 193-194, Ku’damm is among the finest buildings along the route. This listed building was originally constructed in 1911-12 and named after Ernst August of Hanover, Third Duke of Cumberland, who was stripped of his English title when he sided with the Germans in the First World War. Haus Cumberland has a colourful history. It covers 10,000 square metres and was conceived as a ‘Boarding Palast’ or apartment hotel, with three elaborate courtyards forming the heart of the complex. Unfortunately, the owner was declared bankrupt before the final opening. After this venture failed, the building was briefly used by the Imperial Arms and Ammunition Procurement Office and then converted into a grand hotel.
The original ‘Boarding Palace’ in 1912
One of the courtyards and the reading and writing room
In the years that followed the First World War, Haus Cumberland contained the main post office building and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as well as theatres and cinemas. In the Nazi era it housed government finance offices that played a part in the expropriation and plundering of Jewish property. From 1966 to 2003, the Berlin Regional Tax Office was the new landlord and from 2003 it stood empty, apart from the shops on the ground floor, and the interior was sometimes rented out as a backdrop for Hollywood films.
Haus Cumberland in 1968
After new plans for a luxury hotel failed, the property was sold to a business consortium in 2010.The building was meticulously renovated for heritage status and the Ku’damm façade was returned to its original state. There are now 185 apartments at the rear of the complex and a number of shops at the front.
New apartments and courtyards
Behind the grand entrance to Haus Cumberland is the much-vaunted café-restaurant ‘Grosz’, named after Berlin artist George Grosz (1893-1959), best known for his socially critical paintings from the 1920s, who lived in nearby Savigny Platz during the Golden Twenties.
Entrance to ‘Grosz’
Berlin street scene by Georg Grosz
‘Grosz’ opened its doors to the public in 2012 – a century after Haus Cumberland was originally completed. At the time, the Berlin press proclaimed it as a great example of how the Ku’damm and West Berlin are on the road to being cool and hip again, although the truth of this statement is debatable. But ‘Grosz’ is definitely worth a visit, both for its atmosphere and for its food and drink. Run by the owner of ‘Borchardt’, the famous celebrity dining establishment in Berlin-Mitte, ‘Grosz’ exudes the same sophistication. The interior décor looks genuinely historic and expensive and the waiting staff are crisply-dressed in white and black.
As ‘Grosz’ is a coffee house, bar and restaurant all in one location, you don’t have to order food with your drink. But if you are calling in for coffee it’s hard to resist the display of exquisite cakes by the entrance. Beyond it is a bar area serving fine cocktails which opens into the actual restaurant rooms with the highest ceilings imaginable, ornate pillars and walls covered with antique mirrors and paintings.
Sweet treats ……
….. and the bar
The ambience of ‘Grosz’ is best described as a mixture between a Vienna café of the Art Nouveau era and a French Brasserie. I went there for dinner soon after it opened and had a memorable meal. The menu focuses around classics like oysters served on a silver pedestal, various steak cuts and seasonal dishes with a French twist. At lunchtime there is always a plat du jour. Five years ago, the food and the service were both excellent, but the place was rather empty and I felt that things had yet to get into their stride. Recently, I have returned to ‘Grosz’ both for an evening drink and for a Berlin-style Sunday breakfast. It seems to have a more laid-back feel to it now, without losing its elegance and wow factor and almost succeeds in capturing the elusive Berlin feeling of bygone days.
A ‘Grosz’ breakfast
A cool dog at the next table
‘Grosz’ is only a few bus stops from Zoo Station or a 20-minute can stroll up the Ku’damm. All the location details and menus can be found on the Grosz website at http://grosz-berlin.de/?lang=en For an interesting read about the Ku’damm’s history and buildings, I can highly recommend ‘A Walk Along The Ku’damm: Playground and Battlefield of Weimar Berlin’ by Brendan Nash.
Surrounded by waterways, Moabit is a diverse neighbourhood to the north of the Tiergarten and the Reichstag. Barely off the main tourist track, it has managed to keep below the radar and is a great place to be among Berliners without having to go too far afield. There are already two blogs about Moabit on the Berlin Unwrapped website. ‘The History Garden’ (History and Politics, September 4th, 2015) features a fascinating park on the site of Moabit’s infamous former prison and ‘Putting Moabit on the Map’ (Small Worlds, September 25th, 2015) has a wealth of information about Moabit’s history and some of its attractions. You can find them both by scrolling down the blogs in the relevant categories. Now, a sunny day strolling down Turmstraβe, stopping for lunch in the covered market and then meandering along the north bank of the River Spree has inspired me to write more about Moabit.
