30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Explore the Relics

November 9, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Celebrate the triumph of freedom with these memorials dedicated to the history of the Cold War.

On August 24, 1961, 11 days after the Berlin Wall was erected, Günter Litfin jumped into the canal-like Spree River. Litfin, from eastern Berlin, had just acquired an apartment and a job in the west of Berlin a few weeks earlier. But during a trip to his old neighborhood on August 23, the last border crossing back to the West was closed.

So Liftin decided to swim. He got about halfway across the Spree before realizing he couldn't make it, so he stopped and put his arms in the air to signal surrender. That's when guards fired, fatally wounding him and making him a footnote in the history of the Cold War: the first victim to be shot at this newly cemented border between East and West Berlin.

The story of Litfin is one of many sad tales of living on east side of the Berlin Wall for three decades. There are fascinating stories of desperate East Berliners digging tunnels underneath the wall to escape. There are tales of the Stasi, the East German state police who, by 1989, are said to have recruited up to 180,000 "unofficial informants" to spy on their friends and neighbors. It wouldn't be a bad time to watch the amazing film The Lives of Others about this chapter in history. It also would be worth watching the hilarious and informative German film Goodbye Lenin! about the fall of the wall.

That's because 30 years ago, on November 9, 1989, the infamous Berlin Wall was finally dismantled and Berliners could freely cross from one side of the divided city to another, causing a frenzy of freedom-loving fanaticism. And not just among Berliners. The world rejoiced too. And so, with 30 years of a reunited Berlin, it's never been a better time to go back and explore the relics and artifacts from the erstwhile East Berlin. After all, on the surface, you can still find buildings, memorials, monuments, even restaurants lingering from when Berlin was divided, a stark reminder of the larger forces of history that are out of our control.

Alexanderplatz
Historic pictures and symbols are projected in a multimedia show on the buildings at Alexanderplatz on the first day of events celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 4 in Berlin. Getty/Carsten Koall

Alexanderplatz

This is the place to start. The epicenter of East Berlin still has a very socialist feel to it, despite the barrage of multinational chain stores and flashing billboards. But behind the 21st-century trappings are lots of plattenbau buildings—prefabricated, dull, gray structures, reminiscent of East Berlin. There's at least one exception, though: the Fernsehturm, or TV Tower, which was built in the late '60s and rises 1,200 feet. It is the tallest structure in Germany and the third tallest in the European Union. Some Berliners saw the TV Tower as a way for the East German government to make itself ubiquitously known to West Berlin. But the West got its revenge—sort of. At a certain time of day (depending on the season) when the sunlight hits the tiled steel panels that comprise the ball atop the tower, it forms a shiny cross. After the tower was built, this cross was quickly dubbed "Rache des Papstes," or the "Pope's Revenge" against the godless, secular East German state.

Berlin Wall Memorial
A man takes a photograph of flowers that have been placed in a crack in the wall during the commemorations to mark the 27th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 2016 at the Berlin Wall Memorial in Berlin. TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty

Berlin Wall Memorial

It's understandable that after November 1989, Berliners were anxious to "tear down" that wall, as Ronald Reagan proclaimed during his famed 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate. And tear it down they did. But now Berliners and the people who love them (and their city) are a bit regretful more swaths of the wall aren't left. So head to the Berlin Wall Memorial in Prenzlauer Berg. This free-of-charge spot is the best way to get a sense of how the wall actually looked. There is a mile-long concrete slab, intermittent guard towers, and even the "Death Strip," the swath of space between two concurrent walls that was filled with sand to slow down any potential runners before they were shot.

Bornholmer Strasse
Large photographs showing east Germans crossing into West Berlin through the Bornholmer Strasse/Boesebruecke checkpoint are on permanent display as part of a memorial near the bridge, on October 1. The Bornholmer Strasse border crossing played the historic role of being the first border crossing to be opened during the fall of the Berlin Wall. Getty/JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP

Bornholmer Hütte

The Bornholmer Strasse crossing point in Prenzlauer Berg was the first fissure in the wall in 1989. Nearby is this traditional German pub and restaurant that has been serving up pints of frothy beer and boulette, or German-style meatballs, since 1911. The place has a smoky, jaundiced hue from decades of nervous dissidents and off-duty border guards chain-smoking and nursing pints of beer. If you want to get a sense of what an East Berlin pub was like, without the fear of accidentally incriminating yourself against the watchful eyes (and keen ears) of the East German government, bring some of your favorite comrades and come thirsty.

Glienicke Bridge
A fisherman sits near the Glienicker Bridge on the 46th anniversary of construction of the Berlin Wall August 13,2007 in Berlin,Germany. Getty/Carsten Koall

Glienicke Bridge

This one is a bit of a journey. But if you like Cold War spy stories—and don't we all?—then hop on the S-bahn to Potsdam. Besides being an excellent day trip in its own right, Potsdam is home to this steel bridge, located on the former border of East and West Germany, over the Havel River. The reason you should cross that bridge? That's what spies did. And by that we mean, this was the spot where the East and West would exchange their captured spies. The Glienicke Bridge recently got a big-screen cameo in the Stephen Spielberg film Bridge of Spies.

Günter Litfin Memorial

Litfin's story is now on display at a memorial set up where the wall ran. It's been getting a lot of attention since the city etched out a path for hikers and cyclists that follows the 25-mile route of the Berlin Wall. Jürgen Litfin, the brother of Litfin, who sometimes works the guard tower-turned-museum dedicated to Günter, is an interesting guy to chat with.

The memorial is in one of 280 guard towers that were erected along the wall. So besides honoring Günter Litfin by visiting the tower, it's also an opportunity to see the inside of an actual East Berlin guard tower, where the guards' main task was to ensure that no one got across that border, even if they had to shoot to kill.

30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Explore the Relics | Culture