Berlin Experiences founder, Matt, recently started contributing to the Atlas Obscura - here's an interesting look at Berlin's Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde, also known as the Memorial to the Socialists: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/memorial-to-the-socialists-zentralfriedhof-friedrichsfelde "Established in 1881, the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde was Berlin’s first non-denominational municipal graveyard - a pauper’s cemetery that would later become the final resting place for many of Germany’s prominent Socialists, Communists and anti-Fascist fighters."
Berlin has museum culture at its heart. Radiating from an entire island in the centre of the city - complete with an ensemble of museums - chronicling six thousand years of human history.
A vital constituent in the European narrative, it is not hard to argue the case that Berlin in its entirety is in-fact one huge open-air museum. Its streets serving as corridors leading to the monuments and building of its permanent collection - the story continuing behind the many doors waiting to be opened.
With more than 170 fascinating museums, covering everything from classical antiquities to the history of hemp, the choice in Berlin is overwhelming.
To help out we've highlighted ten Berlin museums that remain a must see for anyone visiting the city.
The Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) is just one of five state museums huddled on Berlin's UNESCO world heritage listed Museum Island. It was founded in 1861, after banker Johann Heinrich Wagener donated over two hundred artworks. Now spread over three floors, the museum boasts one of the largest collections of 19th century European art in Germany to survive the Nazi regime - including works from German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (see image above). It also houses Romantic and Modernist works, as well as being the first museum in the world to purchase Impressionist art - keep a lookout for the odd Monet and Manet painting, and works by Max Liebermann, a pioneer of German impressionism.
Don't miss: Johann Gottfried Schadow’s “Princesses Luis and Freiderike” on the first floor and Louis Sussmann-Hellborn’s 1878 “Sleeping Beauty”- the intricate detail in the leaves and flowers will give you goosebumps!
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 set the tone for the formation of the Stasi museum. Born from anti-Stalinist civil rights activism in 1990, the Stasimuseum is located in House 1, previously the main building in the administrative headquarters of the East German Ministry of State Security, more commonly known as the Stasi. The Stasi museum documents, researches and preserves all things in relation to former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), acting as a memorial for the injustices of the GDR regime. It highlights the repression of Germany’s own people and the effect it had on the population. As fascinating as it is disturbing, the lessons offered here still hold true to the title of the museum's first incarnation in 1990, a title borrowed from Spanish painter Francisco Goya: "the sleep of reason" - as Goya observed, "brings forth monsters".
Don’t miss: The preserved office of Erich Mielke, who was once the Minister of State Security (head of the Stasi) and arguably the most powerful man in East Germany.
The contemporary art exhibited in the Hamburger Bahnhof museum documents art movements starting from the 1960s, using prominent figures work, such as Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys, as examples. Part of the National Gallery, mediums range from drawing and painting to photomedia, often exploring technology’s effect on the nature of art. The exhibitions are regularly changed and curated to different themes. Formerly, the last stop on the Berlin-Hamburg Railway line (and a museum of transport and technology) the original use of the building is still evident in the architecture. Offering some interesting gallery spaces, due to their large size and high ceilings, the artworks are often spread out on a large scale allowing the observers to fully immerse themselves in the viewing experience.
Don't miss: The special exhibitions (updated regularly) and the Joseph Beuys collection.
Deutsches Historisches Museum
The Deutsches Historisches Museum takes you back in time to offer a thought-provoking insight into not only the German story but the country's shared history with the rest of Europe. It portrays a variety of perspectives exposing visitors to the grand narratives that have competed to seize control of Germany's past, present and future . This is most evident in the permanent exhibition, recounting 1500+ years from Germany’s past and covering a range of topics such as the history of language, political ideologies, World War I and the Nazi Regime. The Museum also has a library, picture archive and online object database; whether you are looking for something in particular or just want to sit back and read a book in silence.
Don't miss: The warrior sculptures in the courtyard, the temporary exhibitions and the distinct spiral staircase at the rear of the building which can be seen through glass from the outside (designed by I.M Pei).
When visiting Berlin, it’s hard to ignore Germany’s role in Jewish history, and conversely, the Jewish role in German history. The sleek silver building by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind that houses part of the Jewish museum, identifiable by its unusual deconstructivist-style, stands out when compared to the older baroque style building it is connected to. The zigzagged roundabout shape of the Libeskind building (from an aerial perspective) is said to symbolize the strained story of that German-Jewish history. Pairing it with the older baroque style building constrasts the fractured sense of Jewish history, the rupture of the Holocaust (represented by the Libeskind building) with the civil base of the original building. But the design of the museum is not the only reason it attracts approximately 2,000 visitors per day. Prepared at a level that will entice both those versed in Jewish history and those curious for the first time, the permanent exhibition explores not only the Holocaust but also the German-Jewish relationship from the Middle Ages to the present. The museum is particularly engaging in its use of the case studies of significant individuals, photographic evidence and interactive stations.
