Despite the extent of the imposing concrete lariat of the Berlin Wall, once stretched over 150km around the districts of West Berlin, there remains little of it to be found in the modern German capital – despite its status as a protected listed landmark. With a few notable exceptions, such as the graffiti-covered East Side Gallery, and a large segment next to the former Nazi SS-Gestapo headquarters. The third longest remaining piece of the Berlin Wall can be found on Bernauer Strasse, with its preserved ‘Death Strip’ – the only section of its kind left in the city – and memorial park of information boards and displays.
Due to its tragic significance, Bernauer Strasse also hosts the official commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Berlin Wall, that takes place every year on November 9th.
The date that in 1989, East Berlin’s borders with the Western districts of the city were finally opened. From that point the Wall would stand as a dwindling monument to the bloody failures of DDR policy. Its reduced physical presence in the city, largely a result of the number of visitors looking for token souvenirs of one of the most iconic symbols of the Cold War conflict – and an official demolition plan carried out in 1990-91.
The Berlin Wall documentation centre located here, at the former French-Soviet border, chronicles Bernauer Strasse’s role as witness – and conduit – to many successful escapes, and the personal tragedies that occured over the 28 years of the Wall’s existence. Including the first victim of the Berlin Wall, 58-year-old Ida Siekmann, who died here in August 1961.
By a strange quirk of urban planning, the houses that once lined Bernauer Strasse on its southern side would remain in the Eastern district of Mitte – and under the control of the East German authorities – when the Berlin Wall was first conjured into existence in 1961. However, the pavement and road immediately in-front, to the north, would be part of the French sector – and the West Berlin district of Wedding.
Spurred on by this peculiarity, many residents – eager to escape to the West – would jump from their apartment windows – facing north – to the street below, in the weeks immediately following the construction of the Wall. Slowly, as the East German authorities blocked the northern entrances to these dwellings and bricked the windows of the apartments, utilising this escape route would prove harder and harder.
On August 22nd 1961, only one day before her 59th birthday, at around 6.50am, widowed nurse Ida Siekmann – a resident on Bernauer Strasse for more than 30 years – jumped from her 3rd floor apartment into West Berlin, aiming for bedding that she had thrown onto the ground moments earlier. She would not survive the fall.
Becoming the first victim of the Berlin Wall – not murdered by the East German regime but dying as a result of the draconian border measures introduced here by the ‘workers and peasants’ state.
It is illegal to take any pieces of the Berlin Wall - as it is a protected landmark. Anyone caught doing so can face a fine of up to 10,000€.
Earlier that same month, Bernauer Strasse had become the focus of world attention after the audacious escape of a 19-year-old East German border guard, Conrad Schumann. With images of the exact moment when Schumann leapt over the barbed wire fence of the border crossing at the corner of Bernauer Strasse and Brunnenstraße printed in newspapers for billions around the world to see. That the construction of the Berlin Wall was so vexatious that even a trusted member of the Grenzpolizei (Border Police) would choose to so publicly defect was incredibly embarrassing for the East German government.
Visiting the location of Schumann’s escape now it is possible to see an enlarged photo capturing the moment of his ‘leap to freedom’ – taken by Hamburg photographer, Peter Leibig – on the firewall of a building in the former East. Clearly visible is the border guard’s PPSh-41 submachine gun, which he can be seen throwing away in mid-air, whilst vaulting the wire. No sooner than landing in West Berlin, Schumann was whisked away in a West Berlin police car, parked next to the border to deal with any disturbances.
His life in the West would lead to a career with car manufacturer, Audi, with Schumann settling in Germany’s southeastern state of Bavaria – only to end in tragedy in 1998 when, suffering from depression, he took his own life. A hero in the West, the former border guard – responsible for one of the most iconic photos in human history – would always be perceived as a traitor in the East. And painfully distant from the family and friends he had left behind in a split second more than 30 years earlier.
One of the most defining aspects of Bernauer Strasse is its topography – in particular what is invisible to the human eye, lurking beneath the surface. While much of the rest of Berlin suffers from a high water table, leading to problematic and lengthy construction processes, the ground beneath Bernauer Strasse features large amounts of clay.
Now cleverly referenced in the Chapel of Reconciliation – that stands on the site of the Church of Reconciliation, destroyed in 1985 by the East German government. This more modest sized successor is Germany’s only clay-built church, consecrated on the 11th anniversary of the ‘Fall of the Berlin Wall’.
In more practical terms, the clay in the ground of Bernauer Strasse led to a number of tunnels being constructed during the Cold War period – to facilitate the escape of East Germans to the French sector. In total, 10 tunnels were started – of which 3 would eventually be utilised.
The most famous – Tunnel 57 – enabled the escape of 57 people in October 1964 from the courtyard of a house of Strelitzer Strasse in the East. The path of this tunnel is visible today as a series of metal plates in the ground – halfway up the hill on Bernauer Strasse due north-east and only a short distance from the Chapel of Reconciliation.
From the former Geisterbahnhof (Ghost Station) of Nordbahnhof at its most western point, to the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre and beyond to the former border crossing on the corner of Brunnenstrasse and Eberswalderstrasse further east – the stations of Cold War incidents on Bernauer Strasse are plenty. None that leave a more lasting impression on the visitor than the memorial board for the more than 130 victims of one of the most painful chapters in Germany’s past, a short walk from Nordbahnhof – dedicated to the “memory of the city’s division from 13 August 1961 to 9 November 1989 and of the victims of communist tyranny”.