For 28 years, the Berlin Wall - the most potent symbol of the Cold War - divided not only the city but the world. Twenty-five years after its fall, little remains of the barrier between East and West, but those seeking to understand its impact needn't look far.
Construction began shortly after midnight of 13 August 1961, when East German soldiers rolled out miles of barbed wire that would soon be replaced with prefab concrete slabs. The Wall was a desperate measure launched by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) government to stop the sustained brain and brawn drain it had experienced since its founding in 1949. Some 3.6 million people had already left for the West, putting the country on the verge of economic and political collapse.
Euphemistically called the 'Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier', the Wall was a 155km-long symbol of oppression that turned West Berlin into an island of democracy within a sea of socialism. Continually reinforced and refined over time, it eventually grew into a complex border-security system that included a 'death strip' riddled with trenches, floodlights, patrol roads, attack dogs, electric fences and watchtowers staffed by trigger-happy guards.
The first would-be escapee was shot only a few days after 13 August, but the extent of the system’s cruelty became blatantly clear on 17 August 1962 when 18-year-old Peter Fechter was shot and wounded and then left to bleed to death while the East German guards looked on.
There’s a memorial in the spot where he died on Zimmerstrasse. Another Wall Victims Memorial is just south of the Reichstag, on the eastern end of Scheidemannstrasse.
The demise of the Wall came as unexpectedly as its creation. Once again the GDR was losing its people in droves, this time via Hungary, which had opened its borders with Austria. East Germans took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, demanding improved human rights and an end to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED) monopoly.
On 9 November 1989, SED spokesperson Günter Schabowski made a surprise announcement on GDR TV: all travel restrictions to the West would be lifted. Immediately. Amid scenes of wild partying and mile-long parades of GDR-made Trabant cars (Trabi, for short), the two Berlins came together again. The dismantling of the despised barrier began almost immediately.
Only about 2km of the Berlin Wall still stands as a symbol of the triumph of freedom over oppression. The longest, best-preserved and most interesting stretch is the 1.3km-long section called East Side Gallery because of the many murals painted by international artists in 1990 and again in 2009.
Over the last 20 years, the two city halves have visually merged so perfectly that in many places it takes a keen eye to tell East from West. Fortunately, there is help in the form of a double row of cobblestones that guides you along 5.7km of the Wall’s course.
There are bike tours that guide you along part of the wall. The 160km-long Berliner Mauerweg is a signposted walking and cycling path along the former border's fortifications, with 40 multilingual information stations posted along the way. A high-tech way to walk the Wall is with the Mauerguide, a nifty hand-held minicomputer that maps its course via GPS and provides intelligent commentary and historic audio and video.
For more background, swing by the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, a memorial that combines a documentation centre, art installation, short section of original Wall, a chapel and outdoor gallery. The Mauermuseum, aka Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, also chronicles the Cold War period.