Don’t miss: The Holocaust Tower and the Garden of Exile.
Topography of Terror
From the early 1930s to 1945 this site was the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS, key instruments of repression in the Nazi regime. The museum that now occupies this plot of land is divided into three permanent exhibitions, the ‘Gestapo, SS and Reich Main Security Office’, ‘Berlin 1933-1945. Between propaganda and terror’ and ‘The historical site “Topography of Terror”. These permenant exhibitions are proof complete of a nation embracing its history, preferring to honestly confront the history of the terror institutions in Nazi German rather than shy away from an uncomfortable subject. Organised in chronologically order, from the beginnings of the Nazi security services to the trials and confrontations in German society (or sometimes lack of) that took place after WW2, mentally prepare yourself to spend a few hours here reading through the dark and disturbing aspects of the Nazi regime.
Dont miss: The remaining parts of the Berlin Wall stood alongside the exhibit
Haus der Wannsee Konferenz
Who would have thought such a beautiful building could play such a dark role in history. The Haus der Wannsee Konferenz museum is pivotal in portraying the events that led up to the Holocaust, acting as a memorial for the Nazi persecution of European Jewry. In 1942, senior government officials and SS leaders were invited to discuss the problem of the ‘Jewish question’, pledging their cooperation in the planned deportation and murder of millions of Jews. Despite the manor being quite small, the permanent exhibition is packed full of information that chronologically documents the events that led to the Holocaust. Pairing a visit here with a visit to a concentration camp such as Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, is highly recommended.
Don't miss: The room where the meeting occurred, photographs of the people involved and the minutes.
The DDR museum differs to other Berlin museums as it allows you to fully immerse yourself in life during the Cold War, looking past common banalities and employing all of your senses with a hands on approach (the slogan of the museum is literally “History to touch”). Highlights include an authentic kitchen in a GDR home typical for the period, a room that emulates the secret police interrogation process and a virtual tour of the area in a Trabi (a type of car made from 1957-1990 by an East German company). Other key information points include facts about the Stasi and the Wall.
Don't miss: the East German kitchen and living room, 1:1 scale, open for exploration
Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (now known as the Mauer Museum)
Checkpoint Charlie was an official crossing point between West and East Berlin during the Cold War and the site, from 1962, of one of Berlin's most famous museums. Interestingly, the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie was formed right after the Wall went up in a two-room apartment, as a exhibition aimed at drawing attention to human rights and the oppressive actions of the East German state. Now it has expanded in size and documents many of the successful techniques used to escape from East Berlin. Attempts to cross the Wall could actually be viewed from the apartment - through a small window in the northern side of the building. Checkpoint Charlie was a flashpoint for conflict between the East and West and the site of numerous Cold War protests. In October 1961, the United States and the Soviet forces engaged in a stand off, their tanks staring each other down for 16 hours, only metres from where the museum now stands.
Don't miss: The Charta 77 typewriter, the death mask of Andrei Sacharov and Mahatma Ghandi’s diary and sandals.
After having been badly damaged during World War II and laying idle for many years, initiative was taken in the 1980s to transform this damaged shell of a building into the interesting modern museum that it is today - replicating much of the original interior. Its Neoclassical architecture is fitting for its location on Museum Island. Historic not only in the collection stored here but also in the construction of the building - the use of iron in the museum’s construction was one of the first prime examples of the positive impact of industrialization in the 1800s - a steam engine was even used. Inside the Neues Museum, you will find an Egyptian Museum, a Papyrus collection, the museum of Pre- and Early history and Classical Antiquities.
Don't miss: The iconic bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti.
Tour groups are a fundamental part of the scenery in Berlin.
Wandering the city's historic central district of Mitte, it is hard not to notice the numerous large groups of tourists being spirited through the streets by various colourful characters.
Look closer and you may see smaller, more intimate groups, engaged in lively discussion.
Tourism is booming in Berlin, with the city registering more than 30 million overnight stays in 2016, making it the third most popular destination in Europe - behind only London and Paris.
As famed for its hedonism as for its weighty history, it is easy to see why the German capital draws the crowds.
Once the nerve-centre of Hitler's Third Reich and later the frontline of the ideological battle that raged during the Cold War between East and West, Berlin stands as THE city of the 20th century.
Following its re-unification in 1990, it has become emblematic of the new, re-energised, Modern Germany - dynamic, introspective & pulsing with change.
Berlin's preeminent ambassadors are the hundreds of professional tour guides who work throughout the year to introduce visitors to the major and minor milestones marking the city’s existence - the things that remain hidden in plain sight and the places off-the-beaten-track.
Taking a guided tour of Berlin is rightly considered a must when visiting the city.
In the right company, you will find yourself experiencing things that will define your visit entirely - and leave you heading home with souvenirs, both material and intellectual, worth treasuring forever.
