With the exeption of the Killing Fields in Cambodia, there are not many sightseeing tours that left me as emotional as some of the tours I have done during my visit to Berlin. As a visitor to Berlin you will no doubt be exposed to the remnants of the Berlin wall. Learning a bit more about the history of the Berlin wall was an eye-opener that made me realize how lucky I am to have grown up in a democratic Germany. If I had been born in a different part of Germany, I wouldn’t have been so lucky!

When the Berlin wall came down in 1989 I was only eight years old, so too young to understand what it was all about really. That’s perhaps why the only thing I do remember is that David Hasselhoff sang I’ve been looking for freedom during the massive New Years Eve party at the Brandenburg Gate the same year. I get teased by pretty much every foreigner I know about how popular The Hoff(meister) was in Germany. You have got to give us some credit though – it is quite a catchy song, don’t you think? 😉 Seriously though, his song was actually the perfect anthem for what was happening at the time. East Germans had been longing for freedom ever since the Berlin wall was built in 1961. So how come that it was possible for Germany to be divided into a democracy and a communist state anyway? And how come that Berlin, which was geographically clearly placed in East Germany was partly West German?

berlin map

After the second World War, Berlin and the rest of Germany was divided up into four occupied zones. Within two years, political divisions increased between the Soviets and the other occupying powers of France, Great Britain, and the US. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East of Germany was declared by the Soviets on 7 October 1949. But with Germany’s capital being divided into four zones, the Soviet union was only able to claim the Eastern part of Berlin as theirs. East Germany differed from West Germany, which developed into a Western capitalist country and a democratic parliamentary government. East Germany, on the other hand, was a communist country. While West Germany’s economy grew and its standard of living steadily improved, East Germany’s flatlined. For that reason many East Germans wanted to move to West Germany and to prevent that, the Berlin wall was built. It was a symbolic boundary between democracy and communism.

berlin wall

Whilst life in communist Germany offered many advantages, such as a guaranteed job, free healthcare and free childcare, the big problem was of course freedom of movement and freedom of speech. East Germans were not allowed to leave the country, unless they had special permission. People would be constantly watched by the secret police (Stasi) and when people acted suspiciously they were arrested and even tortured. I visited both the Stasi Mueseum and the GDR Museum in Berlin which offer great insights into what life in communist Germany was like. Both are very interactive museums where you can see what methods the Stasi used to find ‘traitors’, or do more fun things, such as driving a Trabant (the only car that was available in the GDR). I highly recommend visiting both museums to get a glimpse into life in communist Germany.

GDR living room

Most living rooms in the GDR looked like this. Individualism wasn’t encouraged.

letters

Every letter was taken out of the letterbox whilst people were at work, carefully opened with water steam and then read by the Stasi. If the letter was harmless it would be put back into the letter box. If it wasn’t the recipient of the letter would be arrested.

stasi prison cell

A typical Stasi prison cell

stasi spies

Stasi officers were trained to disguise themselves in order to spy more effectively. Great disguises? :-)

So because of the massive restrictions on freedom it is understandable that an estimated 10,000 people tried to escape to the West. I only learnt how ardurous these escape attempts were during a tour of the catacombs, or underworld of Berlin. The tour company Unterwelten e.V. offers a tour of the many escape tunnels that were built by West and East Germans alike to aid the escape out of the GDR.

What most people don’t realize is that the Berlin wall was pretty much built over night. That means if a husband went out in West Berlin that night and his wife stayed behind in East Berlin to look after the children, they would have been separated. Now of course it was possible for those who were left in the West to go back to the East, but it would also mean that you would never be able to go back to West Berlin again. So a lot of people faced a big dilemma. Do you choose freedom or family? An estimated 5,000 families were separated that way.

It was very difficult to escape to the West. The wall was 3.6m high and along the wall’s east side ran a ‘death zone’ that contained anti-vehicle trenches, spikes and other defenses. It was an area heavily controlled by guards. A total of 302 watchtowers and 20 bunkers were built along the 155km long border. Plus, guards were given the order to shoot at escapees. In the 28 years of its existence, between 125 and 206 people were killed when trying to cross the Berlin Wall. But despite these security measures more than seventy escape tunnels were built; and in total, more than 300 citizens were able to escape.

death zone berlin wall

The death zone

memorial berlin wall

Memorial of those who died and remnants of the Berlin wall

escapee tunnel under berlin wall

One of the lucky few who managed to escape through a tunnel

tunnel

A plaque marking the location of one of the escape tunnels

As a German it was quite an emotional tour for me, because of the stories I heard about enourmous courage, solidarity between East and West Germans, successes and tragedies. It also reminded me of some people I know personally who escaped the East at a great cost. But despite the many losses and hardship that people had to endure, this story of course had a happy ending, which is a testimony that countries who suffer from similar conditions can and must have hope for a better future.

If you would like to find out a little bit more about what life straight after the wall came down was like I highly recommend the film Good Bye, Lenin. It is a wonderful funny and also heart-breaking film about the nostalgia and euphoria felt by Eastern Germans at that time.

[Disclosure: I have not been paid by the GDR museum, Stasi museum or Unterwelten e.V. for writing this review. I simply wanted to share their details, because I highly recommend a visit to any of these institutions.]

