If I had looked in a guidebook, I would probably have known it was there. But I didn’t. So it was a surprise to be walking along and discover Ronald Reagan’s face looking up at me.
It would be another two years – on Nov. 9, 1989 – before the wall would fall.
CONSTRUCTION OF THE WALL
Why was the wall built in the first place? And what demonic minds decided that anyone who tried to cross over the wall would be killed?
“Construction of the Berlin Wall began on Aug. 13, 1961,” said tour guide Gabriele Reynolds. “The government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) built the wall to seal off East Berlin and keep East Germans from fleeing to the West.”
There had been rumors that something might happen to shut down the border between East and West Berlin. “But no one expected what happened or how quickly it happened,” Reynolds said.
Just past midnight on Aug. 13, trucks with soldiers and construction workers thundered through East Berlin. Crews quickly tore up streets, erected concrete posts, cut telephone wires and strung barbed wire between East and West Berlin.
When Berliners awoke the next morning, they were shocked. No longer could East Berliners head to West Berlin for work or recreation or vice versa. Families and friends were cut off from each other. Whatever side of the border you went to sleep on the night of Aug. 12, you were stuck on that side for almost three decades.
“We were divided by the wall for 28 years,” Reynolds said.
THE BERLIN WALL
At 103 miles long and 12 foot high, the Berlin Wall was formidable. An estimated 100 to 200 people died trying to cross it. Over the years, the wall was reinforced to a massive concrete barrier topped by barbed wire and guarded by armed sentinels with orders to shoot without warning.
Of course, people still tried to escape. Some of the creative ways they used are showcased in the Wall Museum near Checkpoint Charlie. Some people dug tunnels, others rammed trucks or buses into the wall, a group salvaged bits of fabric to build a hot air balloon and fly over the wall. Some succeeded.
One of the most infamous cases of a failed attempt occurred on Aug. 17, 1962. Two 18-year-old men ran toward the wall, determined to scale it. Surprisingly, the first teen made it. The second one, Peter Fechter, was not so lucky.
As Fechter was about to scale the wall to freedom, a border guard opened fire, hitting the teen in the pelvis. As horrified onlookers watched, Fechter somehow made it to the top of the wall before tumbling back onto the East German side. What happened next shocked the world and made Peter Fechter’s name a rallying call for freedom.
The teen screamed in agony as he writhed on the ground for over an hour. East German guards did not shoot him again nor did they come to his aid. Once his painful death was done, East German guards carried off his body.
THE WALL FALLS
On Nov. 9, 1989, Berliners were shocked to find the borders open, the wall beginning to crumble. Quickly, celebrating people converged on the wall, chipping away at it with hammers and chisels. Pieces of the Berlin Wall became collectibles and are now museum pieces. After the Berlin Wall came down, East and West Germany reunified into a single German state on Oct. 3, 1990.
Today, the remains of the Berlin Wall – along with the nearby free admission Topography of Terror - are one of the most visited sites in Germany. The area was once the headquarters of the feared Gestapo with its own “house prison” and the seat of Nazi leadership.
One block south of the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Museum is a stark aboveground and belowground memorial to the millions of European Jews killed during Hitler’s “Final Solution.” The 4.7-acre field is covered with 2,711 concrete slabs. Uncomfortable to see, the whole sculpture of slabs aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.
A short walk away is a much-less visited site. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have known it was there if someone hadn’t told me. A sign points out that this is said to be the underground bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Today, it is a parking lot.
For more information: Contact Visit Berlin at www.visitBerlin.de.
Getting there: Traveling to Germany is now much easier with direct flights from Chicago. Air Berlin flies to Berlin, American Airlines to Düsseldorf. I flew over on Air Berlin, www.airberlin.com, and back on American Airlines, www.aa.com.