How not to trace the remnants of the Berlin Wall!
Immediately south of Alexanderplatz, on Dircksenstrasse, the Imperial Police Praesidium and the Central Criminal Courts faced each other in an uneasy confrontation: legal administration versus justice. It was like two heavyweights standing toe to toe at the start of a fight, each trying to stare the other down. Of the two, the Alex, also sometimes known as ‘Grey Misery’, was the more brutal looking, having a Gothic-fortress design with a dome-shaped tower at each corner, and two smaller towers atop the front and rear façades. Occupying some 16,000 square metres it was an object lesson in strength if not in architectural merit. The slightly smaller building that housed the central Berlin courts also had the more pleasing aspect. Its neo-Baroque sandstone façade possessed something rather more subtle and intelligent than its opponent. There was no telling which one of these two giants was likely to emerge the winner; but when both fighters have been paid to take a fall it makes no sense to stick around and watch the end of the contest. Kerr, Philip. The Pale Criminal (p. 47).
We passed through Alexanderplatz twice during our days in Berlin. The first time we were on bikes and clearly had no understanding of the geography of Berlin. On the second occasion we had been to Museum Island, knew where the closest ‘barnhof ‘was and so we were back at our hotel within twenty minutes… very different from the first occasion we travelled home from this famous area of Berlin. The landscape of Alexanderplatz has changed dramatically since “the long hot summer of 1938” when Phillip Kerr suffered at the Imperial Police Praesidium. Like so many of the pre-war buildings in Berlin Mitte, Bernie Gunther’s Police ‘Station’ didn’t survive the assault on Berlin by the Russian army. Today Alexanderplatz is rebuilt, it is now a very popular shopping and transport hub with the Fernsehturm, the Television Tower, dominating the skyline.
On our bike riding adventure, we headed away from Museum Island down Karl Liebknecht Street towards Alexanderplatz. Across the road was the park honouring the renowned twins of socialism, Marx and Engels, with talking statues. We decided not to listen. In the park before Alexanderplatz there were two major sights to behold. One was the Mariankirche, perhaps one of the oldest Churches in Germany; its spire could not compete with the Television tower’s height just across the way. More spectacular for me was the Fountain of Neptune (Neptunbrunnen) nearby which has been dubbed by one travel-writer as the fourth most beautiful fountain in the world. Like the statue of Fredrick the Great on Unter den Linden, the Neptunbrunnen has a back story that standard sculptures don’t suffer from. It was designed and built in 1891 by Reinhold Bega and was placed in front of the Berlin City Palace. Even the East German Communist Government liked it, so when they dynamited the shell of the old Palace, they took the Neptunbrunnen apart and stored and repaired it. The fountain was repositioned in 1969 in this position near Alexanderplatz and it was a delight to marvel at the genius of its designer Reinhold Bega.
We had decided to ride back from Alexanderplatz to our hotel via Checkpoint Charlie and hopefully checkout any portions of the Berlin Wall that had not been removed. After being asked did I know the way, I looked at the map and decided that it couldn’t be too hard to follow the path that led to Checkpoint Charlie. I decided that all I needed was to find the first main road that headed in the right direction and update as we went along. Two foreseeable incidents then occurred. I took a wrong turn and I misplaced the map that I had been using all morning. The red arrows on the map below illustrate the problem.
Illustrating how lost and confused I was, we arrived at Volkspark and I assumed we had reached Tiergarten. When I asked a charming young German girl about my assumption, she smiled and said that I was a long way from Tiergarten. I had found another map and she showed me the direction we needed to go…back the way we came.
We had gone quite a way when I spotted a sign pointing to Potsdamer Platz. I thought we had made good headway but when we lost the Potsdammer signs, we decided to ask another young German some directions. We asked him if he knew the direction of Checkpoint Charlie and he smiled and said “No”, but he would look it up on his phone for us. He happily did so and pointed back over the River Spree and with a few turns we would reach our destination. I was only slightly concerned that it seemed to be going in a different direction to what I had hoped for, but after persevering we arrived at what was clearly a section of the Berlin Wall. This wall was covered in beautiful but confronting murals. We didn’t realise initially but we had arrived at the East Side Gallery, one of the most carefully preserved sections of the Wall. It wasn’t Checkpoint Charlie but it was a fascinating spot.
The Berlin Wall had fallen on the 9th November, 1989 and less than 12 months later, the two Germanies were ‘reunified’. During this time of change, artists began to paint murals on this section of the wall to express their hopes for the future of freedom in Germany as well as the rest of the world. Germans wanted to be rid of all traces of the wall quickly, often for souvenirs, so most sections of the wall have disappeared leaving only small sections of it left at scattered places around Berlin.
Just down from the East Side Gallery is the beautiful bridge over the river Spree called the Oberbaumbucke. From 1961 to 1989 it was part of the border marked by the Berlin Wall and was a regular pedestrian crossing into East Berlin. As all the River Spree was part of East German territory along this section of the wall, anyone who was from West Berlin who fell from the bridge was immediately trespassing in foreign territory and West Berliners were not allowed to rescue such people. A number of children who fell from the bridge suffered this fate.
