Looking back: Berlin before the wall

Berlin Wall from the west

Berlin Wall from the west

We waited for over 90 minutes in Berlin’s Ostbahnhof. Guards came through the train carriages. First our documents were checked. Then we were asked to leave the cars while they lifted the seats and pulled the panels from the ceiling. We then climbed aboard and watched the dogs get to work under the trains, looking for desperate stowaways. All this for a train that had not originated in East Germany, and had not made any stops in the country. We were about to cross into West Berlin, and no chances were taken to miss a potential refugee.

A vantage point over the wall in West Berlin

A vantage point over the wall in West Berlin

This was my first taste of the Cold War. It was 1987, and no-one could have guessed that a little over two years later the wall and the fear and repression that divided the city and the people within it would be torn down. For me it was a great adventure; seeing the extreme lengths the East Germans went to in order to protect their border from their own people.

A few minutes after we started moving we were in Friedrichstrasse, and the mood changed. The station was alive, we were free to leave the train and the feeling of suspicion and danger had passed.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

As a tourist in 1987, Berlin was all about the Wall. From the West, vantage points were set up to peer over the wall. It was traditional to hurl abuse over the wall at the East German guards. For many Berliners it was their only view of the secret world on the other side where other family members were trapped. A visit to Checkpoint Charlie gave a view into the security that divided the two parts of the city. By the checkpoint the museum told visitors of the daring ways in which people had tried to escape to the west.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

I wanted to visit the east, and for one day I took the train across the border again. It was compulsory to change 30DM into East German DM at a rate of 1:1. Having 30 East German DM made you into a rich man, and I found it very difficult to spend this money (around the equivalent of $15) in one day. I even called home and spoke with my mother for around 20 minutes.

The empty spaces of East Berlin

The empty spaces of East Berlin

Walking around the East, the striking thing for me was the emptiness around. The streets lack life, and the drab concrete buildings of the back-streets betrayed a place that seemed to live without laughter. I did spend a few of my DM on one of the largest ice cream sundaes I think I’ve ever had, and enjoyed it in a cafe where I was the only visitor.

Brandenburg Gate, from East Berlin

Brandenburg Gate, from East Berlin

You were not allowed within 100 metres of the Wall, and nowhere was this was evident than at the Brandenburg Gate, where you could only view it at a distance and see the grey wall immediately behind. This of course became a symbol of the night of people power in 1989.

I will be interested to return sometime, and wonder what I will recognise from the days I spent from my days there in 1987.

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

10 Responses to “Looking back: Berlin before the wall”

  1. Thank you for sharing your recollections. I was in East Berlin in 1988, and my memories are similar to yours. On our first attempt at crossing, we were turned away because my companion had paint on his trousers. We were able to get in at another entry point, and I, too, remember the tension at the border, the immediate change in mood and energy, the exchange of money that turned two beggared backpackers into obscenely wealthy high-rollers for a day. We tried to blow our cash at a fancy restaurant, our raggedy presence probably an insult to the few well-dressed people who were seated in the near-empty room. We gawked at the artillery holes still in the walls of some buildings and at the glum markets. Who knew then that the wall would come down just one year later.

    November 3, 2009 at 10:51 pm
  2. Hi Zoe,
    Thanks for sharing your memories. It was a unique place, and while I’m glad it’s long gone, there’s no denying it provided a unique travel experience at the time. The paint on the trousers made me smile; a great example of the types of things that people were often picked up for. Anything and everything, depending on the mood of the officials.

    November 4, 2009 at 12:00 am
  3. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years! I lived in Munich 1990-92, and then Dresden 1998-2000, and will never forget the enormous changes in the fast & slow period of reunification.

    My daughters asked me about it when we went to Berlin recently, and I can’t help but break into fresh sobs when I relive the tumultuous transformation. What a bizarre human experience!

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    November 4, 2009 at 9:15 am
  4. Thanks for sharing your story to Apryl. It must have been an exhilarating time to be in Germany. I wonder what is planned to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall next week?

    November 4, 2009 at 10:02 am
  5. I grew up reading some war novels and seeing war movies. The diference of the east and west Germany was very simple for us teenagers in India- one was with USSR and another with USA. India was non aligned and so were we. The jubiliation of the Germans when the wall came down was all over the media then and then I started to see the humans beyond the politics. I finally got to visit Berlin in 2005. Only a fragment of the wall was there. But we had friends in East and West part of Germany. As you said the architecture was different, but perhaps the rural areas were just as simple as before war. The difference I saw was only in urban population. And they were telling us that people from the west usually try to get a transfer asap if they were posted in the left. The unification is still going on. Maybe it will take a generation to equate. We all feel sorry for the pain that the Germans have gone through in post war period.They hate being asked about Nazis and yet they have to answer silly questions from people of other nations.

    November 4, 2009 at 10:44 am
  6. To think I almost didn’t read this article, what an eye opener. My only recollection of this time was as an American child in grade school hearing about the Berlin Wall and the Cold War on TV, and in school. Your article has resparked an impression on me as an *adult* of the reality of what happened back then, of someone’s first-hand accounts. Thank you for such a vivid picture.

    November 4, 2009 at 1:19 pm
  7. Thanks Holy Lama and Saundrea for sharing your memories too. It’s one of those moments in history that will always be remembered and referred to; a victory of people power.

    November 5, 2009 at 9:03 am
  8. Yasmina #

    Hi, it’s been already 20 years! Not in Germany at that time, but I was in Moscow in 1991 when that coup happend. As we move on, our memory of every precious moment become priceless. 20 years. It flies too quick to reflect on.

    November 7, 2009 at 11:15 am


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