Features

Berlin: Walk the wall

29 Oct 2015 by Tom Otley
Tom Otley traces the remains of Berlin’s dividing line through the sprawling and regenerated German capital Just as it’s hard now to imagine Berlin divided, it’s also hard to imagine a time when Checkpoint Charlie would have been worth visiting. The stacked sandbags, American flags and actors dressed as soldiers might make for a staged Instagram snap, but it’s tourism, pure and simple. The original US border house was removed soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and from 1990 until 2000 there was nothing here at all. The existing recreation was installed within the regenerated and generally upmarket Mitte district to provide something visitors could point their cameras at or, now, a backdrop for selfies. Even this isn’t easy, since the circus-like crowds destroy even the illusion of being anywhere significant, and besides, there’s a large McDonald’s restaurant next to it. If you do go, be sure to go early in the day, and use it as a reminder that unchecked tourism can ruin even a Communist-era border crossing point. Charting the line of the wall, you’ll also realise that the Checkpoint Charlie reconstruction isn’t in the correct place – that’s marked further down the junction by cobblestones. To get a real sense of what the wall once was, and now is, simply turn your back on the whole sorry sight and walk quickly west for five minutes to the Topography of Terror (topographie.de/en). This alarming and existential name refers to the building at the far end of the empty plot, a documentation centre for the Nazi forced labour regime. It’s well worth visiting, but it’s the area as a whole that puts the wall into perspective, providing alarming visual evidence. Beyond the section of wall standing here is part of the “death strip” – the wide section of land dividing East and West Germany that was once soaked with weed killer to give patrol guards the clearest possible view of potential transgressors. The tall building on the far side of the wall is the former Reich Air Ministry of Hermann Goring, home of the Luftwaffe. It’s an example of how walking the route of the wall provides insight not only into the past 50 years, but also the Nazi period before that. Notably, this building wasn’t designed by Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, but by Ernst Sagebiel, the man behind Tempelhof airport. Today it houses the German finance ministry, but it retains Max Lingner’s 1950s 18-metre mural made from Meissen porcelain tiles, illustrating the triumph of worker production. In 1965, a family managed to escape from a high window here, via a zip wire, to make a new life in the west. Walk along to Erna Berger Strasse and you can see one of the few remaining watchtowers, still oppressive even with the surrounding widespread renovation, nowhere more comprehensively achieved than in the completely reimagined Potsdamer Platz nearby. A line indicates the wall’s route though this district, yet now luxury hotels such as the Grand Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott tower above the U Bahn and S Bahn lines here, and there’s even a small section of wall – for so long the centre of attention, but now almost seeming out of place. Beyond this, you can see parks marking out the line of the wall towards the Tiergarten park. As night falls, there are more options for a wall tour. Take the U Bahn out to Warschauer Strasse and head to the East Side Gallery on Muhlenstrasse (eastsidegallery-berlin.com) – it’s one of the world’s largest open-air “galleries” of street art, presented on a 1.3km section of wall beside the River Spree. Assuming you take time out from your explorations to see museums, nightlife and cultural attractions during a weekend break (this is the home of the Berlin Philharmonic, after all), a visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse (berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en), accessed from Nordbahnhof S Bahn, will give information not only about the wall but also a full list of other interesting locations you can visit. # Berlin is a sprawling city and, spending a weekend jumping on and off the S-Bahn, it can be difficult to get a sense of its entirety. Still, the remains of the wall provide a thread for exploring it from east to west, especially since it loops around the centre of the city, and sometimes appears when you are least expecting it. Take a look at the historic Reichstag and newer “Band des Bundes” (collection of federal government buildings), which deliberately chart the course of the wall from east to west in a gesture of connection. Better still, take a guided tour – there’s everything from walking and cycling, to Segway or even Trabant tours. Berlin is constantly changing, but at its heart there is still this shadow line that will never be erased. USEFUL WEBSITES
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