Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Travel: Berlin Wall tour full of bloody, tragic history

The most imposing symbol of the division between the east and west was torn down 20 years ago

A round bronze pillar, elegant in its simplicity, stands near what was once the designated border crossing for Allied forces between East and West Berlin. It's a memorial to Peter Fechter, one of about 140 East Germans killed while attempting to escape across the Berlin Wall.

An 18-year-old bricklayer, Fechter was shot on this spot Aug. 17, 1962. Though he lay on the ground bleeding to death for roughly an hour, nearby U.S. soldiers would, apparently under terms of the Allied Occupation, remain aloof.

Today, on a LED screen on a GPS tour of the remaining sections of the former wall, you see archival photos of East Germany soldiers carrying Fechter's body. The narrator will question the Americans' decision against rescuing him.

This Mauer (Wall) guide is an officially endorsed five-hour audio-video tour of the history of the once-divided city. I picked up the pocket PC and headphones -10 Euros for a day, 8 Euros for four hours - at a roadside stand near Checkpoint Charlie.

This former crossing is where Russian and American tanks faced off for 16 hours in 1961. Today you can have your photo taken with actors dressed as British or American soldiers. You can also buy Russian military memorabilia, including officer hats; go for a spin in an East German police car in the form of a two-stroke Trabant built in the former German Democratic Republic; and visit the Wall Museum on nearby Friedrichstrasse.

But more importantly - and after spending a good few minutes figuring out the GPS technology - the Mauer guide introduces you to the story and surroundings of the Berlin Wall, displays an electronic map showing precisely where events took place, and directs you to your destinations of choice.

Over 14 kilometres, you can visit 22 points of interest accompanied by more than 100 authoritative commentaries, photos and videos. Some of the archival material shown on this iPod-size device, like the photos of Fechter's body, was discovered in GDR Ministry of State Security (Stasi) files.

I continued the tour, via bus and taxi, to Brandenburg Gate, the ultimate Berlin landmark, then to Bernauer Strasse, with the longest remaining section of wall. But before leaving Checkpoint Charlie, I walked along the Niederkirchnerstrasse.

As you learn on the audio, this part of the wall - broken in places, with protruding metal bars and wire mesh - borders the site of Nazi Gestapo headquarters. Two key realities come together here, that of the Third Reich and a divided Germany.

On a stretch called "Land's End," you learn how a paranoid East German military buried listening devices in the ground and mounted them on the roof of the nearby former Prussian House of Deputies. Here too, we learn, the West Berlin Senate operated a mobile studio that broadcast news by loudspeaker into the Soviet sector.

For those living in this densely populated neighbourhood it was "like living in a high security wing."

At the Brandenburg Gate - for 28 years, isolated within a walled-off "death strip" - we learn about the "lockdown" of the massive 18 th -century structure, with its 12 Doric columns, in the early '60s, and events leading up to the wall's fall in 1989.

The tour walks you to a colossal memorial to 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin in 1945. The Soviets deliberately sited this cenotaph near Adolf Hitler's chancery and Nazi architect Albert Speer's "victory avenue."

In contrast, the tour continues to the "Calling Man," a gorgeous three-metre sculpture erected in 1966, and recalling the words of the 14 th -century humanist poet Petrarch - "I wander through the world and cry, peace, peace, peace."

Still following GPS instructions, I walked to the River Spree and a cluster of white memorial crosses. Here the commentary explained how those named died. For example, Klaus Schroeter was shot when he surfaced while swimming the river. The guards who killed him were, we're told, rewarded with medals and cash.

Bernauer Strasse, in the north of former East Berlin, is the main wall memorial site. Here the tour explores the construction and evolution of the wall, and the impact it had on ordinary Berliners. From a military-like observation tower attached to the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre you look down on a sprawl of walls and open spaces created by the East Germans to foil a growing number of attempted defections.

On your Mauer screen run scratchy archival clips of actual escapes or attempts, including that of a woman who gets entangled in barbed wire. You also witness a newly married couple "visit" parents who are seen in an unreachable window across the divide.

Finally, the tour takes you to the East Side Gallery, where graffiti artists have redefined The Wall. The Mauer audio includes interviews with artists, and an explanation of the memorial to "The Unknown Fugitive." Here you see old clips of reunions between East and West Germans briefly permitted by East German authorities in the 1960s at the Oberbaumbrucke Bridge border crossing.

On Nov. 9, 2009, a reunited Berlin marks the 20 th anniversary of the fall of the wall with performances, concerts and a street festival at Brandenburg Gate ( For more on the Wall GPS tour, go to