Outside the market in Moabit
We started our walk at the Hauptbahnhof, crossed the road into the Geschichtspark hidden behind its high prison walls and walked through to Seydlitzstraβe at the eastern end of Moabit’s busy Turmstraβe. Passing the imposing building of the Amtsgericht Tiergarten (District Court) on our left, we soon reached the Kleiner Tiergarten. These pretty public gardens provide shaded paths through the tall trees; quintessential Berlin. Before the fall of the Wall, Moabit was part of the West Berlin district of Tiergarten but now it belongs to the central borough of Mitte.
The Arminius Markthalle is on the other side of Turmstraβe, opposite the U-Bahn station. It may not be as big and hip as the Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg, but it’s still a great place for street food. The historic building dating back to 1891, with its elaborate cast-iron archways. pillars and Gothic proportions has a cool and colourful interior.
Inside the market
As well as the market stalls, there are plenty of places to eat. We headed for the ‘Hofladen’ at the back of the hall and opted for the fish set lunch menu, a Friday favourite and great value. The Markthalle is open in the evenings until 10pm, so it’s a fun place to go for supper too. For more foodie tips follow this link.
Seating inside the Markthalle
The ‘mother of all tables’!
The mandatory coffee post-prandial coffee stop was at ‘Antjes Café natürlicher Lebensraum’ on Jonasstraβe just outside the market. Its long name suggests a homely parlour and with its home-made cakes, tea and coffee served on pretty china this is an apt description. There are a couple of intimate rooms at the back, as well as seating on the pavement outside and I have it on good authority that breakfast here is delicious too.
Sitting in the window at Antje’s
One of the back rooms
Now heading towards the River Spree, we crossed the square in front of the tall, red-brick Lutheran church of ‘Heilandskirche’ competing with the height of the trees in the parkland between Turmstraβe and Alt-Moabit.
Photo montage by Gruss aus Berlin)
Then we meandered our way through the network of streets south of Turmstraβe, named after cities in Westphalia, North-West Germany. In this part of Moabit, there are several interesting-looking shops and restaurants dotted amongst the patrician apartment blocks. On Krefelder Straβe there was ‘Berlin Edition’ wine in the window of the ‘Weinschmiede’ and in the ‘Buchkantine’ a contemporary bookshop and café on the corner of Bochumer and Dortmunder Straβe, we noticed bottles of ‘Moabit London Dry Gin’ with 14 botanicals.
Weinschmiede and Buchkantine
By now we had reached the Bundesratufer (Upper Parliament House Bank) which runs along the north bank of the River Spree. There were plenty of families about, enjoying the afternoon sunshine and the playpark on the green area between the path and the river. After Lessingbrücke (Lessing Bridge) we were confronted with the massive glass and steel towers of the Spree-Bogen business and residential complex.
The word ‘Spreebogen’ simply means any large bend in the River Spree. In Berlin it can denote the whole meander between Museum Island in the east and the junction with the Landwehrkanal in the west, or different sections of this meander. The Spree-Bogen in Moabit refers to the redevelopment of the huge site once owned by the famous Berlin dairy, opened in 1879 by Carl Bolle. From 1933 until 2011 there was a large chain of Bolle supermarkets in Berlin and today Bolle still runs a spectacular event venue in the former factory chapel and ballroom of the Bolle dairy.
The original Bolle Meierei
Bolle milk deliveries
The Bolle ballroom today
Today, between the massive glass and steel buildings of the Spree-Bogen complex and the River Spree, the Ernst Freiberger Foundation has created a memorial called the ‘Straβe der Erinnerung’ (Street of Remembrance). It consists of a wide path lined with ‘Helden ohne Degen’ (Heroes without daggers) – bronze busts of German heroes who “achieved extraordinary things and behaved in an exemplary way in the most difficult of times”. Among the most famous names are resistance fighter Georg Elser, Nobel prize-winning author Thomas Mann, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, industrialist and politician Walther Rathenau, politician Ludwig Erhard, philosopher and nun Edith Stein, physicist Albert Einstein and artist Käthe Kollwitz.
