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Places

30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

What a dynamic, future-oriented city contemporary Berlin is. Yet this reunified German capital bears traces of its three decades divided by the Wall. For the intrepid traveler, visiting these spots makes for a compelling comparison between then and now.

On the evening of November 9, 1989, something happened in Berlin that had long been considered impossible. This was a city that had been divided for 30 years, during which time it witnessed over 130 deaths due to failed attempts to flee from East to West via everything fromhot air balloons to tightropes.  

And what exactly happened on that November evening? A communication blunder that led to the sudden, peaceful, yet earthshaking fall of the Berlin Wall. During a press conference, the East German Politburo announced that visa restrictions were to be abolished. A reporter at that conference asked when the new policy would come into effect, and a confused Günter Schabowski, a functionary newly appointed as Communist Party spokesman, who had no information on the matter, answered “immediately.” He didn’t realize that the new policy wasn’t intended to take effect until the next day, and that it would involve all kinds of red tape, including visa requirements.

The resulting media reports prompted thousands of East Germans to head to the border crossing on Bornholmer Strasse, where equally uninformed security guards, finding themselves suddenly under pressure, chose to open the gates. Like a falling house of cards, all border checkpoints were quickly opened, and – just like that – East Germans flooded into the forbidden paradise of West Berlin.

The time that followed appeared to be a dream for an overjoyed reunited nation. David Hasselhoff sang “Looking For Freedom” from the top of the graffiti-strewn Wall, while the slogan “Wir Sind Ein Volk!,” (“We Are One People”), was sung against the backdrop of pickaxes smashing into concrete. The East Germans stocked up on big bunches of bananas and finally, finally, divided families, friends and lovers could throw themselves into one another’s arms. 

Now, fast forward three decades, and Berlin can take pride in its image as one of Europe’s or, more likely, one of the world’s, most dynamic, inclusive and forward-looking cities, with a rebellious streak that makes no apologies for itself. But this is not a city that forgets. Wherever you go in the German capital, you can see traces of its dramatic past. A walk along Karl-Marx-Allee, with its austere Stalinist-style architecture, reminds you of the heyday of Communism, while the famous graffitied sections of the Wall still standing along the River Spree are as well-visited today as they ever were before. 

Checkpoint Charlie. Photo: Shutterstock

At the city’s most famous border crossing, Checkpoint Charlie, a meticulously brewed flat white awaits at a hip West Berlin café. Not far from there, a commemorative plaque honors 18-year-old Peter Fechter, who, gunned down by East German border guards, bled to death in front of hundreds of witnesses. 

The Germans themselves also still bear imprints of their time as two peoples. The difference between “Ossis” (an East German worker) and “Wessis” (the West German counterpart) is generally implicit, and romances between the two are still not as common as between Germans and foreigners, even though the Wall has been gone for longer than it stood. 

Nevertheless, the Fall will be celebrated by all Berliners this November, when the seven-day  Berlin Route of the Revolution festival will transform this city into one giant, united open air stage, complete with events, concerts, theatre, exhibitions and guided tours. 

But if you’d like to immerse yourself in the time when Berlin was a divided city, here are six recommendations for destinations and experiences that will transport you from now to then in the footsteps of the Wall:

 

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