When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, an energetic, art-filled city emerged from what had been 28 years of fear and tyranny.
Today, Berlin is one unified city, stronger and better than ever, in large part because of that wall.
It may be home to more than 180 museums, dozens of art galleries, global cuisine and a rocking night life. But Berlin is immediately and perhaps will always be remembered because of that incredulous wall that divided the city into East and West for nearly three decades.
Even today, when Berlin ranks just behind London and Paris for European cities most visited by global travelers, Berlin for many, is still all about the wall. If you are of that generation born after the wall came down, take time to understand what it mean to the world.
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Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie Museum
Nearly five million tourists each year come to see remnants of the Berlin Wall and to walk through Checkpoint Charlie. Hopefully, they appreciate their freedom that allows them to do so without fear or restraint.
Checkpoint Charlie is a beginning point for exploring the Berlin Wall. This was the entrance and exit to Berlin guarded by the U.S. military. The original building is in the Allied Museum in Berlin (a must see as well) but the authentic re-creation is guarded by actors in appropriate uniforms who make a living by posing for pictures.
The Checkpoint Charlie Museum here is worth every Euro and minute of your time. It was started in a two-room apartment by Ranier Hildebrandt, just a guy who lived there and was horrified by the wall going up just outside his windows. The museum has now expanded to multiple rooms and stories of the building. The format is not what could be considered the most logical and professional presentation, but its authentic, there’s no denying that.
Located on the Fredrichstaße, Checkpoint Charlie is certainly a tourist trap. But think about it. The fact that it is a commercial enterprise and that it is such a fun, cheerful place in such contrast to what it was, is a remarkable part of the story. Here you can buy all sorts of kitschy East German souvenirs from street vendors. Or to really get Stalin, Lenin and Brezhnev rolling in their graves, eat at McDonald’s at Checkpoint Charlie.
Today, a traveler’s greatest risk here are the Romanian women beggars who approach English speaking visitors with a piece of paper explaining their desperate plight. Don’t fall for it.
Exploring the Berlin Wall Memorial
Head west just two blocks to find another section of the wall. This one is the official Berlin Wall Memorial and it is located, ironically, adjacent to a museum that opened in August 2010 called The Topographie of Terror.
Located on the grounds of the former Third Reich headquarters and where the East German police or “stazi” held and interrogated prisoners, this is one of the most chilling museums you’ll ever visit. It simply documents the actions of the Third Reich in a very straight forward, linear and modern presentation.
And it leaves you sick at your stomach.
Public Art on the Berlin Wall
A more uplifting section of the wall is known as the East Side Gallery. Here, 106 artists commissioned from throughout Germany and around the world covered 1.3 kilometers or about .8 miles of the ugly concrete barrier with art that makes a statement about freedom. Some of it is serious, some of it is hysterically light-hearted, but the point is, the artists were ‘free’ to create as they like.
Take plenty of time to explore. And to think.
With all of the emotional upheaval of the day exploring the Berlin Wall, finish off with a stout German beer in the trendy nightspot Potsdamer Platz. The wall had run through Potsdamer Platz and the area was basically a no-man’s land of barbed wire, guard dog runs and all things ugly.
Today, it’s a creative, bright spot in a beautiful city.
Three Places to See the Berlin Wall in the Midwest
But if you can’t make it to Berlin or simply have an interest in seeing what became of the pieces that scattered around the world, here are places in the U.S. where parts of the Berlin Wall have found a home.
In Fulton Mo, about an hour west of St. Louis on I-70, on the campus of Westminster College sits eight sections of the wall in an interesting sculpture called “Breakthrough.” This is the largest section of the Wall outside of Berlin.
What makes this sculpture more interesting is that it was created by Edwina Sandys, the granddaughter of Sir Winston Churchill.
In March 1946 Winston Churchill, accompanied by his friend Harry Truman, spoke to the Westminster students. It was here that the term “Iron Curtain” was first uttered to describe the division of philosophy and geography between eastern and western Europe.
A park in Rapid City South Dakota holds more than just sections of the wall. In addition to pock-marked slabs of concrete, this park includes original tank traps that sat in no-man’s land. Tank traps are simply railroad ties twisted and welded together to impede tanks or other vehicles from moving quickly through this space. They were all the rage in Normandy in 1944.
This exhibit in Rapid City includes dramatic photos of the construction of the wall and people trying to escape, used with permission of a private museum located at Checkpoint Charlie. It is considered to be the most comprehensive collection of Berlin Wall artifacts outside of Berlin.
In Leavenworth KS, another nice exhibit is on the grounds of Fort Leavenworth. President Ronald Reagan donated these sections because of the worldwide influence of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. At first glance, it appears the installation is falling apart or is not well cared for. Instead, the one section falling over represents the wall crumbling. The one on the ground demonstrates the wall completing destroyed, but the one section standing upright indicates that freedom will always stand.
More Places to see the Berlin Wall
A few other places to see sections of the Berlin Wall in the U.S. include
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Museum, Cincinnati
- National Museum of the Air Force, Dayton
- Richard Nixon Library, Yorba Linda CA
- Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley CA
Learn More About the Berlin Wall & Modern Berlin