Käthe Kollwitz on the Straβe der Erinnerung
At the end of the Straβe der Erinnerung is a sculpture depicting a figure breaking through the Berlin Wall. It’s called ‘Wir sind das Volk’ (We are the people) and commemorates the citizens of East Germany whose peaceful revolution led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. They, too, are moral heroes and have a place in Berlin’s deep memory. In the photograph below you can see a section of the Berlin Wall – also part of the Straβe der Erinnerung.
‘Wir sind das Volk’
The river bank in Moabit now winds its way back to the Hauptbahnhof, with wonderful views of the Tiergarten across the Spree. But on this particular Friday afternoon, we stopped at the Moabiter Brücke, admired the restaurant ship ‘Patio’, and turned left up Kirchstrasse towards Alt-Moabit.
‘Patio’ restaurant ship
On the pavement outside 22 Kirchstraβe, we looked down at two Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones) to mark the homes of Betty and Frieda Brasch who were deported by the Nazis in 1943. There are over 357 of these small brass commemorative plaques embedded in the streets of Moabit alone and we had already seen several on our walk. On 8th May this year they were cleaned and polished as part of an initiative started by the SPD in Berlin (Social Democrat Party of Germany) to mark the day the German capital was liberated from the grip of the Nazis in 1945.
Stolpersteine on Kirchstraβe
On our circular tour we had enjoyed Moabit in the spring sunshine, but we had been reminded of darker days. Despite its liberal and laid-back atmosphere, Berlin never lets us forget the fragility of our freedom.
Berlin has an incredible 175 museums to choose from.‘20 Berlin Museums That Will Blow Your Mind’, a list recently compiled by the website Hostelworld, is a great place to start . But you won’t find one of my own top favourites here – the Märkisches Museum. This museum about Berlin’s origins and history is just off the tourist trail and attracts less hype. Its impressive red-brick Gothic-style building rises like a cathedral in a secluded park by the River Spree, in an ancient corner of the city. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was locked away in East Berlin, far from the madding crowds and today it still retains an authentic air of ‘Old Berlin’. It’s a place where you can time out to steep yourself in Berlin’s past and appreciate a stunning historic collection in a unique setting. This museum is the real thing; it even has its own U-Bahn station on line U2.
The Gothic-style exterior
Sections of the Berlin Wall outside the museum
But I would encourage you to visit the Märkisches Museum soon; there are plans to close it down for renovation and a new permanent exhibition is being created. Whilst it needs updating, this museum has a nostalgic feel to it which may be lost in the process of modernisation. The museum’s distinctive building is very much in the style of architectural precursors from the north of Germany and the Brandenburg region. In the Köllnischer Park behind the museum, there is even a bear-pit which until 2015 was home to a pair of brown bears, as symbols of the city of Berlin.
The bear-pit (Bärenzwinger) in 1984
The word ‘märkisch’ refers to the area which surrounded Berlin – the ‘Mark of Brandenburg, (English: Margravate), now the Federal State of Brandenburg. ‘Margrave’ was originally the medieval title for the military commander who defended one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or a kingdom. The interior of the museum definitely has a medieval feel, with the Gotische Kapelle (Gothic Chapel), the Zunftsaal (Guildhall) and the Waffenhalle (Weapon Hall) as particular highlights.
The Weapon Hall and the Gothic Chapel
The exhibits go back as far as the Bronze Age and there are some fascinating large-scale models of Berlin as it has developed since the 13th Century.
The original settlements of Berlin
The permanent exhibition, ‘Here is Berlin!’, invites you to stroll through the streets and districts of the city and experience how Berlin has changed since it was founded in 1237. The English information boards are really clear and helpful and the carefully-chosen exhibits include important sculptures and paintings.
The Humboldt brothers
The Borsig factory in 1842
The room with an original wooden ‘Kaiserpanorama’ is an absolute must. Here you can sit at one of 25 stations, each with a pair of viewing lenses and watch a series of 3D images of Berlin life in the early 20th Century. The animation in these historic scenes is gripping.
Sitting at the Kaiserpanorama
Another museum highlight is the wonderful collection of historic musical instruments and at 3pm on Sundays visitors can hear some of them in action. There is also an interesting exhibition illustrating the museum’s meticulous research and documentation methods and a creative area for children.
