Where did the Wall actually stand?

Professor Axel Klausmeier is the Director of the Berlin Wall Foundation. In his guest commentary, Prof. Klausmeier writes why the remains of the Berlin Wall are scattered all over the world and how he makes the traces of the city’s partition visible 30 years after the Wall fell.

Not only many visitors, but even many of Berlin’s residents continue to ask me where the Wall actually stood. The remains of the Berlin Wall are today often regarded as symbols of hope in a strife-torn world and as memorials to the unique history of the modern city.

The Berlin Wall Foundation curated an exhibition on a section of the Berlin Wall. © BERLIN WALL MEMORIAL/Jürgen Hohmuth

However, it’s important to know that people’s attitudes to the Wall were much different in 1990 to what they are today. Almost everyone at the time demanded to quickly dismantle the barriers along the border. The rapid demolition of these barriers officially began on June 13, 1990. The first place where this was done was Bernauer Strasse. The demolition initially left a big gap in Berlin’s urban landscape, which was especially apparent in the city center. In the end, not much was left of the approximately 155 kilometers of barriers. More than 300,000 tons of concrete from the Wall were used as road metal by the end of 1990. Some sections of the Wall were sold. This was even done by the last communist government in December 1989. As a result, parts of the Berlin Wall can now be found on all continents. Only 12 sections of the Wall had been registered in Berlin’s list of historic monuments by October 1990. It was only the intervention of committed citizens that enabled parts of the original wall and various historical traces to survive in places such as Bernauer Strasse, the East Side Gallery, and the “Parliament of Trees.”

The remains of the Berlin Wall

The first public memorials were created in the late 1990s: The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse was inaugurated in 1998 and parts of the Wall were also preserved at the Topography of Terror documentation center, which is located where the Gestapo, the Security Police, and the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) had their headquarters during the Third Reich. The Wall can exude its full effect at this historic location, where it is poised above the Gestapo’s torture chambers and epitomizes Berlin’s history of two dictatorships. In many places, the location of the former border is now marked by a double row of cobblestones. Moreover, an approximately 160 kilometer long Berlin Wall path was created beginning in 2001.

The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse is the only place in Berlin where the Wall’s in-depth arrangement is preserved. If you go there you can still see the border zone’s structure with its front and rear area walls.

As the Director of the Berlin Wall Foundation, I am not only responsible for this historic location, but also for the Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum. This former refugee transit camp was the first place where people who fled from East Germany were brought to in West Berlin. The East Side Gallery is another memorial. It doesn’t just show the Wall as such, but also lets visitors see how international artists have interacted with the Wall since 1989. The Günter Litfin Memorial is a former watchtower of the GDR Border Troops that has been preserved in the center of Berlin. The memorial is dedicated to Günter Litfin, who, in August 1961, became one of the first people to be killed at the Berlin Wall.

The former command station at the Kieler Ufer (Kieler shore). From there, officers or non-commissioned officers commanded the crews in the watchtowers along the Wall. © BERLIN WALL MEMORIAL/

Keeping the memory alive

At historic locations, we enable people to experience the traces of the Wall and the division of Berlin as we well tell them about this part of the city’s history. Learning about the history of the partition lets us reflect on our own situation in a way that requires us to the take a look back. As we can still see in many parts of the world, we shouldn’t take democracy for granted. The various historic sites can help us to appreciate the value of freedom and of a democratic society that respects human rights. That’s why we will stage a big special program on November 9 of this year that will enable us to enter into a dialogue with many people.

Thirty years after the fall of the Wall, we want to celebrate the peaceful end of the partition with the city’s residents and recall the achievements of all the people who took to the streets in the fall of 1989. We want to examine the anniversary in an international context and from a variety of perspectives. As a result, we have invited young people from eight countries to come to Berlin. We also want to pause for a moment to ask ourselves where we are now 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Who didn’t experience 1989 as a single big celebration? It’s important that we talk with witnesses of this historic event who have to date not been represented very well in Germany’s culture of remembrance. For example: How did the Turkish immigrants living in West Berlin experience this time and how did the international “contract workers” from other socialist countries perceive it in East Berlin?

Traces of the Wall are still visible in Berlin. That’s how it should be, because these traces will always ask us where we are now, even thirty years after the Wall’s fall. They also ask us how we plan to shape Europe in the future in view of our experiences with a partitioned city.

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