The Route of the Berlin Wall
Cold and grey is how Berlin plays in my imagination, nourished by spy films and thriller writers. In my mind’s eye, I can quite easily conjure up a city in the grip of an endless autumn just on the cusp of winter. To me, it is a city where parks and cemeteries are thick with fallen leaves and where frosty breath gives away clandestine conversations. So I was not at all disappointed when I stepped out from my hotel on Bernauer Strasse under a low grey November sky, with the air cold to the point of sharp, and into the very shadow of the Berlin Wall. More than 20 years on from the fall of the wall, little of it remains. But it still makes its presence felt and, for people like me who want to feel the chill of a Cold War frisson, then there’s nothing for it but to follow the hundred-mile Berlin Wall Trail, which traces every twist and turn of this once resolute border.
Divided homes and ghost stations
On Bernauer Strasse, I was off to a good start. Only here do sections of both the inner and outer wall survive. In between lies the strikingly stark emptiness of the ‘death strip’, which would have been forensically lit at night. Crossing it alive seemed to me all but impossible. It was on this street that some of the most dramatic incidents took place on 13 August 1961, when overnight the Berlin Wall appeared. The side streets were blocked and houses brutally divided. Doorways were bricked up and so, in desperation, people jumped from upper-floor windows. Pictures beamed around the world of one poor woman who was subjected to a tug-of-war between the secret police, grabbing hold of her from inside her room, and those on the ground below already safe in the free West. Those who died are remembered in stones set into the pavement where they fell. For 28 years, West Berlin was sealed up on all sides by a communist regime determined to stem the flow of people from the East. But while there were famous scenes of jubilation at the time of its collapse in November 1989, there is now some regret that the wall was so comprehensively torn down. Work has now been undertaken on Bernauer Strasse to renovate the remnants and construct a suitable memorial within the death strip, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the wall’s erection in August. The excavations revealed the foundations of those homes so abruptly cut in two by an ideological divide that did not flinch from its intended route. Even the dead were dug up.
Poignancy is everywhere. At the end of Bernauer Strasse, the Nordbahnhof subway station with its bleak, ringing subterranean corridors reeks of the Cold War. Straddling the divide, with one platform in the East and one in the West, it was fortified by the East Germans and was one of several eerie ghost stations sealed up for nearly three decades. There are two distinct sections to the trail: the city-centre section where the wall divided the city in two; and that in the suburbs, where it separated West Berlin from the rest of East Germany (or the DDR – Deutsche Demokratische Republik – as it was known). In the city, signposts and two lines of cobbles set in the ground keep me in step with the wall’s true route but it’s a good idea to have a street map in order to avoid some of the unnecessary contortions of this most artificial of borders. Beyond the city borders, the wall marches unhindered across flat, open country. Its legacy appears to be a dead zone along its route, so I had to carry plenty of food and water with me and return each night on the excellent public transport system to my city-centre hotel, rather than move on each day.
Cold and World War zeitgeist
My progress was very slow on the first day, passing through the heart of Berlin. It was difficult to strike the balance between walking and sightseeing as some of the most iconic images of the 20th century presented themselves one by one. Without doubt, the wartime zeitgeist – both Cold and World – lingers here in the vicinity of the wall and makes for an exciting companion. At times it’s ephemeral and almost hidden by the determined attempts to rehabilitate Berlin. But around the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Nazi-era buildings, it really howls at you. Pockmarked with bullets, the sandstone façades of the Reichstag and Göring’s Luftwaffe HQ were a reminder of the ferocity of the battle of Berlin in 1945, when Germans of all ages were forced to defend the city to the last. The powerful and suitably prominent Holocaust memorial and the Topography of Terror – an open-air exhibition set in the basement of the former Gestapo HQ – demand considered stops.
Away from the modern grandeur of the rejuvenated Potsdamer Platz – where the sleek skyscapers joyfully declare that the capitalist West won the war – I find myself in very ordinary backstreets, but still have to stop frequently to read about the numerous incidences of courage and tragedy. For instance, a shoot-out across the wall, in which a teenager was shot but still managed to escape, prompted Martin Luther King to visit him and condemn the wall. And it was behind the anonymous- looking door of 82 Sebastian Strasse that one of 70 secret tunnels was dug to reunite segregated families. Not much further on, I walk past the longest remaining section of the wall, along the East Side Gallery. Colourful peacenik graffiti does nothing to reduce its dystopian impact; you cannot see over the wall and, unlike a fence, you cannot see through it. It was the ultimate frontier and it is chilling to contemplate the scale of this mile-long section and the determined mindset that built it.