Why Tour with a Guide?Scratch the surface in Berlin and you'll find that what is immediately visible to all is just the start of the adventure.
If you're looking to dig deeper, see more and learn more, enlisting the services of a professional guide will go a long way towards satisfying your curiosity. And just perhaps, help you scratch that itch you never knew you had.
Whether your interest is in an introductory sightseeing tour, a more in-depth exploration of a particular chapter in the city's rich history, or diving into Berlin’s cultural offerings - a professional guide will have the experience, knowledge, and contacts to make things happen that would otherwise be impossible.
Travelling somewhere new is one of the most inspiring and thrilling things you can do, but as any seasoned traveller will tell you, a first time visit to a city inherently comes with its own time-wasting frustrations and annoyances.
What is the easiest way to get around? How does the public transportation work? Am I safe to walk about at night? Are there any local customs that I should be aware of? If I have a niche interest in something particular, how do I tap into it? And most importantly, how can I make the best use of my time?
A guide will be able to help with all of these questions. But above and beyond providing necessary assistance, a truly professional tour guide will make your experience memorable, for all the right reasons.
Professional Guide vs Amateur Guide
Every country and city you visit will have its own spectrum of tour guide quality.
Knowing that there is a difference between the seasonal amateur workers, at best running a theatrical showpiece from a pre-established script, and those who find that guiding is part of their intellectual calling, is the first step in navigating your way to the best use of your time and money.
As with most cities, Berlin has a rich community of excellent professional guides, all with life experience in various different fields of interest - accomplished scholars, journalists, historians, political and social scientists, archaeologists, researchers and photographers.
The Berlin gamut ranges from erudite students eager to put their education to good use, all the way to enormously impressive streetside scholars, experts in their fields, offering their time and company - all to your advantage.
There is an old educational maxim that says that you don’t really understand something until you can teach it to someone else.
Expert guides are expert teachers.
This comes with experience and often years of dedication to the art.
With guiding at its highest form, you can expect intellectual stimulation from gifted educators who practice their profession with passion and pride.
A great guide is an invaluable asset. Welcoming you to the city, peeling back the layers, saving you time, and generally empowering you with a wealth of suggestions so that you can go on to enjoy your remaining independent time to the fullest.
A great guide is also someone who, by virtue of being a dedicated professional, will have committed time that you may not have, to doing research, collecting materials, and generally gaining access to all sorts of exciting things within the spectrum of their focus.
A great guide will also be able to change direction halfway through on the fly, seamlessly adjust schedules and reservations (within the limits of reality), and above all else, be captivating.
Change your mind about lunch? No problem, let’s go somewhere else.
Did another topic suddenly catch your attention? Fantastic, let’s change direction and dig in.
Feeling grumpy from the flight? Here’s a slightly inappropriate joke at exactly the right moment.
If it is the job of an amateur to drag you through the tourist traps, it is the job of the consumate professional to lead you far beyond them.
First showing you the highlights in the context of the whole, and then opening up secret doors in the backdrop of the stage - to show you another side of things entirely.
Private Tour vs Public TourObviously, there is a time and a place for everything, but it’s important to keep your expectations on par with your means and choices.
A great public tour can be a terrific experience for those whose budget doesn’t permit hiring a private guide.
Bear in mind however, that even at its best, a public group is necessarily a compromise.
With a public tour, the guide is at the mercy of the group as a whole, and will be playing to an averaged assessment of what the group’s interests are within the framework of their topic for the day.
Sometimes this is fantastic, sometimes it shows its limitations.
A public tour (whether a paid tour or one of the 'free tours' we can discuss later) can often appear as a well-oiled stage show, the kind where the performer sometimes mingles with the crowd, sometimes appears in the balcony to surprise the audience.
A professional private guide is a different kind of animal - combining the professionalism and one-on-one attention of a skilled concierge with the ability to remain well-versed on all sorts of local political and cultural issues, while seamlessly blending history with present-day relevance.
With a great private guide, it’s entirely your day, your show, and the guide will be working hard exclusively for you to make sure you personallly get the most out of the experience.
You will also have the luxury of direct access to his or her expertise without the distraction of other strangers. This means that your experience is infinitely more flexible, and that you are almost guaranteed to end up getting more not just out of the tour itself, but also from the remainder of your entire trip.
Obviously, a private tour comes at a very different price point than the average public tour does.
However, if you factor in the time you save, the fact that you will be spared exposure to that somehow inevitable person who feels compelled to blurt out a million annoying comments on every public tour, and the access to special places and information that might end up being otherwise invisible, a private tour starts to look more attractive by the second.
Types of Tours
Although when approaching the subject of guided tours in Berlin, it is reasonable to expect that your starting point may be a general overview tour of the city (often called a Berlin Highlights tour). However, depending on the guide you approach to work with, and your level of interest, it is worth considering what in particular you are interested in exploring, what themes, chapters in German history, areas of the city etc...
