A Tour of Cold War Berlin on a Shoestring Budget
January 1, 1970
A Guide to Berlin’s Free-Entry Cold War Sites
Berlin lay at the very centre of the Cold War. As Europe began to rebuild following the devastation of the Second World War, Berlin was cleaved in two. Firmly in the socialist camp was the German Democratic Republic, a new state eager to reorganise East Berlin’s urban landscape, to modernise the socialist city centre, and to create monumental architecture that embodied the promise of a communist society.
Today, Berlin is a very different place. The Wall has long since been torn down, and the hallmarks of Western Capitalism linger over almost all the public spaces in the city. But if you look hard enough, you can still find many of the GDR’s monuments to socialism in the former East, spaces and structures that will be of great interest to tourists and Cold War history buffs alike.
This shoestring guide to Berlin’s Cold War sites highlights some of the most popular and in most cases, free of cost, buildings, public squares, and monuments that evoke the spirit of the GDR, and paint a compelling picture of a once divided city. All you’ll need is a public transport ticket, and a good pair of walking shoes.
Start at Socialist Alexanderplatz
The best place to start any Cold War tour of Berlin is Alexanderplatz, which was extensively redeveloped by the German Democratic Republic’s administration during the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the numerous changes that have taken place in the city following German reunification in 1990, Berlin’s otherwise vanishing socialist ideals and urban planning methods are still very much on display at the ‘Alex’.
Alexanderplatz is one of Berlin’s largest transport hubs, with its own S-Bahn, U-Bahn stations and tram stops. As soon as you enter the vast public square you’ll notice the 365 metre high ‘Fernsehturm Berlin’ or television tower in English. Built during the GDR’s heyday in the 1960s, the tower quickly became symbolic for both the East German regime and the city itself, easily visible throughout most of the city.
Originally designed to give off a (socialist) red glow, to evidence the technological advancements made by the East, the sphere’s metal plates give off a golden hue, and incorporate a visitor platform, bar, and restaurant. Whilst entry to the top of the Fernsehturm does cost money, there’s nothing stopping you from observing the structure from ground level.
After stopping to see the Fernsehturm, backtrack to the centre of Alexanderplatz to view the Galeria Kaufhof, which was formally the Zentrum Department Store, and the GDR’s version of the KaDeWe. Outside of the Galeria Kaufhof building lies The Fountain of International Friendship, which was erected in 1971, and the ‘Weltzeituhr’ World Clock; the two most well-known meeting points in East Berlin up until 1989.
If you’re interested in socialist realist art – or big communist murals that photograph well for Instagram, head towards The Teacher’s House and Congress Hall. The former, completed in 1964, features a stunning 127-metre-long wall frieze made up of over 800,000 glass stones illustrating idealised scenes from daily life in the GDR. Similarly, The House of Travelling, constructed in 1971 in the north-eastern corner of the Alex, houses a large copper relief decorated with pictures of cosmonauts and the space race.
Check out the Socialist Architecture at Karl-Marx-Allee
Outside of Alexanderplatz, the best preserved architectural traces of the GDR are at Karl-Marx-Allee, the infamous socialist boulevard constructed after the Second World War, to house loyal GDR workers and a collection of cafés, shops, and recreational facilities. Formally known as Stalinalle, the street is known for its ornamental, almost wedding cake like socialist classical architecture, wide roads, and long history.
Best accessed via the Frankfurter Tor U-Bahn station on the U5, Karl-Marx-Allee has been popular with both Berliners and tourists since the 1950s. For Cold War history buffs, this site is worth visiting for its Soviet-style architecture – a unique combination of traditional Berlin motifs and socialist realism, its legacy as the GDR’s prime shopping district, and its former use for the GDR’s annual May Day parades.
If you’re looking for a GDR-esque experience, stop at the inventively named ‘Coffee und Tea’ café, close to Frankfurter Tor U-Bahn station. The small café has a traditional GDR-era interior, complete with wooden wall panels and 60s furniture, and a selection of drinks and snacks.
Don’t Miss the Remnants of the Berlin Wall
After walking a little way along Karl-Marx-Allee, head to a tram stop to catch the M10 (in the direction of the S + U Warschauer Strasse) to see the East Side Gallery. You can easily travel by foot from Warschauer Strasse station, in the direction of the River Spree, to visit the open air gallery, which is one of the largest collections of outdoor art pieces in Europe.
Doubling as a gallery and a historical site, the East Side Gallery is literally painted on top of one of the longest surviving sections of the Berlin Wall. It’s a testament to Germany’s turbulent twentieth century history, and a site of remembrance for the 136 people who died attempting to cross the border between East and West. The Gallery is perhaps best known for the 1990 graffiti painting of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev engaging in the ‘socialist fraternal kiss’, which is still visible today.
If you’d like to avoid the crowds with cameras, the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse is an alternative option, especially for those interested in the security measures that were put in place to prevent East Germans from reaching the Western side of the city. The open air Memorial is located along the border strip, and consists of the Monument in Memory of the Divided City, the Monument to the Victims of Communist Tyranny, and the Window of Remembrance. Head to Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station to see the Border Stations and Ghost Stations in Divided Berlin Exhibition, and then walk down Bernauer Strasse to learn more about the Berlin Wall.
Finish Your Tour at The Palace of Tears
Finish your Cold War tour of Berlin at the ‘Tränenpalast’, or the Palace of Tears, one of Berlin’s best (free entry) Cold war themed museums. Taking its name from the outpouring of emotion that East German’s displayed when saying goodbye to visitors from the West, the small museum is housed inside a former checkpoint outside of S + U Friedrichstrasse Station. From the East Side Gallery, travel on the S5, S7, or S75 directly to Friedrichstrasse Station, to get to the Tränenpalast.
The collection of permanent exhibitions inside the Tränenpalast explain the checkpoint process which enabled West Germans to visit Eastern Berlin for short periods of time, and how the division, which prohibited normalised contacts between friends and family on the two sides, influenced the lives of ordinary people. Visitors can look at a small collection of GDR-era artefacts, documents, photographs, as well as watch video recordings which give a moving overview of the reunification process.
Of course if you have a little more time, and a little more spare cash, there are plenty of things you can see and do in Berlin to learn more about the city’s history. Why not checkout the paid-entry GDR Museum, the Stasi Museum, or the recently opened Spy Museum?