Historic barrel organs – and their players
If you manage to fit in a visit to the Märkisches Museum before 25th February, you can still catch their excellent Special Exhibition: ‘Berlin 1937. In the Shadow of Tomorrow’. By 1937, the National Socialist regime had permeated every aspect of everyday life and yet there was a false sense of calm in Berlin. The fascinating photographs and exhibits are clearly explained in English and as in the permanent collection, you can sense a meticulous sharing of expertise. No dumbing down here. At the end of your visit, there is a small bookshop and a café in the courtyard outside. Both are low-key, uncommercialised Berlin experiences.
A walk in the park 1937
Poster for a 1937 exhibition
Finally, it is important to explain that the Märkisches Museum is the main part of the ‘Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin’. This foundation of Berlin city museums, governed by public law, was set up in 1995 following the reunification of the German capital in 1991. The aim was to bring together into one foundation the two major historic museums in the eastern and western parts of the city, as well as several smaller ones. The Märkisches Museum was originally founded in 1874, but its current building in Berlin-Mitte dates back to 1908. The Berlin Museum, founded in 1962 in West Berlin, was housed in the former Superior Court of Justice building on Lindenstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg. This building was handed over to the newly-founded Jewish Museum in 1999. There are now five museums belonging to the Stadtmuseum Berlin: the Märkisches Museum, the Nikolaikirche, the Ephraim-Palais, the Knoblauchhaus and the Museumsdorf Düppel. For further information and opening times, visit the Stadtmuseum’s website at https://www.en.stadtmuseum.de/our-museums
The emergence of Prussia as the dominant power in the new nation of Germany had a profound effect on 20th Century Europe. This first blog of 2018 is dedicated to Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), one of my all-time favourite authors and widely recognised as Germany’s most important 19th Century realist novelist. It was in his writing that the golden age of Prussian civilisation found its greatest chronicler – and formidable critic. Fontane also loved Berlin and Berliners – with all their faults. The title image for this blog, a well-known Fontane quote, translates as: ‘Before God, all people are actually Berliners’. .
Fontane’s parents were both from French Huguenot immigrant families and he was born in the small Prussian town of Neuruppin, about 30 miles north of Berlin where his father ran a pharmacy. In 1834, Fontane moved to the capital and, having trained as a pharmacist himself, he then spent most of his working life in Berlin as a journalist, travel writer, poet and novelist. He also worked in London for three years and was a notable Anglophile. Theodor Fontane pioneered the German social novel and wrote 17 novels after the age of 60, all set in Berlin and Brandenburg. The most well-known is ‘Effi Briest’ (1894), which was translated into English in 1964 and made into a film in 1974 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and in 2009 by Hermine Huntgeburth.
Fontane’s work depicts the lives of people across all classes in a society increasingly dominated by the militarism and materialism of Bismarck’s Second Reich. His novels are often compared to those of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen for their poetic realism, social criticism and subtle irony. His characters are closely-observed and often revealed through their conversations, drawing the reader into a world where individuals – often women – struggle against social codes. Fontane’s travel writing is equally skilful and well ahead of its time for combining narrative adventure with literary style and historical insight. His five-volume ‘Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg’ (‘Travels in the Province of Brandenburg’), describe the landscape and the people in the countryside around Berlin. Their rich, human detail prove that it isn’t only exotic locations that can capture the imagination. And that is precisely what it so appealing about Fontane; his ability to ‘transfigure’ everyday life into something magical and universal.
Fontane’s bicentenary in the year 2019 is fast approaching. In Berlin and Brandenburg, especially his birthplace of Neuruppin, a variety of cultural projects are being planned. It will be interesting to see how many of them will be accessible to English speakers. Fontane’s work is not as well-known in the English-speaking world as on the continent and it would be wonderful if his bicentenary provides an opportunity to showcase his work to a wider public. In the meantime, I offer you a stroll through streets in the old centre of Berlin where you can still find traces of Fontane. Many of the places where he lived and worked, or which are mentioned in his literary works, no longer exist, so this walk concentrates on sites which at least bear the same name or have been restored.
Plan of the ‘Fontane walk’
From Hackescher Markt bear left into Oranienburger Straβe. After 100 metres turn right into Groβe Hamburger Straβe and walk past the old Jewish cemetery and Jewish memorial. A little further on, set back between two buildings, is the Sophienkirche, a baroque church dating back to 1712. Building number 30/30a, where Fontane moved to in 1834 to live with his Uncle August and Aunt Pinchen, was demolished in 1904/05 but was replaced by the building which still stands on the same site. Fontane described the original tenement block as “half-crumbling, ugly and ordinary, like its inhabitants”. Yet one of his neighbours included the family of his future wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer!
