Berlin – Cold War, Third Reich, and Ukraine

A few weeks ago I visited Berlin. A fantastically interesting city, and much more affordable and accessible than places like New York or London. However, it is almost comical how much of what you see ends up being about either the Third Reich or the Cold War and the DDR. The war in Ukraine was also noticeably present.  

Nothing Happened Before 1933

Berlin is a city that 800 years old. It has been the capital of Brandenburg and Prussia before the unification of Germany and the big events of the 20th century. But when walking around in the cityu and when looking for things to see, almost nothing of that old history seems to register. If you go to London or Paris or Stockholm, there are things from many centuries. There will be talk of the great developments of industrialization, and what happened in the 1600s. In Berlin, all of that seems to fade behind World War 2 and the Cold War era. They are the block buster shows beside which everything else pales.


The Berlin’s Odyssey virtual reality historical tour offered at the old DDR Fernsehturm close to Alexanderplatz is a good illustration of this imbalance. The tour started out very promising, showing the early settlements on the island in the river Spree that is the Museumsinsel today. Quite nicely done in VR too, you were flying above the scene and could look around in all directions. Good format. They skipped forward a few hundred years to show the first city walls. Next, I would have expected a few stops in the 1600s and 1800s, showing the city growing.

Instead, we were jumped to around 1900, shown the view of a city square, and told that at this point Berlin had 1.5 million inhabitants. After that, it was all documentary footage shown on a virtual film screen in VR. No more landscapes to look at freely. The first world war got a quick mention, and then it was off to the Nazis, World War 2, and the Cold War. All as documentary 2D footage. Talk about a missed opportunity – they could have shown the devastation after the war and the division of the city during the Cold War in a very impactful way by doing 3D views.

The observation deck in the tower was quite packed when we visited (quite late in the evening). It offered a good view out across Berlin, with signs explaining the main sights beyond each window. Well worth a visit.

Fernsehturm interior hall, where you wait for the elevator up.

The internal architecture is very much SciFi from the 1960s – the tower was built by the DDR to show off, after all, and they made a real effort to make it seem modern for the time. It is very nice that the interior still reflects that style.

The River Spree at sunset, seen from the Fernsehturm

The Brandenburger Tor

Some of Berlin’s most famous landmarks date back from long before the Nazi era, but even their stories have been hijacked by the 1900s. The Brandenburger Tor is a good example of this.

The gate was completed in 1791, in Prussian Berlin. It was present in the Napoleonic Wars (which is a very interesting story from German perspective of which there seems to be little trace in Berlin today), and Napoleon even stole the Quadriga and brought it to France! It was returned in 1814, after Napoleon was deposed following the defeat at Waterloo.

The Quadriga

After Berlin was divided, it was actually a crossing point between East and West, until the Berlin Wall was built. During the Wall years, the Brandenburger Tor was closed and many pictures show it as basically part of the Berlin Wall. Famous scenes played out there when the Wall came down in late 1989. The Cold War thus overshadows its older history.  It was also used by the Nazis, what else would you expect from a monument at the heart of Berlin, but that is not quite as important as its Cold War role.

Ukrainian flag in front of the Brandenburger Tor

When we visited, as can be seen in the photo above, there was a pro-Ukrainian manifestation right by the gate. A short distance to the east of that some useful idiots were demonstrating for peace negotiations. It seemed that these protests were more or less permanent, part of the mark that the Ukraine War is putting on today’s Berlin.

The Siegessäule

The Siegessäule was built to celebrate the Prussian (or German depending on how you want to label it) victories over Denmark, Austria, and France that led to the unification of Germany. It could have been a monument about the developments in the mid-1800s, but the Nazis could not leave it alone…

The Siegessäule

From the bottom, the first row of cannon are Danish. The second row Austrian. The third French. That was the way it was built in the 1860s and 1870s, when it was located in front of the Reichstag.

Entrance to the tunnels to the Säule

Today, however, it stands in the Tiergarten with an added fourth level. Both thanks to the Nazis. They moved the Siegessäule to its current location and made it the center of a complex that also included underground access tunnels with very Nazi-style entrance halls. As well as moving some monuments over Bismarck, Moltke, and other famous leaders to its vicinity.

Bismarck monument

The Siegessäule should really be visited! You can climb up to the large balcony on top of the base, as well all the way up to the top. A much cheaper option than the Fernsehturm. There is a small but very good museum inside that documents monuments, including the many quite interesting nationalistic monuments put up across Germany in the 1800s.

Bullet holes

The were some concrete remnants from World War 2 on the monument itself – bullet or shrapnel damage on the pillars of the balcony. Or at least that is my interpretation.

Relief on the base of the column, now back in Berlin

Its history after the war is also quite dramatic, including the French doing a Napoleonic maneuver and bringing the reliefs on the base of the monument to France. They weren’t returned until 1987.

