Geographic location: Eastern Germany
Before Germany was reunified, people in East Germany had their own everyday culture and consumer goods. These had little in common with those in the west, where choice and availability were taken for granted. In many places, endless queues for basic necessities were the norm. Despite the anecdotes and the stories, it is difficult for uninitiated Germans – let alone visitors from abroad – to fully comprehend what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. A number of towns and cities in the old East Germany have museums dedicated to their communist past. As well as providing a window into the past, they focus on the more amusing aspects of life. Perfect for anyone with an interest in East Germany and its history.
Berlin Wall History — 30 years
See our article: 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down
DDR Museum – The Museum of East German History in Berlin
The Museum of East German History in Berlin displays exhibits from the 40 years that the GDR existed. It is located on the River Spree in the old East German government district, opposite Berlin Cathedral. The scope of the museum is highly impressive and covers a wide range of topics: the inner-German border, Berlin, transport, the Stasi, shopping, consumer goods, architecture, lifestyles, women and family, media, education, youth culture, work, fashion, the arts, leisure and holidays. Visitors can even get behind the wheel of a Trabant, the signature East German car, or look inside the cupboards of a kitchen and living room as they would have looked in a Soviet-era tower block. Exciting, interactive displays build up a picture of daily life in a socialist state: sitting on an original East German armchair, for example, visitors can listen to an address by Erich Honecker or make themselves at home and leaf through a book. A table football game recreates the famous match between East and West Germany at the 1974 World Cup, while dance steps on the floor show people how to do the Lipsi. Visitors can watch documentaries from real East German cinema seats, then feel some of the most popular clothes of the GDR era between their fingers.
DDR Museum Berlin Spreepromenade
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1, 10178 Berlin
Mauer Museum – The Berlin Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie
One of the most popular museums in Berlin is the Berlin Wall Museum, which tells the story of a divided nation at the legendary border crossing Checkpoint Charlie. Among the fascinating exhibits are the various contraptions that people used to flee East Germany. The museum is a mine of information, not just about the Berlin Wall, how it was built and how it fell, but also about East Germany in general: from justice, repression and the Stasi, to opposition, resistance and the many escape attempts. It is open every day from 9am to 10pm and guided tours are available on request. The first exhibition opened on 19 October 1962, shortly after the Berlin Wall was erected, in a small apartment in Bernauer Strasse, famous for being divided along its entire length. The houses in East Germany stood empty and the windows were bricked up. Due to the large numbers of visitors, new premises were sought and so the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie opened in 1963. From here, people who helped others to escape could spy everything that went on at the border crossing through a small window. They welcomed and offered support to those who had fled, hatched escape plans and fought against injustice in East Germany. Various other exhibitions emerged in subsequent years: „Artists interpret the Berlin Wall“ (1973), „Berlin – from frontier city to Europe‘s bridge“ (1976), „From Gandhi to Wałęsa – non-violent battles for human rights“ (1984). People who conspired to help others escape donated hot-air balloons, modified cars, chair lifts and even a mini U-boat to the museum. Activists involved in the resistance also brought in an automatic machine-gun installation, dismantled at great risk to their lives, and a piece from the top of the Berlin Wall, broken off by the famous peace protester John Runnings. Other items on display include Mahatma Gandhi‘s journal and sandals.
Friedrichstr. 43-45, 10969 Berlin
Black Box at Checkpoint Charlie
Zimmerstraße, 10969 Berlin
Next to Checkpoint Charlie
The Black Box am Checkpoint Charlie is the first exhibition in Germany about the Cold War and tells the story of Checkpoint Charlie in a 200 m² exhibit. Large-format photos, sixteen media stations and other documents and exhibits will not only present the impact of the Wall on German history, but also help visitors understand the international dimensions of German and European division.
Berlin Wall Documentation Centre
Because of its location overlooking the Berlin Wall, Bernauer Strasse became a focal point of post-war German history. Today, the street is home to the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre. In a place where many chapters of the past unfolded, it tells the story of the Berlin Wall and the attempts people made to escape East Germany – as both reality and consequence of a divided nation and the Cold War.
Stiftung Berliner Mauer
Bernauer Strasse 111, 13355 Berlin
The Stasi Museum is located in Haus 1 of the main complex of the East German Ministry for State Security (known as the Stasi). The complex is in Berlin-Lichtenberg and was where Erich Mielke, the last Stasi boss, had his offices. His office and work rooms can be visited in their original condition. An exhibition on the Stasi’s activities sheds light on different aspects of the East German political system as well as resistance and opposition to the regime.
Ruschestraße 103, 10365 Berlin-Lichtenberg
East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery in Berlin-Friedrichshain is a mile-long stretch of the Berlin Wall that was painted in spring 1990 by 118 artists from 21 countries. The gallery runs along the River Spree from Berlin Ostbahnhof to the Oberbaumbrücke. The artists commented on the political changes of 1989-90 with a hundred or so paintings along what had been the East Berlin side of the Wall.
The Marx-Engels-Forum, a relict from GDR times, can be found on Spandauer Straße. The forum is home to a larger-than-life sculpture of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founding fathers of scientific socialism. The current monument was dedicated on 4 April 1986.
Due to the reconstruction of U-Bahn-line U5 to the Brandenburg Gate, the monument was moved in 2010 to a green space near the Karl-Liebknecht-Brücke. In their new home, the two figures now face west instead of the east.
Spandauer Straße, Berlin-Mitte
Karl-Marx-Allee is a one-of-a-kind outdoor museum of the architecture of socialist realism. Built from 1952–60 by the architect team of Hartmann, Henselmann, Hopp, Leucht, Paulick and Souradny, this street was the main parade route in the former East Germany.
Karl-Marx-Allee, Berlin-Friedrichshain, Berlin-Mitte
GDR Watchtower at Potsdamer Platz
The so-called Panoramic Observation Tower was used at this location by East German border patrols and the Stasi before the fall of the Wall. The tower was used to conduct surveillance of the border strip and the area around the East German House of Ministries. The massive, crenelated type BT6 watchtower was built in 1966. By the end of the GDR era, more than 200 of these towers surrounded West Berlin. The tower was staffed around the clock by two border guards. Today, the watchtower is the only one of its kind still standing, In 2001, it became a listed building. Appointments can be made for 3-4 persons to climb the tower.
Erna-Berger-Straße (at Leipziger Platz), 10117 Berlin