Lunch, a long cup of coffee and a sensible inspection of a new map gave us the insight as to where we were and so we again headed for Checkpoint Charlie. Unlike the earlier rides during the day, this was a circuitous route that demanded much checking of the map. We passed St Thomas Church on the way, another church that suffered significant damage during WWII, and after 1961, its parish life was highly disrupted by the Berlin Wall a couple of streets away. Our arrival at Checkpoint Charlie itself was quite the let down as it was the most crowded intersection we had experienced in Berlin so far that day. Those enemies of quite tourism, huge tour buses, were double parked everywhere and the crush of visitors around the replica of Checkpoint Charlie was off putting.
Checkpoint Charlie was set up in 1961 when the wall was erected to stop East German Citizens crossing into West Berlin. It became the only gateway in the wall where diplomats, military personnel and others could cross into East Berlin. It was the section of the wall that was regularly in the news for prisoner swaps and attempted escapes from East Berlin. Early in its life it was the site of a tank confrontation between East and West and a major world crisis was evaded only by a phone call between Russia’s President Kruschev and the USA’s John Francis Kennedy. Fans of John Le Carre’s Berlin spy novels will also be familiar with its iconic role in the history of Berlin in the 1960s. Here is an extract from ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ that opens at Checkpoint Charlie…
“Herr Thomas! Quick!” Leamas stepped to the observation window. “A man, Herr Thomas,” the younger policeman whispered, “with a bicycle.” Leamas picked up the binoculars. It was Karl, the figure was unmistakable even at that distance, shrouded in an old Wehrmacht mackintosh, pushing his bicycle. He’s made it, thought Leamas, he must have made it, he’s through the document check, only currency and customs to go. Leamas watched Karl lean his bicycle against the railing, walk casually to the customs hut. Don’t overdo it, he thought. At last Karl came out, waved cheerfully to the man on the barrier, and the red and white pole swung slowly upwards. He was through, he was coming toward them, he had made it. Only the Vopo in the middle of the road, the line and safety.
At that moment Karl seemed to hear some sound, sense some danger; he glanced over his shoulder, began to pedal furiously, bending low over the handlebars. There was still the lonely sentry on the bridge, and he had turned and was watching Karl. Then, totally unexpected, the searchlights went on, white and brilliant, catching Karl and holding him in their beam like a rabbit in the headlights of a car. There came the seesaw wail of a siren, the sound of orders wildly shouted. In front of Leamas the two policemen dropped to their knees, peering through, the sandbagged slits, deftly flicking the rapid load on their automatic rifles.
The East German sentry fired, quite carefully, away from them, into his own sector. The first shot seemed to thrust Karl forward, the second to pull him back. Somehow he was still moving, still on the bicycle, passing the sentry, and the sentry was still shooting at him. Then he sagged, rolled to the ground, and they heard quite clearly the clatter of the bike as it fell. Leamas hoped to God he was dead. (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: John Le Carre.
From Checkpoint Charlie we followed the route of the Berlin Wall up to Potsdamer Platz, an area now covered in impressive high-rise buildings but a place whose back story is one of great sadness. Potsdamer Platz was the site of the old city gate to Potsdam and was an important economic area for centuries. In the 1920s it became one of the most famous squares in the world for its commerce and its entertainment. Sections of the film ‘Cabaret’, set in Berlin in 1931, were shot around the square before its regeneration. During World War 2 it was severely bombed. With the division of Berlin after the war, the Wall split the area in two, resulting in it becoming an almost empty no-go zone until 1990. Our brief visit on our first swoop through Berlin showed us a thriving economic area that had clearly made up a lot of time in recovering some of its past glory. Two nights later we returned by train to Potsdamer Platz and had a close look at the pieces of the old wall that are retained in the area as noticeboards. They gave explanations as to what the city was doing to preserve the memories of the Berlin Wall before all trace of it is gone. We noticed that Wall notice boards were aligned with a path of cobble stones; it marked the line of the old wall and can be seen snaking its way under huge buildings on the way up towards the Brandenburg Gate.
Our bike-riding attempt to understand the geography of the Berlin Wall was a rushed and amateurish method to understand a highly complex issue from Berlin’s past. Our mistakes probably taught us a lot about what we should do next time we visit this amazing city…perhaps spending a lot more time and getting a local guide would be good starting points. However, this little taste of travelling the route of the wall gave us plenty of insight into what the people of Berlin suffered over the post-war years, events that we only partially witnessed via the vague lens of our newspapers and television screens on the other side of the world.
Postscript: The Church of Reconciliation was mentioned in the earlier article about our tour around Berlin. Its story is inextricably bound up in the story of the wall; it was cut off in the Soviet Sector and its parishioners were left in the French sector. This archival photo showing the path of the Berlin Wall in front of the Church speaks to the multi faceted trauma of the wall. The Reconciliation Chapel that has replaced it will be on our itinerary for the next visit to Berlin.