With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall upon us, I considered myself lucky to be seeing the sites connected to this event just a few days ago. This event changed the world, bringing to an end the Cold War and saying farewell to the vicious and prolonged conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Though the collapse of the division between East and West Berlin still means more to the average German than it does to the far-away American, visiting the sites in Berlin means you can join in the sense of history on the spot. I got the feeling that in another 20 years, the world will have mostly forgotten about the Wall altogether. (In fact, it took the Berliners until 1999 to decide to set up the Documentation Center, and 2006 to expand the Berlin Wall Memorial itself, recognizing that if they didn't do something to preserve the memory, nobody else would.) I was on a trip organized by the courageous American Tourism Society (www.americantourismsociety.org), which concerns itself with opening up little-known destinations to the American public.
On August 13, 1961, at one in the morning, East German border and police units and military men began to erect a barrier along the 99-mile border dividing East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic from the West. They started with barbed wire and wooden barricades, ending up in the following weeks constructing a solid concrete barrier.
The East German government did this to stop more of their citizens from escaping to the West, 2,600,000 of them having fled between the GDR's founding in 1949 to August 1961. The East was bleeding to death and they felt they had to stop the exodus. The flow stopped, but thousands of lives were disrupted, families divided, and more than 150 died (some say 136) at the Wall while attempting to flee.
Berlin Wall Memorial & Documentation Center
Thanks to this simple two-story structure, August 13, 1961 will last forever, apparently. You can see exactly what took place that day when the Wall was started, photos and documents providing all the details. Most interesting, I thought, was a wall tablet listing the names of the victims and dates of their deaths trying to escape from East Berlin across the wall. In four of the 28 years, no deaths occurred. A foundation now runs this complex, with its accompanying Chapel of Reconciliation. It's still a work in progress, and by 2011 should be complete. Contact info: Berliner Mauer (Bernauer Strasse 111; tel. 011/49 30/464 1030; www.berliner-mauer-dokumentationszentrum.de; German language only).
The Stasi Museum
This is a dark and dreary place, and of much more interest to Germans than to visiting foreigners, in my opinion, unless you are an avid student of history and/or secret police tactics. Only a very few signs are in English, the museum itself is hard to find and its outside bears no English words, much less Stasi Museum (Ruschestrasse 103; tel. 011/49 30/553-6854; www.stasimuseum.de; admission €4). The exhibits are interesting, but you can find better at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Germans are fascinated by the offices in which the former East German Minister for State Security Mielke worked, but the 1950s décor and the equipment (such as phones) just look pitiful today.
After the collapse of East Germany, its citizens were enabled to look at the files created about them, and many were shocked to find out that some of the thousands of informants were their friends, even family. Our guide explained that, though a top student at her university, she had a huge file on herself, some informants being her dearest friends, even teachers.
The Kennedys Museum
Ordinarily, I wouldn't recommend coming to Berlin to visit a museum about the Kennedy family, but because of the late president's close connection to this city, you'll want to see the Kennedys Museum (Pariser Platz 4a; tel. 011/49 30 2065 3570; www.thekennedys.de; admission €7), especially if you are a history fan, or a follower of that family's lives. JFK is remembered, of course, for his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech given at the Schoneberg city hall back in June, 1963. My guide told me the museum was created in November 2006 at the wish of the Kennedy Family, but I can't seem to find out the real story behind it. Incidentally, the canard that Kennedy said "I am a donut" is incorrect. It is true that in other parts of Germany, a Berliner means a kind of jelly-filled donut. But in Berlin, the people here call it something else. So he said, "I am a Berliner," and that gave the beleaguered West Berliners a lot of heart at the time. There is an exhibition until January 31, 2010, about the day JFK came to town and about the day the Wall fell.Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Germany Forum today.