Most guides will offer tours based on themes, with the general register consisting of a Third Reich tour – a Cold War tour – a Jewish Heritage tour – perhaps also tours focusing on more modern elements such as the city's Graffiti and Street Art scene.
As most professional guides also have academic backgrounds in certain fields, you can find that their specialties extend to the type of tours they offer in the city – such as Modern Architecture tours and, if their background is in the culinary arts – Gourmet Food Tours are become a more frequent sight.
Beyond the city limits, it is possible to escape Berlin for day visits to nearby Potsdam, where the former summer residences of the Prussian kings and German emperors are, to Leipzig or Dresden, or perhaps to the concentration camp memorials at Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.
Taking a private tour of Sachsenhausen or private tour of Potsdam, can be a great way to spend your time once having already acquainted yourself with Berlin's main attractions. Combining all three of these options together (Berlin Highlights/Potsdam/Sachsenhausen) makes for an ideal three-day itinerary.
There are few times in life when quality does not come at a price.
What is exceptional about tour guiding is that it is an industry where your experience is defined by just one person – your guide.
Although with any restaurant you visit will likely have a chain of workers, all functioning buy glucophage 850 mg together to make the whole (from the waiter who takes your order, to the chef who cooks your food, the kitchen helper who prepares the basic ingredients, and the bartender who serves your drinks), with a tour you are at the mercy of only one person.
It is worth remembering that the cost of what you are purchasing is relevant to the experience you have with this person, rather than a product (such as a television or piece of furniture) that you buy.
With that, different guides may offer different prices based on their personal availability and professional quality.
Any per hourly rate you receive from any guide will generally be a good indication of how serious the guide or agency is and a reflection of how in demand they are.
At the prospect of sounding redundant, it is likely that if a guide you approach offers you a certain price that may seem high, it is likely that it is because they are worth it. It is the job of the amateur guide, who is not in demand due to their reputation and experience, to try to lowball the market.
However, it is reasonable to expect that prices vary based on the time of the year, you can expect to pay more in the summer season when guides are in demand, and don’t be surprised to receive a discount rate in the winter season when the number of tourists in town is lower.
When working directly with a private guide in Berlin you will often encounter the 'sliding scale payment system' – this means that you get to decide on the day what you would like to pay, based on a pre-defined suggested scale, and according to how much you value the experience.
This is also a way of trying to make private tours more accessible to a wider range of budgets.
Within reason, you can expect to pay between 40€ and 150€ per hour for a private guide in Berlin - depending on a number of factors:
- Who the guide is
- The time of year (whether on-season or off-season)
- How in-demand the guide is
- Whether you have any special requests for the tour (perhaps visiting something that is off-the-beaten track, and requires extra planning
- Whether the tour requires transportation (this is not included in the above price)
- How large your group is
Remember, the old saying: the poor man pays twice.
What may seem like a saving on price could actually be a sacrifice you are making on quality.
Free ToursA staple of any frugal backpacker travelling Europe - free guided walking tours arrived on the scene in the early 2000s.
As a way of making cities like Berlin accessible to foreign visitors and accommodating to the budgets of visitors - these tours have done wonders at increasing interest in the practice of taking walking tours.
There are some big names in the Free Tour business (like Sandeman’s New Europe) that you will find in most European cities, and smaller companies run by locals who have found the business model works for the kinds of clients they want to draw in and the turnover of guides.
One of the drawbacks of these tours is that, with cities like Berlin, there are many young people eager to find their place in the world and a way to support their time abroad - free tour guiding can be the equivalent of what picking grapes in the south of France once was - temporary and for short monetary gain.
That means that companies will sometimes rely on issuing scripts to their guides - which, while guaranteeing some semblance of consistency in their tours, also means that the experience can come off as being wholly constructed. And unlike with a professional private guide, who can easily detour into other realms, these tours may feel restricted to the well beaten path.
The good news is that there are a wealth of fantastic guides out there who have found their place with these companies - some are even in it for the long run. So, you can hit a winner sometimes.
The most important thing to remember about these tours is that despite the advertising hook - there is a catch. Although the tours may very well be free for guests to join, they are also free for the guides who run them.
The companies expect the guides to contribute towards advertising costs and general running costs and put a per person price on a tour (so for each person attending the guide is expected to pay a ‘kickback’ to the company for the pleasure of having those clients on a tour).
Some of these companies use free tours simply as promotion for their other tours - keeping things short and trying to upsell other paid tours - perhaps a longer version of the tour you have just done, with more sights and more information on Cold War history or Jewish Heritage.
However, because of the demand that the guide pay a ‘kickback’ to the company - you may well find that when the tour is over, there is the expectation that you will contribute, in the form of a friendly tip.
