Today only a few remnants of wall exist at the Berlin Wall Memorial Site, but in the past, two walls and multiple barriers stood between East and West Berlin.
Before the Berlin Wall was constructed, a massive migration from East to West Germany occurred. In order to stop the extreme loss of population, a physical wall was constructed in Berlin. However, this didn’t deter people. In fact, it made the pressure to migrate even greater because now East Berliners were separated from their friends and family in West Berlin.
At first the Berlin Wall was just a single, simple wall. As more and more people continued to cross the border, an additional wall was added along with border fortifications. Eventually the wall evolved so that it consisted of an inner wall, a second inner wall, the “death strip” that was chock-full of barriers, and finally the 12 foot high outer wall. Oh, and did I mention the signal fence and watch tower?
The wall was guarded by border soldiers who would shoot, if necessary, to keep fleeing people from escaping into West Berlin. At least 136 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989. Not all of these deaths were caused by the border soldiers; some people took their own lives when they realized their escape attempt failed. In addition, eight of those deaths were border soldiers themselves.
I spent some time just wandering around the Memorial Site and all that remains there today. In addition to a few pieces of the Wall, you can find some remainders of past border fortifications, such as the base of a lamp post and light cables.
Oh, and what’s with the name “death strip”? Initially I thought it might be because that was where the majority of people were taken down when trying to escape, but that’s not the reason. Before the Berlin Wall was constructed there, there was a cemetery for a nearby church. When expanding the Wall and adding the fortifications, the cemetery was simply taken over and the border fortifications built on top, hence creating the area called the “death strip.”
After walking around the area, I went back to the metro station, where I found a museum about ghost stations. When Berlin was divided, it created problems for parts of the U-bahn and S-bahn lines. Most of the metro lines fell entirely into one area — either West or East Berlin. However, there were several lines that had stations in both West and East Berlin. This means that a line would start in West Berlin, stop in East Berlin, and then continue onto the other side of West Berlin. The GDR government saw this as a potential escape route for East Berliners, so all the East Berlin stations on these lines were shut down while the West Berlin stations remained functional. The metro trains still went through the East Berlin stations; however, they merely slowed down instead of stopping. Passing through these stations, West Berliners would see dimly-lit stations, devoid of all people except for the border guards. You can see why they were called “ghost stations.”
Simply eliminating the East Berlin stops and implementing border guards at the ghost stations didn’t stop East Berliners from using the metro systems as means of escape, however. There are documented cases of people managing to escape using this route, including the border guards themselves. Nobody said the border guards didn’t want to be in West Berlin.
The GDR boarded up everything in the metro systems that could be used as an escape route, including the emergency exits. Had something gone horribly wrong when a train was passing through the tunnels, the passengers on board would not have been able to escape. Even the border guards themselves were in a sticky situation–after two border guards escaped, guards on duty were locked in and couldn’t leave until their shift was done.
After Berlin was reunified, the ghost stations were put into use once again. The ghost station that I used to get to the Berlin Wall Memorial was Nordbahnhof; another well-known previous ghost station is the station at Potsdamer Platz.
I finished reading all the information signs in the station then headed back to the hostel, where I had Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (YUM) and pizza for dinner. Gotta love cheap food.