The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years from 1961 until 1989. In 2017, 28 years since its fall, hardly any physical traces of it remain. In today’s free and easy German capital, it seems incredible that such a construction could have ever existed or survived so long. In the 1980s, I lived within its confines in West Berlin but, unlike East Berliners, I could escape whenever I wanted to. West Berliners could express their feelings by daubing the Wall with graffiti; on the other side of the Wall was a bleak stretch of no-man’s land, under close surveillance by East German soldiers who had orders to shoot to kill if anyone tried to cross it.
Berlin Wall seen from the west
I devoted a whole chapter to the Berlin Wall in my guide-book, ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ and described some of the of main historic sites in the city centre where you can see remnants of the Wall and find out more information about it. The East Side Gallery by the River Spree runs for 1.3 kilometres between the Ostbahnhof and the Oberbaumbrücke in the multi-cultural borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. This famous outdoor gallery of ‘wall paintings’ was originally a section of the ‘Hinterlandmauer’ (interior wall) – the actual border between East and West Berlin was the River Spree itself. The East Side Gallery was launched in 1990, on the initiative of two German artists’ associations and consists of 105 paintings by international artists, all on the theme of freedom. Everyone has their favourite wall painting in the East Side Gallery and many of the ‘canvases’ have become world-famous.
The famous ‘Kiss’
One of my personal favourites…
In April 2016, a brand-new Berlin Wall Museum was opened at the eastern end of the East Side Gallery on the second floor of the Mühlenspeicher, an historic grain storage building, which is also home to the ‘Pirates Berlin’ restaurant. Politicians and international experts such as Michail Gorbatschow and Guido Kane pushed to establish a private museum here on the 25th anniversary of reunification. At first, I was rather sceptical of a museum which advertises itself as ‘a live experience with film, sound and historic sensations’, but I can certainly recommend it as an excellent audio-visual account of the full story of the Berlin Wall, from the reasons for its construction in 1961 to its dramatic fall in 1989.
Berlin Wall Museum by the Spree
Clever virtual construction of the Wall
There are 13 rooms of multi-media exhibits, using over 100 screens and projectors to show original footage and documents. Visitors enter the rooms through painted curtains and are launched into large screen-shots on the walls. In the first room you are confronted with the ruins of Berlin at the end of the Second World War and learn how political events led to the building of border between East and West Germany. Then, original film gives a close-up experience the Berlin Wall’s construction and a concrete mixer, barbed wire and original elements of the Wall add to drama of the moving images.
Building the Wall
One room features a faithful reconstruction of an East Berlin living room in the 1960s and another has witness reports on victims of border shootings. The room dedicated to Glienicke Brücke, the ‘Bridge of Spies’, is especially fascinating, but it is a sad experience to stand on the balcony overlooking the Spree and read accounts of children who drowned in its dark waters when a border separated west from east.
Living in East Berlin
There is plenty of gripping newsreel footage of the political situations that developed over the years, including confrontation between the Americans and the Soviets, Willy Brandt’s Neue Ostpolitik and eventually the people’s demonstrations in Leipzig that led to the opening of the border. The museum also links reflections on the Cold War with art: works by Keith Haring, Pink Floyd’s epic music drama “The Wall” and the song “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions are all part of the multimedia concept.
David Bowie in Berlin, 1987
The Pink Floyd room
The area which celebrates the opening of the border crossing points, with thousands of East Germans flooding into West Berlin, catches the jubilant mood brilliantly, with powerful music to add to the euphoria. And in the room dedicated to the political negotiations surrounding reunification, the simulated heartbeat of ‘the master of diplomacy’, West German Foreign Minister, Hans-Friedrich Genscher, who had previously suffered two heart attacks, creates a suitably tense atmosphere.
Genscher in negotiations
Finally, I found that this museum told me many new stories about the feelings and reactions of individuals. One light-hearted anecdote was that as a teenager, Leonardo DiCaprio was photographed by his German grandmother in 1988 trying to push down the Berlin Wall and after the Wall fell, Margaret Thatcher expressed a sense of unease about a united Germany because of her memories of wartime bombing. The words of Michail Gorbatschow also captured my attention. In accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1990, he said that we must all help to make the 21st century “a century of a new human renaissance.”
Margaret Thatcher as a teenager
The final curtain
When I emerged through the final curtain at the end of my journey through this multimedia Berlin Wall experience, I was certainly glad to step into a reunited Berlin and really felt that the 13 rooms had increased my knowledge of Cold War history through watching and listening. The Museum has a useful website at http://www.thewallmuseum.com/welcome.html with further information and admission fees. It is open seven days a week from 10am until 7pm. The staff there are great enthusiasts about this project and the whole enterprise has an edgy Berlin feel about it, ideally located in an old warehouse on the Spree, right next to the Eastside Gallery.