In Search of Communist Berlin

By Rick Steves
Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
Where Checkpoint Charlie once stood, thought-provoking, larger-than-life posters show a young American soldier facing east and a young Soviet soldier facing west. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Enjoying my vanilla ice cream in eastern Berlin's Café Sibylle, I ponder the half a moustache carved in stone that hangs overhead. My "Swedish sundae," which comes with chocolate sprinkles and a shot of creamy advocaat 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 in the decades since 1989, the city has nurtured 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 quintessential piece of Berliner Ostalgia is, of all things, its pedestrian streetlights, featuring jaunty figures affectionately called Ampelmännchen ("little traffic-light men"). Many, many elements of everyday East German life disappeared quickly after reunification — often to Easterners' relief. But East Berlin's stylishly hatted streetlight men had been a beloved part of its otherwise unpleasant streetscapes, and most locals were crushed to see the city begin standardizing its street signs to match the West's. Residents eventually waged, and won, a 10-year court battle to keep their Ampelmännchen from being replaced. More recently, the Ampelmännchen have even begun showing up in the former West Berlin — perhaps the only East German symbol to gain popularity in the West.

Less common around town, but still not hard to find, are a handful of what had been the Berlin transit system's "ghost stations." During the Cold War, most subway tunnels were simply bricked up at the border. But a few Western lines looped through the East, and — to make a little hard Western cash — the East German government rented the use of these tracks to the West…but kept the East Berlin stations strictly off-limits. For 28 years they sat, unused and unchanged, as Western trains slowly passed through, their passengers seeing only dimly lit East German guards and lots of cobwebs. Within days of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, these stations were reopened. (One woman who'd left her purse behind in 1961 got a call from the lost-and-found office in 1989 — they'd found her purse.) Today these stations offer a time-travel experience, looking exactly as they did when built in 1931, complete with drab green tiles and original signage.

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 August 1961 to stop the outward flow of people (about 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 antitank 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. While there were more than 5,000 documented successful escapes (565 by East German guards), there were also more than 140 deaths.

Today the carnival atmosphere of those first years after the Wall fell is a distant memory. But in some places 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 subtle 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 crossing between the US-occupied neighborhood and the Soviet zone, is long gone, but a mockup of its document-checking shack, which stands in its place today, gives a sense of what it was like to stand at this flashpoint in the Cold War. Here, US and East German soldiers could stare each other down, separated by only a few dozen yards of barbed wire. The nearby Museum of the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie focuses on the many brave and clever escape attempts over, under, and through the Wall. The Berlin Wall Memorial offers a much more insightful and well-presented history of the Wall and its impact on Berliners' lives — but the museum at Checkpoint Charlie is itself is a piece of Cold War history. Throughout the Wall's nearly three decades, this exhibit stood here defiantly — within spitting distance of the border guards — showing the whole world the tragedy of the Wall.