Facing the Wall: A Day In East Berlin

Events occurred so fast on Sunday, August 13, 1961, that some key questions were still to be answered during the following week, most conspicuously the matter of which openings and crossing points did remain in the new wall around central Berlin. The city continued under four-power military control, for one thing; then there were diplomatic and commercial connections to be maintained as well as the status of tourism for non-Berliners, who presumably would still have access to the eastern part of the city.

The GDR authorities declared the railway station at Friedrichstrasse as the crossing point for pedestrian traffic, while establishing the intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse a few blocks to the south as the main crossing point for vehicular traffic, for diplomats, for business travelers, for the Allied military and for tourists traveling in groups. This latter location, soon known by its Allied designation as “Checkpoint Charlie”, has entered into postwar legend, and it remains etched in the memory of many a tourist who stood in long lines waiting for the return of travel documents including the day-visa for exploring the only East Bloc capital readily accessible to Westerners.

So, what was the attraction, or what were the attractions?  At a time when border controls had all but disappeared in western Europe, East Germany in its eagerness for recognition as a sovereign state imposed rigid and unsmiling formalities on day travelers, including long delays for checking of papers (what the authorities ominously called “Fahndung”, i.e. police search) and a compulsory exchange of a minimum amount of hard currency for that of the GDR at an unrealistic rate of 1-to-1 German marks. And yet the visitors came through the gates by the busload.

To understand why is to recall that in the division of the city into administrative sectors the former center, called “Mitte”, had been allotted to the Soviets and to their East German place-holders. Here there were sights of solid value to see and experience, such as the Pergamon Museum with its world famous Greek altar, the German art and anthropology collections at the Nationalgalerie and the Bode-Museum, all on ‘museum island’ in the center of the city. There was the historic vista of the boulevard “Unter den Linden” making a return from war’s damage, and the relatively busy traffic hub of the “Alex” or Alexanderplatz with the adjacent television tower and the medieval Marienkirche, Berlin’s tallest and oldest structures side by side. As a contrast, visitors could explore the architecture of Stalinallee, once ridiculed as Soviet cake-with-frosting but now renamed Karl-Marx-Allee and recognized as a unique political statement from the early Cold War.

Toward evening, thoughts could turn to the Deutsche Staatsoper or opera house, suspiciously regal in the midst of drab surroundings. Or there was the smart and timely Komische Oper, world famous as a touring company but here on its home grounds, or perhaps the Berliner Ensemble, the theater upholding the traditions of playwright Bertolt Brecht on the very stage where he had produced his best works.

East Berlin had its own zoo as well as parks and lakes for recreation; and to help spend the money perhaps reluctantly acquired on the way in, there were restaurants in different categories, from snacks to fine dining in historic Berlin surroundings. Certain types of purchases, fine porcelain for example, also recommended themselves before returning to West Berlin.

Some of the same tension and unpleasantness would await visitors on departing from East Berlin at Friedrichstrasse, yet a day in the East had much to offer to the culturally curious and the historically aware.

Zille Stube Menu   Kubanisches Restaurant  Russisches Restaurant

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