No doubt, when all is said and done, you will want to give the guide something.
Although there is a lot to be said for agreeing a set price beforehand and leaving the money aspect off the table - when both parties know where they stand from the beginning, there is much more room for the more important things.
No upselling and no desperate begging for tips.
As much as cultures around the world vary, it is rare to find someone who does not feel touched by a thank you that adds a little freedom to their life, and certainly a monetary token has far more power than mere words. So help us, we are human, and cash is king.
Bear in mind that tourism, as part of the service industry, has a long and rich tradition of people who provide outstanding, top class performance making careers out of gratuities, and your money is a vote for the kind of world you wish to live in.
Some companies will provide a specific tipping suggestion when booking a guide (often 10-15% of the price of the tour), when booking directly with a guide you can consider this to be at your discretion. Although it is always a nice gesture when stopping for lunch to pick up the tab when inviting the guide to join you.
When hiring transportation for your tour, it is customary to tip the driver (a suggested 5% of the full price), whether they are driving a bus or a smaller private vehicle.
This is again a notable difference between an amateur and a professional: the amateur will never let you forget about gratuities; a professional will always make you feel at home with the choice ultimately in your hands.
Private Tour Guides in Berlin
When I founded Berlin Experiences it was with one thing in mind: to be able to connect people looking for private tours in Berlin with the best guides in the business. I've personally led thousands of tours in and around the city and know what it is like to see people leave Berlin with more than they expected - and the value a fantastic guide can bring to any excursion.
There is no shortage of outstanding guides in Berlin who have managed to carve a niche for themselves (Jeremy Minsberg, for instance - Jessica Cartwright- Heidi Leyton - Nick Jackson - Lee Evans - and the wonderful Caroline Marburger and Arja Jacob- just to name a few) but many more who are finding their feet in the industry.
Giving those guides the chance to put their talents to good use is one of the things I find most rewarding.
To the average visitor, the difference between a great guide and an exceptional guide can be hard to notice. What is impressive to someone who has just arrived in a city could be commonplace to anyone who has been there for a matter of days.
It is easy to judge a guide by what they put in their tours – but to professionally judge that guide it is important to also know what they have left out.
This is not something that the ordinary visitor can usually detect - and a good reason why I would suggest doing your research before you book any guide or tour.Not all countries or cities insist that their guides are legally certified, it’s often helpful to look out for those who at least belong to an official tour guides association. Unlike countries like Poland and Spain, there is no official license required for guides in Germany, suprising considering the weight of the country's history. You will, however, often find that guides in German cities, such as Berlin, are part of a local tour guides association (Verein). This means they will be part of a community of guides who share information about their city, or country, amongst themselves on a regular basis, and be more aware of the minute details that first-time visitors will easily miss.
The Bündnis Berliner Stadtführer association, of which I am proud to say I am a member, provides a list of peer-reviewed guides in Berlin, alongwith the tours they offer and the different languages they guide in.
Public Tour Companies in Berlin
Founded by a former British naval intelligence officer, Terry Brewer, this company has been offering tours of the city since the 1990s and is famous for providing the longest single day history tour in Berlin (at a minimum of six hours).
The original Berlin public tour company, praised by American author Rick Steves as one of the best in the city. Setting a professional standard for English language public tours in Berlin that is hard to beat.
In-depth sightseeing tours of Berlin's major landmarks with commentary from some of the most articulate academic guides in the city. Their Berlin Today tour, looking at the developments in the city post-reunification is a particularly unique experience.-
Thanks for reading this far! I hope at least some of this was useful to those of you looking to hire a guide, whether in Berlin or anywhere else in the world.
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to get in touch.-Matt
How absurd that of all the stunning buildings in Berlin - the triumphant Prussian Brandenburg Gate, the magnificent UNESCO-listed Museum Island - that the one landmark that has come to be synonymous with the name of the city is built of simple reinforced concrete. A monument to the ideological conflict of the Cold War that defined much of the 20th century. The Berlin Wall.
Constructed at a time when the world seemed to be teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation, the Berlin Wall transformed the city overnight. As the East German government took desperate measures to keep their own population from fleeing to the Western sectors of divided Berlin, a concrete barrier over 150 km long was constructed around that very capitalist island of the West. Creating something of a paradoxical prison. Ironically where the only people who were free were the prisoners encircled.
Free to leave. Free, eventually, to visit the East. Free to rock. Free to roll. Free to vote for numerous different political parties, and free to cover the blank canvas of this monstrous concrete barrier in graffiti and slogans calling for its much overdue removal.
The images and graffiti tags daubed on this once daunting fortification have become emblematic of its existence. To tour the Berlin Wall now is to expect to be confronted with a chiselled mass of reinforced concrete and colourful murals. And in many places that is exactly what can still be found.
