If you look for images of the Berlin Wall today, what you find are mostly pictures of a wall plastered with graffiti, often with a sarcastic touch. What you rarely find are photos taken from the other side of the Wall, where the bleak grey structure meant nothing less than the end of the world.
Germany became reunited again in 1990 with the former German Democractic Republic in the East joining the Western Federal Republic of Germany. In the years since, many parts of the dividing line that once ran right through the center of the country have grown over and are difficult to discover. Others however have been preserved to serve as a reminder of the times when a line consisting of fences, walls and a deadly dangerous no-man’s lands separated families, neighbors and compatriots.
It is a common misconception that the barriers between the two Germanys existed only in Berlin. They rather covered a total length of 1378 kilometers, stretching from the Baltic Sea all the way to the former border triangle between both German countries and what is now the Czech Republic. The border was heavily armed and guarded from the East German side. Landmines were distributed along the border and for the most part, there were no dwellings of any kind allowed by GDR authorities for an area of up to 5 kilometers from the border. While you were theoretically able to walk up all the way to the chainlink fence from the Western side, the East German border guards had orders to not allow anybody near the structure and were even compelled to shoot at people wo tried to cross into West Germany illegally. In fact, almost 800 persons were shot and killed trying to escape the GDR. Interestingly, the broad swath of land that was deliberately kept empty by East Germany has grown into a valuable habitat for plants and animals, known as the Green Band.
But apart from this, a number of places along the former borderline are dedicated to memorializing the history of this narrows strip of land that once held so much significance for world politics:
Helmstedt-Marienborn border crossing point
Situated alongside the freeway that runs from Hanover to Berlin, the checkpoint between Helmstedt in Western Lower Saxony and Marienborn in today’s Saxony-Anhalt used to be the most significant border crossing point at the intra-German border. Also known as Checkpoint Alpha, it provided the shortest route to Berlin if you wanted to go there from Western Germany. It was secured by massive concrete barriers and watchtowers, from where roadblocks could be activated at any given time. But the place also become famous for seeing the first border crossing from East to West on November 9, 1989 when two women walked across the line into Western Germany at 9:15 pm. Since 1996, the site has become a memorial place. Visitors may explore all the former border security installments by themselves or on guided tours. There is also an exhibtion dedicated to the border crossing point’s history including video footage of a spectacular breakthrough attempt by truck in 1983.
Border Museum Schifflersgrund
Asbach is a small town in Thuringia, only a stone’s throw away from Hesse in Germany’s Western half. The town, located directly at the former border, today has a small border museum that has been built around a former watchtower. 2.5 kilometers of the former border fence can still be seen here, along with a permanent exhibition showcasing military equipment of the GDR forces. In addition, they also have a number of artworks on display that deal with the topics of separation and reunification.
Harz border hiking trail
The Harz area is a widespread low mountain range in central Germany, touching Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt on both sides of the former border line. The area is a favorite for hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Among the many hiking trails one can find here, the Harzer Grenzweg is particularly interesting. Stretching over some 100 kilometers, the trail keeps touching on points of interest in places where the border used to be. These include another border museum, a watchtower, commemorative markstones to mark the sites where East German refugees were shot by border guards, and stretches of the barb wire fence.
Allied Museum, Berlin
There are plenty of places in Berlin that serve as reminders of the time Germany – and Europe – was split in two. One of the sites that frequently gets overlooked is the “Alliiertenmuseum” (Allied Museum) in the Dahlem neighborhood of the capital. The museum casts a spotlight on the actions and commitments of the Western allied forces from the Berlin Airlift all the way to reunification and beyond. Highlights of the exhibition include a Royal Air Force plane used in the airlift and the original Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse. The museum does not charge entry fees.
Baltic Sea watchtower, Kühlungsborn
The GDR once maintained a total of 27 watchtowers along its Baltic Sea coast. Equipped with powerful searchlights, telescopes and embrasures, these towers were used to monitor all vessel movements out there on the sea as well as to prevent espace attempts with deadly force if necessary. Only two of these towers remain, with one of them located right in the popular beach zone of the well-known seaside spa town of Kühlungsborn. The watchtower can be visited on 2-3 afternoons per week. A small adjacent museum informs about failed escape attempts in this section of the border.