The Reichstag

The Reichstag was built for the German Empire and then used by the Weimar Republic. It is thus part of the story of German unification.

The Reichstag today

But it is mostly famous for what happened to it in the Nazi era. The fire in 1933, its role in the final battle of Berlin, the image of the Soviets raising their flag from the building. Whatever happened before is obviously overshadowed.

Unfortunately we did not have time to visit the glass cupola or the roof terrace; I suspect that there  is more of the modern story there. Today, after all, the building is a monument to German reunification and the idea of what Germany is in Europe today.

Berlin Wall

No tour of Berlin is complete without the Berlin Wall. This edifice dominates the memory and memorials to the Cold War in Berlin. The story of the Cold War in Berlin tends to be told as “it was a bit rough in 1950s, but then the Wall came up in 1961, and then we spend all our time on 1961 to 1989” (exaggerating just a bit).  

I recall visiting Berlin the early 2000s, and for some reason having a hard time finding parts of the wall. Either something has changed, or I was a lousy tourist back then. The rise of the Internet and search engines might also have something to do with it. Still, it felt like everywhere we went in Berlin we literally found pieces of the wall.

The first thing we saw when we got off the train at Potsdamer Platz was a piece of wall:

A piece of the wall at Potsdamer Platz – support for both Belarus and the Ukraine

Right next to it was a common occurrence in Berlin: markers for where the wall used to be.

Marking of the wall

It is quite fascinating to go around in Berlin and try to figure out where the wall used to be. The long open scar through the city that was there 20 years ago is gone. Instead, there are houses sometimes right across where the wall used to be.

These last-stage concrete pieces of the Wall were literally everywhere, like here in the Gatow museum where they get to symbolize the division of Germany:

Pieces of the Berlin Wall at the Gatow Airforce Museum

Bernauer Strasse

The memorial park for the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse was really very well done. There is a park (except one building right in the middle) that covers the width of the final Berlin Wall construction. It shows where the West-facing and East-facing sides of the wall used to be, the width of the strip between the two, and marks the outline of buildings that were razed to remove opportunities for escape.

Note that square white building in the distance – it is right in the old wall area. The metal markings in the ground closest to the camera marks where the houses were before they were demolished.
The fence-like structure to the right in the image above marks the old western side of the wall.
In the Bernauer Strasse park, there is a memorial to the people who died at the Berlin Wall, trying to flee to the West

There is a place where you can see what the wall uses to look like from both sides. There was no way that I could find to get a good view of the inside – but then again, that might be the point. It clearly shows to the visitor just how stark and blocking the wall was.

The reconstructed wall, from the east. Note the watchtower at the far end.
This is what the Berlin Wall looked like from the west.

Bernauer Strasse was a place where the groundwater floor was usually low for Berlin, so it was a popular place to dig tunnels. We took a really good guided tour with Berliner Unterwelten that talked about how people used the sewers, subway tunnels, and self-dug tunnels to escape to the West.

Bernauer Strasse, one of the many marked tunnels. This is the most successful one, Tunnel 57.
Reconstructed tunnel, as shown by Berliner Unterwelten.

The Berlin Wall is a great tourist draw for Berlin today – but it was even in the 1960s when it was “for real”. The museum at Haus am Checkpoint Charlie showed some pictures of western tourists having come to Berlin the 1960s to see the monstrosity, including climbing up a platform to look across into East Berlin. It seems a bit odd – but I have myself visited the border between South and North Korea and looked across the border into the North from a visitor’s center in the South.

Haus am Checkpoint Charlie

The museum that is most related to the Wall is the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, which is apparently rebranding itself as the “Mauer Museum”. It opened its doors shortly after the construction of the wall in 1963, and was right there right by Checkpoint Charlie and the Wall. It has chronicled the history of the Wall and many escape attempts, and has a unique collection of vehicles and tools used to escape from the East.

Haus am Checkpoint Charlie from the outside. Photography inside was not allowed.

After the end of the Cold War, the museum has broadened its purview to about more than just the evil regime of East Germany. Such as the corner dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg.

The Ukraine War was very present in the museum. In a recently added exhibition, they show a car that was extensively damaged in Bucha during the Russian invasion, along with stories about the war experiences of regular Ukrainians. A very pointed point was made about Russia as an aggressive power in Europe that used to support East Germany and that now again is a threat to freedom and democracy.

Stasi Museum

The Stasi Museum is housed in the old headquarters of the Stasi. It shows the paranoia and thinking behind the extensive security apparatus that was set up to keep control over the East Germans. It seems that some people in the East actually might have believed their propaganda.

The main building of the Stasi headquarters, where the museum is located today.

