An impenetrable wall, looming watchtowers, eerie no-man’s land; Trabi-Safari, Curry at the Wall, Charlie’s Beach: 29 years doesn’t half make a big difference. My only previous visit to Berlin had been to experience a divided city; two days in West Berlin and one on the other side of the Wall (I still remember the effort involved in spending the 30 East German marks I’d had to convert at the border). If I’d had an inkling in 1987 that the wall would be dismantled so dramatically only two years later I’d have spent longer in the city and used up dozens of rolls of film.
Berlin in 2016 is one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities and its citizens are rightly proud of its culinary and cultural scenes. The Berlin Wall, however, although long gone, remains one of the city’s main tourist attractions. And the ways in which the Cold War years are now remembered range from the sombre to the outright tacky.
I remember visiting Checkpoint Charlie and what was then a humble museum telling the stories of the daring escape attempts, many of which had taken place just a few steps away. Now the former border crossing point has been transformed beyond recognition; so much so that some locals refer to it as ‘Checkpoint Disney’. The museum remains, although it’s now a much a larger affair with prices to match.
Think of any Wall-related memorabilia, however tasteless, and you’ll find it in the nearby souvenir shops. In place of the deadly no-man’s land there’s now an outdoor beach bar. A picture of a US and a Russian soldier are pinned high above the old checkpoint. Both are models; I’m reliably informed that the Russian guy is actually Dutch. Is the commercialisation of this site — where, only a generation ago, people were shot and killed for trying to pass — a step too far? Or is this just another way in which to say ‘never again’ to the idea of setting up such barbaric divisions?
For a more sombre look at the Wall, I head up to Berlin Nordbahnhof. Back in the day, this was one of the ‘ghost stations’ — located in the East side of the city on a line that ran from one part of West Berlin to another. The East German regime allowed the trains to pass (there was no goodwill involved, it was a lucrative money maker), but they weren’t allowed to stop and armed guards kept watch on the platforms at all times. There’s a small exhibition in the station, and above ground there’s the most complete section of the original Wall, where it once bisected the residential Gartenstrasse. Here you can get the most accurate impression of just how much thought and precision went into building this lethal frontier.
It’s easy to look on the Berlin Wall as merely a historic landmark, but it was the most visible symbol of a regime that exercised a terrifying level of control over its citizens. Nowhere is this clearer than at the Stasi Museum in the east of the city, housed in the former Stasi headquarters. The former office of the Minister of State Security has been preserved almost untouched from the day he walked away for the last time in 1989. There’s nothing interactive to play with and no effort has been made to ‘entertain’ visitors. But for those wanting to dig beneath the warm nostalgia that’s increasingly being applied over the grim reality of the communist years, a visit here will provide a sharp and uncomfortable contrast to the gaiety and frivolity at Checkpoint Disney.