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?
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.
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.
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.
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.]