Alongside the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Great Wall of China, Tower Bridge in London - the Berlin Wall now stands as a listed monument of historical significance. To tour Berlin without seeing, and touching, the Wall would be a journey incomplete.
Although many pieces have been transported across the world to be exhibited - in London outside the Imperial War Museum, at Fulton University where Winston Churchill gave his famous ‘Iron Curtain' speech - there still remains much to be seen in the city. If you know where to look.
We’ve compiled ten reason why you should tour the Berlin Wall:
The ‘Sixities’ were dangerous and unpredictable days. The two superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in confrontation, using both convential military and unconventional psychological means, across the globe - in as far flung places as the Congo, Cuba and, of course Berlin. The period following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, now known as the Cold War, was a period of proxy wars. Representative engagements fought between these two superpowers, on foreign soil, as a battle of ideologies was being waged.
Berlin sat directly on the fault line between East and West. Divided amongst the victorious powers in 1945, shared between the British, the French, the US and Soviet forces. The city became an ideological frontier. A measure of meaning. The point where two opposing worldviews collided - that of the capitalist West and the Marxist-Leninist East.
Faced with the mass exodus of population that had taken place between 1949 and 1961, whereby nearly 3 million East German citizens fled to the Western sectors, the government of the German Democractic Republic first sought to secure its borders by establishing a military frontier with West Germany. Then came the Wall.
Or the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampant” as it was officially known.
As West Berlin, the island of capitalism inside East Germany, served as a point of exit for fleeing East Germans, specifically between 1952 and 1961, the East German government decided to finally cut off access to the Western sectors of the city by surrounding West Berlin with an inpenetrable barrier.
Not to be deceived by the name, the Berlin Wall grew to be more than just a wall, it was a series of obstacles sandwiched between two walls. The inner and outer walls, with a 'death strip' or 'kill zone' in-between.
It stood as a symbol of all that was wrong with the Soviet system. A system that had to be imposed by force and maintained by fear. A system that denied the citizens of the state the ability to leave the country, and thus denied them the choice to remain.
Until that fateful night in November 1989, when the whole house of cards came tumbling down. Taking the wall and all that it stood for with it.
The Great Escapes (& The Tragic Deaths)
If you choose to trace the path of the Berlin Wall now, as it snaked around West Berlin, you will be confronted with a plethora of commemorative plaques and ‘places of memory’ recording the actions of the people who died whilst trying to escape from East to West and the many more who succeeded in fleeing.
Between 1961 and 1989, more than 5,000 people managed to escape to West Berlin, despite the Berlin Wall.
Any method you can think of, it’s likely that someone tried to escape using it, and perhaps succeeded. Hot air balloons, tunnels, elaborate smuggling operations, disguises, explosives, speeding cars, trains, buses. The list goes on. The Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie has an extensive collection of items that people used to aid their escape, including a converted car and improvised diving equipment.
At the official Berlin Wall documentation centre (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) on Bernauer Strasse, there is a memorial to the 139 known victims of the Berlin Wall - from Ida Siekmann, the first known victim, to Winfried Freudenberg, the last.
The deaths recorded here are sadly as tragic as the escapes are inspiring, Ida Siekmann’s being a foretelling of things to come. Living on the border with West Berlin, in an apartment on Bernauer Strasse, Siekmann was cut off from her sister when the first stage of the Berlin Wall was constructed in the early hours of 13th August 1961.
Her sister was living in the neighbouring district of Wedding, then part of the French sector. As Siekmann sought to jump from her apartment building into the Western sector, she hit the pavement below and died from the injuries she sustained in the fall. The first victim of the Berlin Wall, soon to be followed by Günther Litfin - the first person killed by the East German authorities trying to escape.
To learn more about Litfin, visit our previous blog post.
The Mauerweg (The Berlin Wall Way)
Clocking in at over 150km in length, the Berlin Wall was a lot longer than most people realise. In surrounding West Berlin, the East German authorities decided to clear room, where necessary, for the 'death strip' of the Wall. Destroying houses, slicing through cemeteries and disinterring bodies from graves, all to establish an exclusion zone the border guards could better maintain, to prevent any attemped escapes to the West.
The Mauerweg is the legacy of what once consisted of this death strip. Partly preserved for posterity, partly because of the way Berlin seems to embrace greenery and open spaces. This trail traces the course of the Berlin Wall as it encircled the former Western sectors of the city, combining the area that East German border troops once used to police and the patrol road used by West Berlin customs officials.
To tour the entire length is quite a task, although worth it for the scenery and the dozens of information boards explaining the historical significance of the area you'll find along the way. Expect to see many Berliners out taking in the air, walking their dogs, and the more adventerous ones biking the Wall. The whole route can be covered either by foot or with a bicycle. Choosing the latter will take at least a day (for those with strong legs), although we recommend making a couple of days of it - there are restaurants and hotels to stop of at.