Before they were married in 1850, Emilie moved with Theodor into 33, Oranienburger Straβe, “a rather pretty house, opposite the large post yard”. From Groβe Hamburger Straβe turn left into Krausnickstraβe, then turn right into Oranienburger Straβe past the Golden Dome of the Neue Synagoge (built in 1866) and opposite the grand Imperial post office building is where Emilie used to live.
Now head towards the River Spree down Tucholsky Straβe. On your left is the imposing Bodemuseum at the end of Museum Island. Turn right along the river bank until you reach the Weidendammer Bridge with a fine view of the Berliner Ensemble theatre, whose founder Bertolt Brecht was born eight months before Fontane’s death. The Weidendammer Bridge had a special meaning for Fontane, who “had the happiest thought of his life”, when he proposed to Emilie on this bridge in 1845.
Weidammer Brücke in 1881
Turn left into Friedrichstraβe, past the station to the ‘Dorotheenstädtische Apotheke’ on the corner of Mittlestraβe. This pharmacy used to be called the ‘Polnische Apotheke’ where Fontane worked in 1845/6. The current building was erected in 1898-1902. When you reach Unter den Linden, turn left again and you will pass the ‘Staatsbibliothek’ (State Library) which in Fontane’s time used to house the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Fontane briefly worked there as Secretary in 1876, but as a free thinker, he found the job too stifling. A little further on, past the Humboldt University, is the Neue Wache, once a guardhouse and now the main war memorial in Berlin. Thirty-two years previously, in 1844, Fontane had performed guard duty here when he volunteered for one year as a Grenadier Guard.
Staatsbibliothek, Unter den Linden
Neue Wache around 1900
Diagonally opposite the Neue Wache is the newly-restored Staatsoper (State Opera House), dating back to 1741/43. Cross Bebelplatz to the right of the Staatsoper and head for Behrenstraβe, behind St Hedwigskathedrale (1747). Fontane’s great friend Mathilde von Rohr lived at 70, Behrenstraβe. Continue towards Marktgrafenstraβe and turn left into the Gendarmenmarkt with its twin churches flanking the Konzerthaus. This concert hall was originally built in 1821 as the Schauspielhaus (theatre) where Fontane was a passionate theatregoer; for 20 years, from 1870 onwards, he worked as theatre critic for the Vossische Zeitung (newspaper).
Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus in 1820
On the southern edge of Gendarmenplatz is Stadmitte underground station. Take the U2 for two stops to Potsdamer Platz and when you emerge, you will be very near the spot where Theodor Fontane lived from 1872 until 1898 and wrote most of his novels. The Fontane home was on 134, Potsdamer Straβe, about 85 metres south-west of Weinhaus Huth, the only building on this section of Potsdamer Straβe that survived the bombing and the construction of Berlin Wall. The family lived ‘three floors up’ in four rooms with a kitchen and larder. Fontane thought Potsdamer Platz was full of life and that “activity is the best thing that a city has to offer”.
Haus Huth on Potsdamer Platz
I can recommend three other fairly central ‘Fontane sites’ in Berlin. A visit to the pretty Französischer Friedhof II (French cemetery) in Liesenstraβe is a must. The great man is buried here, together with his wife Emilie. Take the U6 from Friedrichstraβe station to Schwartzkopffstraβe. Walk northwards up Chausseestraβe as far as the junction with Liesenstraβe where the cemetery is on the right-hand side. The path to Fontane’s grave is clearly signposted.
In the Tiergarten, there is a fine statue of Fontane. From Zoo station take the Number 100 bus five stops to Nordische Botschaften/Adenauer Stiftung. Walk along Stülerstraβe to Thomas-Dehler-Straβe and on the right in the park stands the ‘Fontane-Denkmal’. This statue is a copy made in the 1980s – the original stands in the entrance hall of the Märkisches Museum. A curious fact to note: the buttons on his jacket are on the wrong side.
Fontane also left his mark on Kreuzberg. In 1848, he worked as an assistant in the apothecary of the Bethanien hospital on Mariannenplatz. The historic ‘Fontane Apotheke’ is on the ground floor of this fascinating building, now an arts centre, and is open to visitors on Tuesday afternoons.
