Berlin Then and Now

By Rick Steves
Berlin Wall 1990, Berlin, Germany
Souvenir hunters peck away at a part of the Berlin Wall after the city was reunited. (photo: David C. Hoerlein)
Brandenburg Gate at Night, Berlin, Germany
The Brandenburg Gate symbolized a divided Berlin when it was trapped in the no-man’s-land of the Berlin Wall. (photo: Bruce VanDeventer)

When Germany celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I couldn't help remembering my spooky 1971 visit during the Cold War. When we crossed back to the West, tour buses were emptied at the border so mirrors could be rolled under the bus. They wanted to see if anyone was trying to escape with us.

Back then, life in the East was bleak, gray, and demoralizing because of ongoing political repression and their unresponsive Soviet-style command economy.

Today, Berlin feels like the nuclear fuel rod of a great nation. It's so vibrant with youth, energy, and an anything-goes-and-anything's-possible buzz that Munich feels spent in comparison.

A sleek Radisson Blu Hotel now stands on the place where the old leading hotel of East Berlin once stood. I remember staying there during the Cold War, when a West German 5-mark coin changed on the black market would get me drinks all night. Now five euros is lucky to get me a beer, and the lobby of the Radisson hosts an eight-story-tall exotic fish tank the size of a grain silo with an elevator zipping right up the middle.

As a booming tourist attraction, Berlin regularly welcomes more visitors per year than Rome. The crush of tourists makes parts of the new Berlin tacky — even some sights associated with the Wall. Checkpoint Charlie, the famous border checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors, has become a capitalist freak show. Lowlife characters sell fake bits of the wall, World War II-vintage gas masks, and East German medals. Two actors dressed as American soldiers pose for tourists between big American flags and among sandbags at the rebuilt checkpoint. Across the street at "Snack Point Charlie," someone sipping a Coke says, "When serious turns to kitsch, you know it's over."

Nearby, the Museum of the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, one of Europe's most cluttered museums, survives as a living artifact of the Cold War days. The yellowed descriptions, which have scarcely changed since that time, tinge the museum with nostalgia. It's dusty, disorganized, and overpriced, with lots of reading involved, but all that just adds to this museum's borderline-kitschy charm. (And it's open late — if you're pressed for time, it makes a decent after-dinner sight.)

In the new Berlin, it's actually getting hard to find traces of the Wall. Look for a double row of cobbles in the streets marking the former path of the 100-mile "Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart," as the communists called it. These innocuous cobbles run throughout the city, even through some modern buildings.

The Wall's most iconic sight, of course, is the Brandenburg Gate. Built in 1791, it is the last survivor of 14 gates in Berlin's old city wall. The gate was the symbol of Prussian Berlin...and later the symbol of a divided Berlin. It sat unused, part of a sad circle dance of concrete and barbed wire, for more than 28 years.

Postcards all over town still show the ecstatic day — November 9, 1989 — when the world enjoyed the sight of happy Berliners jamming the gate like flowers on a parade float. The shiny white Brandenburg Gate was completely restored in 2002 (but you can still see faint patches marking war damage). When I'm there, I like to pause a minute and think about struggles for freedom — past and present; there's a special room built into the gate for this very purpose.

While tourists flock to Checkpoint Charlie, the newer Berlin Wall Memorial is the city's most substantial attraction relating to its gone-but-not-forgotten Wall. Exhibits line up along four blocks of Bernauer Strasse, stretching northeast from the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station. You can enter two different museums plus various open-air exhibits and memorials, see several fragments of the Wall, and peer from an observation tower down into a preserved, complete stretch of the "Wall system" (with both sides of its Wall and its no-man's-land, or "death strip," all still intact).  

The largest slice of the Wall is now "the world's longest outdoor art gallery," the East Side Gallery near the Ostbahnhof train station. Murals by international artists cover nearly a mile of the concrete panels. The artwork is routinely whitewashed so new works can be painted.

No tour of Germany is complete without a visit to the reunited, revitalized Berlin. Over the last two decades, we've witnessed the rebirth of a great European capital. Today, as we enjoy the thrill of walking over what was the Wall and through the well-patched Brandenburg Gate, it's clear that history is not contained in some book, but is an exciting story happening today.