Visiting Berlin 50 Years Ago

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  • Author: Daryna Tsioupine

There are not many cities that are as historically self-conscious as Berlin. This capital has over 150 museums, and the central complex on Museum Island is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

A period of reinvention, through drastic urban development, began after the fall of the Wall. Although the city successfully re-branded itself as a cool and artsy cultural centre, tourism in former East Germany is often categorised as ‘memory tourism’, a branch that commodifies emotions and nostalgia – or Ostalgia. Often, the goal is to simulate the existence of an imagined home, a place of consumption and entertainment rather than memory. A quintessential example of Berlin’s heritage tourism is the Checkpoint Charlie memoryscape that surrounds the border crossing.

It was not always so easy to enjoy a holiday in Berlin. While the Wall stood, tourism to East Berlin was restricted and controlled by the communist government of the German Democratic Republic. The East German state tourist organisation had a selection of package tours to choose from, through officially approved travel agents. Although you could travel independently, your itinerary would be arranged by the state tourist organisation. A visa was also required to cross the border to East Germany.

In East Germany, there was approximately one informer per every 6.5 citizens – thus, tourists were also watched carefully during their stay, and any GDR citizen interacting with them also came under greater scrutiny. Anyone staying overnight was also required to register with the Volkspolizei. Similarly, Stasi bases were set up within Russia to monitor East German tourists (until 1972, younger citizens were not even allowed to visit non-Eastern Bloc countries.)

Unsurprisingly, customs rules for Western tourists were rather stringent.  Regulations forbade VHS tapes from entering East Germany. A significant number of pop CDs and vinyls, as well as Western magazines, were confiscated upon entry. Price limits on incoming valuables were not enforced according to their original value, but by how much they could be sold for within the GDR.  Another phenomenon tourists may have encountered was that tipping was officially abolished by communist governments as it was seen as perpetuating bourgeois notions of class (however, unofficially this idea may not have been widely accepted).

International visitors to East Germany were essentially limited to staying in a state-run 'Interhotel.' These were not, as many assumed, dilapidated sad places. The hotels often surpassed international standards. 

For tourists vacationing in East Berlin, the top sights were ones that you can still visit today. East Berlin was redesigned following WWII as a modern socialist capital centred around Alexanderplatz. The TV tower, Palast der Republik, and Brandenburg Gate were popular attractions that remain iconic in Berlin.

As a tourist of the present-day, there are infinite things to experience that Cold War era Berliners could not. Potsdamerplatz, the heart of Berlin, was once divided by the wall. Now tourists flock to the square to visit the Panoramapunkt, to ride the fastest elevator in Europe and achieve a birds-eye view of the reunited city and spot the iconic landmarks of both East and West. Another viewpoint is Oberbaumbrücke, a pedestrian bridge that was once a border crossing, but now serves to unite the city.

The East Side Gallery is a fantastic way to experience the Wall. The imposing communist-era slabs have been appropriated to create an open air gallery to which artists from across the globe have contributed their murals to. But if you crave some original Soviet architecture you can still see the brutalist constructions of East Berlin on Karl-Marx-Allee.

The extremely popular DDR museum attempts to revive the everyday life in East Berlin through interactive exhibitions, and the German-Russian Museum also provides an interesting history of the two countries intertwined histories.

Consider journeying to the grand architectural gems that are the Royal Prussian Palaces. The Cecilienhof Palace is particularly pertinent because, in the summer of 1945, it played host to the summit meeting of World War II’s victors. The Potsdam Conference was a pivotal moment of the 20th century, and symbolises the beginning of the Cold War, and where Berlin’s post-war journey began.

Duncan Light (2000) Gazing on communism: Heritage tourism and postcommunist identities in Germany, Hungary and Romania, Tourism Geographies, 2:2, 157-176.

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