The historic Fontane Apotheke in Bethanien
Finally, there are so many traces of Fontane outside Berlin in the surrounding countryside of Brandenburg, one of the German Federal States that was locked inside the German Democratic Republic for 40 years, from 1949 to 1989. The towns and villages have now been sensitively restored and are being rediscovered by 21st Century visitors. It is well worth making a day trip to Fontane’s beautiful home town of Neuruppin, often referred to as ‘Fontanestadt’, with its well-ordered Prussian streets and stunning lake.
Aerial view of Neuruppin
And a few days in the Spreewald, about an hour south of Berlin, is a revelation. This historic area of wetlands and pine forests is criss-crossed by over 200 small canals called ‘Flieβe’. Many of the inhabitants are descendants of the first settlers of the Spreewald region, the Slavic tribes of the Sorbs or ‘Wends’. In some villages, they have preserved many of their customs, as well as their language and traditional clothing. In 1991, the Spreewald, so wonderfully documented in Fontane’s travel writing, was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.
Barge trip through the Spreewald
One of many famous Fontane quotes is: “Das ist ein weites Feld” (from ‘Effi Briest’). It translates into English as, “that is a broad subject”, and suggests that something is far too complicated to discuss in brief. Gunter Grass used it to excellent effect for the title of his 1995 novel set in Berlin between the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. This blog has only scratched the surface of Theodor Fontane and his Berlin/Brandenburg connections. If you are interested in learning more, I have listed a couple of websites below. And to finish, here is another favourite Fontane quotes, translated into English:
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – What’s in a name? In the case of Checkpoint Charlie, with its personification of a notorious border crossing at the Berlin Wall, it immediately conjures up visions of soldiers, spies and daring deeds. ‘The Spy who came in from the Cold’, ‘Octopussy’, ‘Goodbye Lenin’ and ‘Bridge of Spies’ all have famous scenes shot at Checkpoint Charlie. Now it is one of the top tourist attractions in the German capital; the place where visitors hope to feel the chill of the Cold War. But it’s impossible to really sense the tension unless you experienced it for real. All that remains of this historic landmark is a small wooden replica hut and a line of cobblestones to mark the path of the Berlin Wall.
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – Checkpoint Charlie 2017
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – Aerial view, 1980s
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, there were three military checkpoints between West Germany and East Berlin, all given names according to the NATO phonetic alphabet. Checkpoint Alpha was at Helmstedt, on the border between the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Checkpoint Bravo was at Dreilinden, on the border between the GDR and the American Sector in West Berlin.
Map showing crossing points into the GDR, including Helmstedt
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – Checkpoint Charlie was the military border post between the American Sector in West Berlin and East Berlin (the Soviet Sector) and was located at the junction of Friedrichstraβe with Zimmerstraße and Mauerstraße (which for older historical reasons coincidentally means ‘Wall Street’). All foreigners, diplomats and members of the Allied Forces entering East Berlin on foot or by vehicle had to use the border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. This was where Soviet and US tanks confronted each other in October 1961, while politicians negotiated Allied military access to East Berlin.
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – The border post hut where visitors to East Berlin checked in with American soldiers is now on display at the Allied Museum in Berlin-Dahlem, but it has been replaced by a copy of the original hut in use in the 1960s. Tourists can usually pay a small fee to have their photo taken in front of the hut with the ‘fake’ soldiers’ on duty, but the day I was there a couple of weeks ago, two Ukrainian singers were entertaining the crowds with their poignant freedom songs. These days Checkpoint Charlie has become synonymous with demonstrations by groups who feel oppressed.
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – The area around Checkpoint Charlie has an excellent permanent open-air exhibition as well as the inevitable souvenir shops and street vendors. On the corner of Kochstraße is the Mauermuseum (opened in 1962), bursting at the seams with fascinating exhibits telling the story of the Wall and the incredible escape attempts – many of which failed. Around the corner in Zimmerstraße, a memorial stele marks the place where 18-year old Peter Fechter bled to death while trying to climb over the Wall in 1962.
