Home > Uncategorized > A Different Kind of Jungle

A Different Kind of Jungle

On Monday, I took the day to explore Berlin by foot, of course hitting as many Cold War history sites and museums as possible. I started the day at Checkpoint Charlie. This was an allied checkpoint for border crossings, situated on the border between the Soviet sector and the American sector. In 1961, this was the site of a tense confrontation between American and Soviet tanks over American access to East Berlin. Luckily, the situation was defused before open conflict broke out. Once the front lines of the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie is today a buzzing tourist attraction, where you can get your passport stamped by a fake border guard, visit a museum, or purchase a variety of souvenirs, including a vast selection of GDR memorabilia and “pieces of the Berlin Wall.” Amid all this kitch, there stands on a tall post which holds a photo of a Soviet soldier looking West and on the other side, an American soldier looking east. I found this eternal vigil a bit eerie, unsure of its purpose. It adds a feeling of tension and apprehension to the site, ensuring those who visit remember its history. There also remains the famous sign which reads, “You are leaving the American sector,” printed in English, French, German, and Russian.

I passed Potsdammer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate before walking down Unter den Linden on my way to Museum Island and the DDR Museum. At the DDR Museum, visitors get an interactive look at every day life in East Germany. The museum featured a Trabi, exhibits on education, culture, food, a model living room, kitchen, and bathroom, a film on urban space and planning, and much more. All the writing had English translations, and I spent over an hour exploring the various exhibits and learning unusual facts. Did you know that nudism was extremely popular in the East Germany, despite government attempts to suppress it? I was really impressed with the museum, and by the looks of it, so was the rest of Berlin. The place was packed the entire time I was there, and it’s one of the most popular museums in Berlin today.

After a currywurst lunch, I caught tram M5 from Alexanderplatz to get to the Gedenkstatte Museum and Memorial. Located on the site of a prison used by both the Soviet Secret Police and the Stasi, the Museum offers daily guided tours in German and English, some conducted by former prisoners. The first stop on our tour was a creepy basement, its walls filthy and lined with pipes. The hallways were lined with heavy cell doors and lit by cold fluorescent lights. I couldn’t help but imagine a prisoner being led down the hall, then stumbling and falling while the echos of a gunshot rang through the prison. Our tour guide led our group into one of the cells, which was about the size of a single dorm room. However, we learned that up to twelve prisoners were housed here, sharing a single bucket for the toilet, and a hard wooden plank for a bed, which they were only allowed to use for 8 hours a day. But 8 hours was relative; there was no natural light in the room and guards would often deliberately confuse prisoners as to the time of day or night. As our group stood in the chamber, it got hot quickly. Our guide described how the heat would cause condensation to drip from the ceiling of the cells, which would cause prisoners’ hair and clothing to mold. It was uncomfortable to stand inside the cell for ten minutes. I couldn’t begin to imagine spending 10 weeks, months, or years inside. We also passed cells equipped for Chinese water torture and spaces, scarcely bigger than a door frame, where inmates who misbehaved might be enclosed.

To my relief, we filed out shortly to examine the Stasi facilities. The Stasi favored psychological abuse and techniques over the Soviet methods of brute force. Often, prisoners would be isolated, interrogated frequently, and mentally manipulated by the interrogator.

We also saw a truck that was used to transport prisoners to the facility. People would be kidnapped on the street, then transferred to a van disguised as a grocery truck, driven around for several hours to disorient them, and then dropped off at the prison. Our guide made an interesting point about the driving time: four or five hours from Berlin, and a prisoner could be deep in Poland, when in reality they would be in the suburbs of the city, perhaps half an hour from their home or work.

We concluded the tour in an interrogation room, complete with a portrait of Erich Honecker. There, I was shocked to learn that approximately 0% of the Stasi had suffered any punishment following reunification. East German officials could not be punished because they had acted under the laws of the GDR, and a clause that would have overridden this was omitted from the reunification treaty in the interest of promoting unity (check). What’s worse, many of the Stasi feel no remorse for their actions. Our guide described an interview published three years ago where a former Stasi interrogator boldly asserted that he was not sorry for his actions during the Cold War. I was also sickened to learn that every once in a while, a former Stasi member would visit the museum, go on a tour, and verbally abuse the guides. And apparently exchanges between former prisoners and interrogators were also not unheard of around town, at the supermarket, or the bank. I left the museum around 4, feeling saddened, and a bit paranoid around grocery trucks.

I made my way to the East Side Gallery via S-bahn, where I was much cheered by the 1.3k strip where the Berlin Wall has survived, and is now the site of gigantic, colorful murals. There are 105 paintings under monumental protection, all in very good condition today thanks to a restoration effort completed in 2009. I worked my way down the wall, photographing murals I particularly liked until I got to the next S-Bahn station and headed for the hostel I was staying at. I had a (mercifully) quiet night and got ready to start the first leg of the Berlin Wall Trail.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Anna
    July 10, 2010 at 2:24 am

    WOW. The first picture in this blog = extra fantastic.

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