Influences from the West were seen as intentional attempts to undermine the society in East Germany, and considered in the same context as active espionage and even sabotage (never happened). Listening to an Iron Maiden record or going hitchhiking was just as bad as selling military secrets.  

Model of the complex, in the foyer

The scale of the Stasi organization is mind-boggling. The headquarters was its own city inside Berlin, and the workplace for some 7000 employees in the end. When the Wall fell, the Stasi had about one hundred thousand direct employees. It just grew and grew as ever more aspects of society had to be controlled:

Growth of the Stasi over time, as illustrated in the museum

In addition, they had hundreds of thousands of “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” (IM) – informers and part-time employees. The precise number is apparently hard to determine. The museum gave me the impression of there being about one hundred thousand formalized IM, plus more than one hundred thousand more occasional informers.

Felix D, life-size statue in the foyer of Stasi headquarters

The Stasi idolized the KGB, Cheka, and its founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. There was a statue of him in the foyer, and several more busts and portraits around the museum.

Camera hidden in a cassette player. I guess you could go around with this on your shoulder, playing western pop music in a demonstration and photograph the participants. Something like that.

The Stasi used many hidden surveillance devices to keep track of their own population and sometimes to spy abroad. The museum has many examples of bugs and cameras hidden in very innovative ways. Today, hiding a camera is trivial, but in the days when you needed to have an actual roll of film in place it was not so easy.

Serious Bond Villain vibes. But Erich Mielke was dangerous for real.

The museum’s middle floor contains the original furniture and fittings from the last days of the DDR.

Some of the work of the Stasi looks comical today, like the training of their employees to blend in in the west… but they were really good at what they did in general.

The Rote Koffer from the Netflix series Kleo was in the museum! However, I did not see the more elegant interiors from that series in the main office where the museum was located. It is a brilliant series, definitely a must-see.

A visit to the Stasi Museum explains why Germans are so sensitive about privacy, digital rights, and the risks from too much data collection on the Internet. When you walk through the museum and see how much information the Stasi collected on everyone and how they used then-cutting-edge technology to spy on and control their own population, it is very easy to imagine what they could have done with the technology we have today. Fortunately for everyone, the Wall fell before the Stasi could go through their “digital transformation”. The threat of personal information being used for nefarious purposes feels much more concrete after seeing how the East German state and Stasi did it in the 1900s.

The Berlin Story Bunker

The Berlin Story Bunker should be called the Berlin Bunker Story. The museum is housed in an old air raid shelter from World War 2, which was later used as a reserve food storage facility for West Berlin during the Cold War.

The Bunker housing the Berlin Story Bunker

The main exhibit is the story of Hitler – from his birth to his death. A large part of that story is about the part of the war and Hitler’s famous bunker in Berlin. With an audio guide, it took three hours to get through the Hitler story, and we had to leave to get some lunch. Thus, we did not see the second part of the museum that seemed to be mostly about the Cold War, but maybe also a bit about more recent history.

However, we did see the room that was dedicated to the Ukraine War. Indeed, the museum owners have been quite vocal in their support for Ukraine, including a protest where they parked a destroyed Russian T-72 tank from the war in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin. It is another example of how the story of the Cold War and the story of Russian aggression today come together.

The Russian Embassy

Speaking of the Russian embassy… as we walked down Unter den Linden from the Brandenburger Tor, we found the Russian embassy. This building is itself a reminder of World War 2 and the Cold War. The victorious Soviets tripled the size of their old embassy in Berlin after the war, to make a statement about who was the new dominant power.

The Ukrainian Trident in front of the Russian embassy

There was a permanent protest in front of the embassy building. Across from the embassy there was a building site where the fence had been covered with pro-Ukrainian slogans. 

Soviet War Memorials

There are three Soviet war memorials in Berlin. The most easily accessible is in the Tiergarten, and features a couple of T-34 tanks and 155mm artillery pieces. Plus a giant statue of a Soviet soldier. This monument used to be in West Berlin!

The Soviet memorial in Tiergarten
T-34, one of two guardians
Inscription on the side of the monument

More Monuments and Museums

There are many other monuments and museums that I have not covered here. The Germans are really good at building and designing impactful monuments. A good example is the monument over the victims of the holocaust:

Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas

In the museum category, there is a new Cold War Museum that was advertising heavily when we visited Berlin. There is flashy Deutsches Spionagemuseum. The Topographie Des Terrors combines the wall and the oppression of the Gestapo during the Nazi era. The DDR Museum tells the story of the DDR. The Tränenpalast is the story of the division of Germany.

Even more Berlin Wall, at the Topographie Des Terrors

We stumbled on this bit of DDR nostalgia:

Trabiworld, exhibition of Trabant cars and even guided tours where you drive one yourself

You just cannot avoid the Cold War, World War 2, and the Nazis in Berlin. You could spend a month here going to a different site or museum each day and not run out of things to see.

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