Memorial to Peter Fechter
Soviet and GDR souvenirs
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – There are two relatively new indoor additions to the tourist attractions at Checkpoint Charlie and I tried them both out on my last visit. The weather was damp and grey, so I was especially glad to ‘come in from the cold’. First, I tried the Asisi panorama of ‘The Wall’ which opened in September 2012. This cylindrical steel rotunda stands at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße and the artist Yadegar Aisis uses his 270° panorama, 15 metres high and 60 metres wide, to show everyday scenes on both sides of the Wall in the 1980s, when Asisi lived in Kreuzberg, West Berlin. I am usually sceptical of such commercial ventures but having also lived in West Berlin in the 1980s, it was quite an emotional experience and worth the €10 entrance cost. Follow this link for more information.
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – On the other side of the road is the ‘BlackBox’ exhibition on the Cold War. This is a multi-media experience on a smaller scale, more like a pop-up museum and only costs €5 entrance. There is plenty of film and newsreel footage and every historic event is well-explained and fully-documented. I found myself engrossed in all the details of other flashpoints of the Cold War: Korea, Hungary, Cuba, Prague and Poland. But most of all, I was back at Checkpoint Charlie in the 1980s, feeling the frisson of fear as we negotiated the chicanes, knowing that there was a machine gun trained on our vehicle from a slit in the wall on the tall building to our right.
Cold War BlackBox
Checkpoint Charlie Then and Now – When you reach the end of the exhibition there is a photo booth where you can email a Checkpoint Charlie souvenir photo of yourself to friends. It was free, so I just couldn’t resist…. For more details and pictures of the BlackBox follow this link.
The Berlin Wall Revisited – Today, 9th November 2017, is the 28th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin has now been reunited for as many years as it was divided; from 1961 until 1989. In my guide-book, ‘Berlin Unwrapped’, published in 2012, I devote an entire chapter to the Berlin Wall and describe city centre sites where you can see remnants of the Wall or memorials associated with it. Over the past five years, some of these sites have been further developed and new ‘Berlin Wall tourist attractions’ have been added. The previous blog, for example, featured the multi-media Wall Museum on the River Spree by Eastside Gallery, opened in 2016.
Constructing the Wall in 1961
The Wall falls in 1989
The Berlin Wall Revisited – But the most significant site remains the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straβe. Here, the Wall ran right down the middle of the street, just because this line happened to mark the boundary between the boroughs of Mitte, in East Berlin and Wedding, in West Berlin. In divided Berlin, the border between East and West separated the Soviet Sector (East Berlin) from the American, British and French Sectors (West Berlin) which had all originally been created after WWII according to Berlin borough boundaries.
The Berlin Wall divides Bernauer Straβe
The Berlin Wall Revisited – The Berlin Wall Memorial is not a monument as such, but an open-air exhibition dedicated to the memory of a divided city and to the victims of the Berlin Wall. A whole area of the former border strip has been gradually transformed into grass parkland, extending for 1.4 kilometres along Bernauer Straβe. Rust-coloured metal posts represent the line of the Wall, as if the concrete has been stripped away.
Posts marking the border
The Berlin Wall Revisited – The houses which originally stood on the eastern side of Bernauer Strasse were destroyed by the GDR authorities to make space for the border strip. Then, as late as 1985, the Church of Reconciliation, situated right next to the Wall in East Berlin, was also was demolished ‘to improve security’. As part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, this imposing Gothic-style building was replaced by a simple Chapel of Reconciliation, in memory of the East Germans who lost their lives trying to escape to the West.
The Church of Reconciliation behind the Wall
The Chapel of Reconciliation today
The Berlin Wall Revisited – Information boards guide visitors through the area of the Wall Memorial, with metal tracks in the ground showing the outlines of where tenement blocks once stood and brass plaques in the pavement marking points where East Berliners made successful or fatal escape attempts, either over the border or by means of underground tunnels.
Memorial to those who died trying to escape
The Berlin Wall Revisited – But the most arresting part of the Berlin Wall Memorial is an original 70-metre long section of the Wall itself, complete with watchtower and the ‘death zone’ behind it. On the other side of the street, the Documentation Centre has a viewing platform on the top floor where you can stand and survey these border installations from above. This is the only site in Berlin where you can still viscerally sense the stark reality of the Berlin Wall ‘in the flesh’.
The Berlin Wall preserved
The Berlin Wall Revisited – No visitor to Berlin should miss seeing the Berlin Wall Memorial. For all details of how to get there and plan your visit, including information and exhibitions available at the Visitor Center and the Documentation Center, follow this link: http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/