In Search of Communist Berlin

By Rick Steves
Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, Germany
Where Checkpoint Charlie once stood, notice the thought-provoking, larger-than-life posters of a young American soldier facing east and a young Soviet soldier facing west. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Enjoying a creamy vanilla ice-cream sundae in eastern Berlin's Café Sibylle, I ponder the half a moustache carved in stone which hangs overhead. The sundae, which comes with a shot of liquor, was the standard treat back in the 1960s. And the moustache is all that's left of what was the largest statue of Josef Stalin in Germany.

Berlin is filled with poignant memories of its communist days. And now that the city has been free and united since 1989, there's a playful nostalgia — or Ostalgia ("ost" is the German word for east) — for what some consider the good old days...back when ice cream was cheap and everyone had job security. Today, theme eateries — places such as Café Sibylle — serve dreary food from the 1960s complete with a Cold War "ambience."

The café stands on what was the grandest street of communist Berlin. Its original buildings were completely leveled by the Soviet Army in 1945. When Stalin decided this main drag should be a showcase street, he had it rebuilt and named it Stalin Allee. Today this street, lined with "workers' palaces" — apartment flats done in the bold "Stalin Gothic" style so common in Moscow in the 1950s — has been restored and renamed for Karl Marx. Social Realist reliefs on the buildings celebrate triumphs of the working class.

Berlin's subway comes with more evocative reminders of the Cold War. The Unter den Linden subway station is one of Berlin’s former "ghost stations." During the Cold War, most underground train tunnels were simply blocked at the border. But a few Western lines looped through the East. To make a little hard Western cash, the Eastern government rented the use of these tracks to the West, but the stations (which happened to be in East Berlin) were strictly off-limits to East Berliners. For 28 years Westerners rolled slowly through, seeing only eerie-looking East German guards and lots of cobwebs. Within days of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, these stations were reopened. Today they’re a time warp, looking exactly as they did when built in 1931, complete with drab green tiles and original signage.

In former East Berlin, a much-loved symbol of the old days shines red and green in the "walk" sign on stoplights, proving that some German communists had a sense of humor. The perky red and green men (Ampelmännchen) were nearly replaced by far less jaunty Western signs. But after an uproar from "ostalgic" locals, the East German signals have survived.

Little remains of the grandest souvenir of Cold War Berlin, the infamous Berlin Wall. The 100-mile "Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart," as it was called by the East German government, was erected almost overnight in 1961 to stop the outward flow of people (three million leaked out between 1949 and 1961). Local guides are quick with all the stats: The 12-foot-high Wall had a 16-foot tank ditch, a no-man’s land that was 30 to 160 feet wide, and 300 sentry towers. During its 28 years, border guards fired 1,693 times and made 3,221 arrests. Meanwhile there were 5,043 documented successful escapes (565 by East German guards).

The carnival atmosphere of those first years after the Wall fell is gone, but hawkers still sell "authentic" pieces of the Wall, East German flags, and military paraphernalia to gawking tourists. The remains of the Wall have been nearly devoured by persistent "Wall-peckers." A low-key row of cobbles traces the Wall’s former path around the city.

The best place to see a long stretch of the surviving Wall, and to learn about its history, is the Berlin Wall Memorial, along Bernauer Strasse. Other stretches of the Wall still standing include the short section at Niederkirchnerstrasse/Wilhelmstrasse (near the Topography of Terror exhibit), and the longer East Side Gallery, where the Wall is covered with murals painted by artists from around the world (near the Ostbahnhof). 

Checkpoint Charlie, the famous border checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors, is long gone. But its memory is preserved by the Museum of the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. Americans — the Cold War victors — have the biggest appetite for Wall-related sights...especially Checkpoint Charlie.

During the Cold War, this museum stood defiantly — spitting distance from the border guards — showing off all the ingenious escapes over, under, and through the Wall. Today, while the drama is over and hunks of the Wall stand like victory scalps at its door, the museum at Checkpoint Charlie still tells a gripping history — including those heady days when people-power tore down that Wall.