I decided to walk the Wall. How could I not? When I’ve spent nearly three months here. I’d read an article about an exhibition of Ghost stations in the Cold War which is located in the U-Bahn station called Nordbahnhof. Before 1989 when the Wall came down this was a heavily guarded place because it had a border exit to West Berlin. How anyone could escape from here, I don’t know, as a fugitive would need to break through 6 concrete walls and a steel gate before they were in the West.
Before 1961 if you lived in the East of the city, it was relatively easy to cross to the Western side of Berlin. Between 1948 and 1961 3.5 million East Germans elected to live in the West. The GDR was haemorrhaging skilled citizens who they needed to help rebuild the country.
During the days after the ceasefire of WWII, the Soviets stripped East Germany of equipment, machinery, even railway lines. This was in reparation of the enormous loss the Soviets had suffered.
Walter Ulbricht, the First Secretary of the GDR was a fanatical Communist. He had spent the war years in Moscow and followed Stalin’s guidelines to the letter. In 1961 Khrushchev was the Soviet Prime Minister, he demanded that Ulbricht stop the immigration. Khrushchev’s primary concern was that if the GDR collapsed it would present a danger to the satellite states of the USSR, and ultimately to Russia.
Who knows if Khrushchev approved of the Wall? Ulbricht went ahead, and on 13 August 1961, the Combat Groups of the Working Class began to close the border by tearing up the streets running alongside it. They installed barbed wire and fences along the 156 km which bordered the western zones.
The Wall construction began on 17 August. The GDR called it “The Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart’ and explained to its citizens it was to keep the capitalist Westerns out. Stations which were near or on the border were bricked up. As a West Berliner, you could travel by train underneath East Berlin. I met a guy who remembered what it was like. If you looked out of the train windows, as the train slowed down. The lights would dim. You could see soldiers with guns, and guards with dogs patrolling the platform. Before the trains entered East Berlin, an announcement would be made. “Last station in West Berlin.”
West Berliners could cross East Berlin underground using three train lines which were off limits to people who lived in the East. The GDR officials erased stations from maps, removed signs and had the entrances bricked up and padlocked. Hoping citizens would forget they existed.
Potsdam Platz is now pulsating with traffic and people. S and U Bahn routes connect there. Rewind to 1988 and you’d find a different story. The Wall went down the middle of it, all the entrances to the stations were boarded up, weeds grew between the cracks in the pavements. If you looked up you’d see watchtowers with guards carrying submachines.
Bernauer Strasse runs alongside the Wall. Residents woke up to find the windows and doors to their homes bricked up because neighbours had already fled. An 84-year-old woman jumped out of a window to her death, because she wanted to join her daughter in the West.
I had thought there were only 2 walls, but in fact, there are 3. I paced out the measurements. It’s 70 feet from the middle wall to the inner wall. If you managed to make it over without being shot, you had another 120 feet which comprised of anti-vehicle trenches, metal spikes, dogs and barbed wire to reach the outer wall.
Over 130 people died while trying to escape, but over 5,000 people attempted it. They were caught and received harsh prison sentences. I can’t imagine what it must have felt living in East Berlin with freedom lying 200 feet away and knowing you can’t leave.
I’ve decided to write a book set in East Berlin in 1974 and the Wall is the anti-protagonist.
Have you heard of Marzahn? Neither had I. During a conversation with a waitress she suggested I go and take a look. 40 minutes later by tram, I arrived to find a gigantic housing complex. Before 1976 it was farm land, but the GDR decided to solve the housing crisis and commissioned massive blocks of apartments. Looking at the map I found the Allee of the Kosmonaut. I had to go there and I’ve never seen anything like it. Apartment blocks soared 23 stories high. One after another in rows. One block curved round and ran on and on. I didn’t reach the end but it probably ended a further 1km on. What surprised me there was no graffiti, no rubbish and some green spaces in between the blocks.
What I did discover there, was an amazing mural in metal commemorating the Kosmonauts and it hadn’t been vandalised. A day later walking nearby to my apartment I found a fantastic mural to Karl Marx. Near Frankfurter Tor, two statues of women defending Communism sit opposite each other. They are slowly succumbing to the elements which to me seems a shame. The Communist murals and statues are part of Berlin’s history, a part which most Berliners would prefer to forget.
I’m off to Prague on Monday, and I’ll have a busy time there checking out locations. My European adventure is coming to an end and that’s ok.
More from Prague next week.