About Tammyonthemove

Tammy & Chris are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football. Find out why they stopped pushing pens around the British civil service to travel the world on their blog.

18 Thoughts on “Behind the Berlin Wall – Life in Communist Germany

  1. What a fascinating post! I’d really love to visit this site sometime.
    Meagan @ Life Outside of Texas recently posted…Family PhotosMy Profile

  2. I remember the wall coming down as a teenager and I wanted so badly to go to Germany to celebrate with the Germans to be a part of history (and to practice my German ;). I moved to Berlin many years later and lived there for 3 years. I’ve heard many Germans discussing the wall during my time there but two instances stand out for me:
    1) I spoke with a woman from former East Germany and she told me that she missed the wall and “the way things were”. Overnight people were expected to fend for themselves regarding getting a job, securing an apartment etc, all things that had been simply given to them before. She explained that many people had never learned certain skills that suddenly everyone needed to be a part of the West.
    2) An older woman that I used to visit through the Juedische Gemeinde told me that she remembers when the wall first went up. She told me that she once loaned a friend a vacuum cleaner and 6 days later the wall went up and the two found themselves on opposite sides of the wall. She never saw the vacuum cleaner again.
    The Stasi Museum had not been completed when I was there so I very much want to go back and visit it. There are also some very funny movies about the wall. Goodbye Lenin is one of my favorites.
    Great post!
    Ligeia 🙂
    Ligeia recently posted…Things I Miss About TorontoMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on May 31, 2013 at 11:03 am said:

      Thank you Ligeia. You are right, a lot of people are quite nostalgic about the GDR, because of the safety net they had. In German it is called Ostalgie (if you get the punt. 🙂 ) I find it fascinating listening to people who actually experienced all of this first hand. I love the film Goodbye Lenin!

  3. These are awesome! We can never get enough of Berlin
    Andrea recently posted…St. John’s, Canada: A Colourful Town on the Edge (of the Atlantic)My Profile

  4. I remember when I was a kid the Marshal Fields department store in the U.S. was selling rock fragments of the Berlin wall. Things companies do to monetize. I do find WWII era interesting. I’d like to visit this one day. Thanks for sharing!
    Mig recently posted…Gourmet Coffee Tour in San Juan Lake AtitlánMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on June 20, 2013 at 2:57 am said:

      Pleasure Mig! My favourite rock story (though I don’t have that many other rock stories, sadly) is that when the US got back from the moon in the 1960s, they gave a number of allies fragments of rock and told them they were from the moon, but some of the countries did tests and found out they were all fakes. Cheeky! 🙂

  5. සෙන්නා on January 23, 2014 at 8:23 am said:

    Many thanks.. this is very informative, of course will help lot to my next article.

    The band “Scorpions” rlsd the song “winds of change” in 1990 also about fell down of the Berlin wall i guess.

  6. Wow. Great research and great pics. I know its a sensitive matter but those prison cell dont look too bad compared to the overcrowding in jails we have in California!!
    Alex recently posted…We are now offering Airport Shuttle & Private Car Service in over 40+ cities nationwideMy Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on January 27, 2014 at 12:13 pm said:

      Thanks Alex. This cell was a replica in a museum, so I am not sure if all cells looked like it. I am sure some cells were quite a lot worse depending on what kind of prison you were in and what kind of crime you have committed.

  7. I visited Berlin 2 weeks ago and went to both the Stasi and DDR museums – they’re both absolutely fascinating, and full of thought-provoking exhibits. Life in East Germany strikes me as being a very mixed bag – quite secure and safe in lots of ways, with full employment and lots of generous welfare provisions, but pretty dull and tedious culturally. Of course, if you put one foot wrong and expressed the wrong opinions or showed a bit too much individuality, you’d end up in very serious trouble indeed. There’s a series of display boards in the Stasi Museum documenting the actions and lives of various people who defied the regime, and I was struck by how incredibly brave they must have been. The risks they took were enormous.

    • Tammyonthemove on February 16, 2014 at 12:35 pm said:

      Seeing what people went through, how many people got separated and how many people died really moved me as well. Without their courage the wall wouldn’t have come down that easily I think.

  8. Great write-up on some of Berlin’s more interesting museums. Glad to see you’re covering these and putting up a lot of good information around it! Thanks for sharing my adopted city 🙂 Added this to my Berlin Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/travelsofadam/berlin-travel-tips/ 🙂
    Adam recently posted…Cologne Carnival: What have I gotten myself into?My Profile

    • Tammyonthemove on March 9, 2014 at 1:40 pm said:

      Thanks so much Adam! Glad you liked the post! You are very lucky to be living in Berlin. It is my favourite city and I think if I had to settle down somewhere it would probably be Berlin. In the summer anyway, the winters are too bloody freezing. 🙂

  9. I WENT THERE TWO TIMES
    BUT THE ”OSSIES” STILL SAYING : BUILT A NEW WALL, BUT THIS TIME TWICE HIGHER.
    THE UNITED GERMANY IS ONLY FOR THE WESTERN GERMANS……..

    • Tammyonthemove on January 28, 2016 at 2:21 am said:

      I think there are still some people who grew up in the East that feel nostalgic about the past, as they had jobs and somewhere to live (all provided by the state). Now there is still a high unemployment rate in the East. I think the younger people who were young when the wall fell think differently though.

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