The route is fully signposted, you can start your Mauerweg tour by following the more than 40km of cobblestone (pictured above) trail plotted through the city.
SlowTravelBerlin authors Paul Sullivan and Paul Scraton released a great companion book to the Mauerweg for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. You can find more information on that HERE.
The Graffiti on the Wall
The longest remaining piece of the Berlin Wall can be found next to the River Spree - on the Friedrichshain side of the water - what is now known as the East glucophage price Side Gallery. Often credited as the longest, largest, open-air gallery in the world, this 1.3km stretch is home to over 100 graffiti murals.
Featured in the 2003 movie Goodbye Lenin!, the East Side Gallery boasts many internationally famous works of wall art including a large section by French artist Thierry Noir, Dimitri Vrubel’s Brezhnev/Honecker kiss, and Birgit Kinder’s 'Test the Best', depicting an East German Trabant crashing through the Berlin Wall.
Although not the only example of the Wall being transformed into use as a canvas for graffiti murals, the East Side Gallery is the most famous painted section. The gallery is actually on a piece of the former Hinterlandmauer (on the eastern side of the death strip), which means that the artwork here was all added after the end of the Cold War period.
The Cherry Blossoms
In November 1989, the first crossing point to open and allow East Berliners into the West of the city was at the Böse Brücke on Bornholmer Strasse. That first night around 20,000 people made the journey through the now defunct border control and into the French sector of the city.
If you visit the path of the Mauerweg as it runs underneath that bridge today, particularly in early spring, you'll catch one of the most beautiful sights in the city - rows of blossoming Japanese cherry trees. A gift to Berlin in the 1990s from Japan, the story goes that during a television show in the country people were asked to donate money to buy these trees to celebrate German reunification. And what you can see now is a result of that generosity.
There are actually two locations along the Mauerweg you can find these trees, the other being at the Lichterfelde Süd station.
Timing is everything, as the blossoms usually only remain for around 10 days.
The Berlin Wall Rabbits
Like the Iron Curtain dividing East and West Germany, the death strip of the Berlin Wall became an ideal breeding ground for a certain kind of animal that thrived in these largely undisturbed open areas off-limits to the general population - bunny rabbits.
The Oscar-nominated documentary, Rabbit a la Berlin, a kind of Cold War version of 'Watership Down', tells the story of these little furballs, the years they inhabited the death strip zone of the Berlin Wall, and their tragic demise following the end of the Cold War.
Dubbed by critics as an allegorical study of a totalitarian system, the film explores what happened to the rabbits when their natural habitat was suddenly disturbed and dismantled, as they fled from the jubilant celebrations and were chased into the streets and bushes by oblivious Berliners, only to die of stress and hunger.
Remarkably, much like their fellow East Germans, many of the rabbits fled to the West of the city, and are now faced with dealing with life in a very different, post-communist, world. However, if you’re lucky you might still find some of them roaming the former death strip of the Wall.
You can find the documentary below (in German):https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muTW4FV58RY
Tour Berlin for long enough and you’ll realise just how many shops there are selling pieces of the Berlin Wall. Understandably, a piece of this former concrete barrier has been THE souvenir of choice for the millions of tourists who flock to the German capital every year.
Sadly, many of the pieces on sale in the city are far from authentic. Telling which ones are can be near impossible, although there are some methods, to the expert eye.
The only reliable way to confirm the authenticity of a piece of the Wall is to ‘liberate’ it yourself from a remaining section, although be warned, removing any of the Berlin Wall is now a serious criminal offense.
In 2015, a football player for Hertha Berlin, Salomon Kalou, was threatened with a 10,000€ fine merely for posing with a hammer and chisel next to the Berlin Wall.
The Present Relevance
The undeniable reality of the Berlin Wall is that is worked. It served its purpose. In the months before its construction in 1961, thousands of East Germans fled to the West, with the complete encirclement of West Berlin the government managed to reduce that exodus to almost nothing, in comparison, for more than 28 years.
Thousands of East Germans managed to escape, more than 5,000 between 1961 and 1989, but nothing like the vast numbers who were migrating West before the Berlin Wall was completed.
In Northern Ireland, the ‘peace lines’ first introduced in 1969 to separate Catholic and Protestant areas still stand. Although government initiatives are in place to dismantle all of the barriers by 2023, residents remain uncertain as to whether the efforts to minimise inter-communal violence will be reversed with their removal.
The Israeli West Bank barrier has been condemned by both the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly as a violation of international law and attempt to annex parts of Palestinian territory under the guise of security. Supporters of the wall, arguing for its legitimacy, point to the significant reduction in suicide bombings and attacks on Israel originating from the West Bank.
These walls all differ in structure and purpose and the Berlin Wall bears the unique and lowly mark of its origin as a border constructed to keep the population from escaping. But like future proposed border re-enforcements, they all offer the same lesson, on their effectiveness and what extent governments will go to in order to secure these barriers.
