The Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and a Word or Two on Transit in Berlin
Getting around Berlin without a vehicle is incredibly easy. All of the major German cities that we visited had excellent transportation networks, but Berlin’s was outstanding. We were able to buy a pass each day and travel all over the central part of the city, and the only thing we needed to remember was to get our tickets stamped in a machine in the station after we bought them. With your validated ticket in hand, you don’t need to go through admission gates or anything – you can just hop on and off the trains (U-Bahn), streetcars (S-Bahn) and buses, which will take you anywhere you want to go. (With the stamped ticket, you are ready to provide evidence that you are a paying customer if asked by a transit authority person: fines for not having a ticket are steep.)
The underground networks almost always have elevators and escalators that actually work (unlike what often happens in Toronto), and some of the escalators are so smart that they don’t start moving until you (or someone) steps onto them. I recently read that Berlin’s mask mandate on public transportation will be lifted in February, 2023, but it was still in effect when we were there so we felt safe.
I was also impressed with the proliferation of bike paths throughout Berlin, and at nearly every major intersection there are bikes and scooters available to rent. If you lived there, you would hardly ever need to use a car. I’m sure most people don’t.
Walking home late one night, we also saw a chauffeur service that appealed to me for the compactness of the vehicle on offer.
On our second day in Berlin, we visited the Reichstag, which houses the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament.
The original building, built in 1894, was burned by arsonists on February 27, 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. Hitler blamed the fire on “communists” and used it as a lever to induce Paul von Hindenburg, the German president at the time, to suspend civil liberties. The Reichstag Fire was therefore seminal in the rise of Nazism in Germany. The building was also bombed by the Russians during World War II.
“The ruined building was made safe against the elements and partially refurbished in the 1960s, but no attempt at full restoration was made until after German reunification in 1990, when it underwent a reconstruction led by architect Norman Foster. After its completion in 1999, it once again became the meeting place of the German parliament: the contemporary Bundestag” (Wikipedia). (Where would I be without Wikipedia?? I support it annually with a small donation, and encourage you to do so too.)
The Reichstag’s Dome is seamlessly melded into the reconstructed original structure to create a breathtaking architectural work. Here are a few cool things about this fabulous blend of old and new:
- “The steel and glass structure allows viewers to look directly into the chamber of the Bundestag. The passage of natural light highlights the transparency of government and its openness to its citizens” (Waagner Biro Reichstag Dome). The metaphor reinforces the idea that the people are above the government and not the other way around, as they were under the Nazis.
- “The glass dome was designed by Foster to be environmentally friendly and energy efficient; in allowing daylight to shine through the mirrored cone, the use of artificial lighting is significantly reduced, and thus so are carbon emissions. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight which would not only cause large solar gain, but also dazzle those below.” Wikipedia
- “The dome is open at the top, allowing waste air from the chamber below to escape and bringing fresh air into the building.” Rainy Day Traveller
- The Reichstag Dome allows a 360° view of the city. It is just south of the Spree and just north of the Brandenburg Gate so you get a nice view of a whole lot of interesting stuff. (On the day we visited, flags all over the city were lowered to half mast to honour Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, who had just died.) The audio guide available as you enter the Dome is worth getting: you can listen to it as you stroll up and down the helix-like ramp structure inside.
It is essential to book a ticket ahead of time to tour the Reichstag. On the recommendation of our nephew Paul, I booked our visit even before we left Canada, and I was glad I did. If you want tickets, which are free, here’s the link.
That afternoon (September 3), we visited Checkpoint Charlie. Obviously, one must do that when one is in Berlin for the first time – although we had heard there was nothing much to see at the site aside from tourist-magnet stores (containing actual magnets and other things that can help you to prove to your friends and family that you were at a certain place when you were away. I have a fridge covered in those kinds of magnets, and I love them. But I didn’t get one for Checkpoint Charlie).
Germany was divided into East and West in 1952, with the Soviets controlling the East and the Allies the West. Berlin was right on the border, so one side of it was in the more prosperous western sector and the other side in the more disadvantaged (Soviet) eastern section. Families and friends were separated by this division, and for that and numerous other reasons, millions of people wanted to get out of East Germany. It was easier to get across the border in Berlin than in most other parts of the divided country, because the city was being administered by the Western Allies. By 1961, 3.5 million people, or nearly 20% of the population of East Germany, had escaped to the West. Many of these people were young and well educated, and most of them had jobs, so their defections had a significant effect on the already-depressed East German economy. The Soviets grew increasingly determined to stop the flood of escapes.
The Berlin Wall started out as a barbed-wire fence in about 1961. Soon after it was erected, East Germany began construction of a concrete barrier – not only in Berlin but in other parts of Germany as well. “Along with the wall, the 830-mile (1336 km) zonal border became 3.5 miles (5.6 km) wide on its East German side in some parts of Germany with a tall steel-mesh fence running along a ‘death strip’ bordered by mines, as well as channels of ploughed earth, to slow escapees and more easily reveal their footprints” (Wikipedia). The Berlin Wall itself, “Erected in haste and torn down in protest, […] was almost 27 miles long and was protected with barbed wire, attack dogs, and 55,000 landmines” (National Geographic).
Checkpoint Charlie (named from the Allies’ designation of it as “Checkpoint C”; the Soviets called it “Friedrichstraße Crossing Point”) was the only place in Berlin where “foreigners and Allied Forces” were allowed to cross the border. “During its 28-year active life, the infrastructure on the Eastern side was expanded to include not only the wall, watchtower and zig-zag barriers, but a multi-lane shed where cars and their occupants were checked. However, the Allied authority never erected any permanent buildings. A wooden shed was replaced during the 1980s by a larger metal structure, now displayed at the Allied Museum in western Berlin. Their reasoning was that they did not consider the inner Berlin sector boundary an international border and did not treat it as such” (Wikipedia).
Following the erection of the wall, many additional escapes took place (some of which are listed and described in gory detail at the Wikipedia link I’ve cited above) and these led to more and more refinements to keep East Germans out of West Berlin.
The original Checkpoint Charlie crossing booth is displayed in the open-air museum on the northeast corner near the checkpoint location, along with displays of photos and texts describing the history of the crossing and depicting several escape attempts. These displays were very informative. We did not tour the actual “Mauermuseum” (Wall Museum) as we felt we had a pretty good idea of what it was all about from the locations that were accessible for free. The next day, when we visited the DDR Museum, we got a really fascinating look at what life had been like on the East side of the Wall. Stay tuned for more on that next time.