It's never been easier
Getting to Berlin has never been so easy. Trans-atlantic flights are cheaper than ever, budget airlines throughout Europe have meant that the city is accessible from many major capital cities for the price of a short taxi ride - courtesy of Ryanair, Easyjet and Norwegian etc.
To understand the history of the 20th century is to be faced with understanding the history of Germany, the country that played such a large role in those 100 years, and of those major events in 20th century European history, most either happened in Berlin or were undeniably linked to the city. To tour Berlin is to better understand why and how these events happened.
Divided Berlin played a central role in the Cold War period and no photo in a history book can do justice to seeing the Berlin Wall is all its concrete glory.
Because it might not be there forever
Natural erosion, vandalism and creeping gentrification are the Berlin Wall’s greatest enemies now. The initial years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Berlin Wall, as the hammer & sickle were replaced with the hammer & chisel, were a period of indecision for the German Federal government. Unaware of exactly how to preserve this Cold War relic and the form of dialogue necessary to engage with the subject.
It was not until 1998 that the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer on Bernauer Strasse finally opened as the official Berlin Wall museum. By that time the area was so run down that a replacement guard tower had to be brought in (bought on eBay) to replace the former tower and create a replica of the death strip.
The East Side Gallery, initially started as a private initiative to display art work on the former Wall, is now run in co-operation with the government. The old murals added in the 1990s were repainted in 2009, although some of the original artists decided against being involved in the project again or were unavailable. Despite efforts to maintain the Wall and gallery, visitors soon began defacing the stretch of concrete with names, graffiti and tags.
In 2006, a 400 metre long section of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery was moved to allow access to the new 02 arena (now Mercedez Benz arena) and in March 2013 a substantial part of the Wall was demolished to make way for the construction of a new apartment block - despite protests and the bizarre appearance of singer David Hasselhof to show his support.
All leading to the strange situation where protests to preserve what was once protested against by East Germans have become a familiar sight in Berlin.
If you are interested in seeing the remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall in the city, or want a better understanding of the impact the Cold War had on Berlin. We offer private guided tours of Berlin, on subjects such as the Cold War period, the Third Reich, Jewish Heritage and also tours to nearby Sachsenhausen and the palaces and gardens of Potsdam.
For more information on our Cold War tours, click HERE.Further Links www.berlin.de/mauer www.chronik-der-mauer.de www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de www.mauermuseum.de www.berlin-mauer.de
[caption id="attachment_4627" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Luftwaffe Heinkel He-280[/caption]
Whilst at the controls of a Heinkel He-280 (pictured above) jet fighter being towed by another aircraft, Luftwaffe pilot Helmut Schenck realised he was unable to start his engines due to cold interference. Jettisoning his canopy, he activated his ejector seat and made history as the first person to use an ejector seat to successfully exit an aircraft in an emergency.
Schenck wasn't the first to use this method of exiting his aircraft as such. Another Heinkel pilot had previously ejected successfully but under test conditions.
From the time of Schenck’s successful escape to the end of World War II three years later, approximately 60 Luftwaffe airmen ejected from their planes in combat situations.
The aircraft and the seat were developed by the Heinkel Aircraft Works as Nazi Germany continued to experiment with jet propulsion systems and the ejection seat mechanisms necessary for a pilot to escape a cockpit unharmed whilst travelling at these new speeds. "Bailing out" of an aircraft, as was the usual method in contemporary aircraft, became more problematic as pressure and speed issues became apparant with the introduction of jet propelled technology.[caption id="attachment_4630" align="alignright" width="296"] Sachsenhausen Camp Memorial[/caption]
The Heinkel airplane factory in Oranienburg near Berlin was one of more than 100 sub-camps attached to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In 1944 alone, between 6,000 and 8,000 prisoners worked on the He-177 bomber and the He-111. Despite it being officially reported that the prisoners were "working without fault", some of these aircraft crashed unexpectedly, notably during the Stalingrad campaign. It is suspected that prisoners may have sabotaged them, leading the Luftwaffe to dub the He-177 bombers 'flying lighters', or 'flaming coffins'.
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was built in the summer of 1936 just north of Berlin and was one of the most notorious camps of the Nazi empire. It was also the administrative centre for all of the Nazi concentration camps as well as being a training centre for SS officers, who were often sent to oversee other facilities afterwards, and slave labour complex.
Sachsenhausen was also the site of one of the war's largest currency counterfeiting operations. Inmates were forced to produce forged British and eventually American bank notes, as the Nazis aimed to undermine the economies of those countries.
You can still visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the site of a well-maintained memorial, just outside of Berlin.
If you are interested in arranging a private guided tour, visit our Sachsenhausen tour page.More information Heinkel History Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial Our Private Tour of Sachsenhausen Page https://youtu.be/dNd6ue7nK-g