The Wall Museum + the Berliner Unterwelten Tour

by Margalit Goldberg

Photo Credit: Margalit Goldberg

I think I romanticize the Cold War too much. Or maybe the right word is not “romanticize,” but the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. and podcasts about ridiculous CIA covert operations have led me to believe the Cold War was mostly just for show—a ridiculous period when tremendous amounts of money and manpower were put into ideas and tactics that, thankfully, never came to fruition. However, the stories I’m forgetting are the ones of bloody proxy wars, such as in Vietnam, and lives that were upended by the construction of the Berlin Wall. Not to mention the fear of total annihilation from an atom bomb that gripped the general population. I need to readjust my perspective and remember the stories of how everyday citizens were affected, not just secret agents or diplomats, and I sought to do that during our session on Thursday.

We began our day by going to The Wall Museum, which is connected to the East Side Gallery. A chaotic blur of multimedia led us through a series of rooms providing a mix of personal narrative and overviews of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. After World War II (WWII), Germany was divided and occupied by each of the victors. The West was divided into three parts occupied by France, Britain, and the United States, and the East was occupied by the Soviet Union. However, Berlin—situated squarely in the East of Germany—created an issue. So, it was decided that, like the whole of Germany, Berlin would be split into East and West. In 1946, the Cold War began, but it wasn’t until 1961 that tensions had escalated enough for the Berlin Wall to be built. The German Democratic Republic or GDR (East Germany) had lost a significant amount of its population from emigration to the West and wanted to prevent additional losses. Nikita Khrushchev advised East Germany to inhibit access between the two sides of the city and on August 12, 1961, Walter Ulbricht, First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, enabled the beginning of construction of the Berlin Wall. The wall was not only a physical barrier between East and West but a symbolic “Iron Curtain” representing the ideological split between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Whenever a wall is built or a border is created, people will cross it by any means necessary. People jumped out of apartment windows, stole trains to transport citizens, dug perilous tunnels, and swam across canals. Yet, the insidious nature of the Berlin Wall was that each time it was breached, the GDR would figure out how it happened and then close that loophole. Each time someone crossed through to the West, they inadvertently made it harder for the next person who attempted.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Between 1961 and 1989, 138 people died attempting to cross the Wall. What shocked me the most were the deaths that occurred between the Osthafen docklands and Oberbaum|Schilling Bridge over the Spree River. There were 18 fatalities in that border zone, eleven of them Eastern refugees. The other seven were West Berliners who fell into the river and drowned. They were unable to be helped by West Berlin police or fire service because the Spree was Eastern territory. By the time GDR services were contacted, it was often too late, and the victim had drowned. Eventually, an agreement between the East and West was made for accidents and emergencies along the river. As I read this information, placed on a relatively inconspicuous placard on the balcony overlooking the Spree, I was saliently reminded of all the victims of governments that think impermeable and protected borders are an effective solution—all of those who are hurt by borders without even trying to cross them.

The Wall Museum, not surprisingly, solely presented a Western German perspective of the events that led to the construction and then eventual deconstruction of the Wall. I wish the museum had focused on what daily life was like on either side of the Wall, but instead, it limited the personal narratives to stories of escape from Eastern Germany. How did families that were split stay in contact? What did dissidence look like in Eastern Germany under Communist rule? This also makes me wonder if former East Germans feel as if the narrative of the lives they lived is inaccurate or doesn’t provide the complexities they wish it did.

Later that evening, I ended up seeing a German comedy with a group of study abroad students from the college my sister attends. The film, Stasi Komodie (A Stasi Comedy), was directed by Leander Haußmann and followed the life of a young boy living in East Berlin who is recruited to be a Stasi agent and spy on a counterculture movement in Prenzlauer Berg. He ends up becoming an underground poet and living a double life. The movie poked fun at the ridiculousness of many Stasi covert missions, but also lent complexity to the lives of East Berliners, especially those involved in dissident movements. The film also included quite a bit of ostalgie, nostalgia for specific aspects of life in East Germany. The movie used a motif of the specific cheery-looking crosswalk man that was specific to East Germany but remained after reunification upon request of the people. This was an interesting look into how life in East Berlin is being portrayed with humor thirty years after reunification.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Union and was a big proponent of democratic reforms and Glasnost, permitting greater openness and discussion of political and social issues. By 1989, the Cold War was beginning to thaw and many countries in the Eastern Bloc were on the verge of revolutions. On November 9, the Berlin Communist Party announced at midnight it would allow people to freely cross the border. The Wall had fallen. As the museum recounted the joyous events and celebrations that subsequently occurred, I found myself feeling nostalgic for an event I wasn’t even alive for. How cool would it have been to take a hammer to the wall or listen to Pink Floyd perform as the hope of reunification intoxicated citizens?

Yet, I find myself also wondering if East Berliners were aware that their political and social structure was going to be completely upended once again. The museum painted the narrative that the wall fell, and everything was reunified and perfect. From a historical perspective, we can see that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the beginning of the end of many state supports in East Germany. In “Women and East Germany Today” by louise k. davidson, I was delighted to read about all the reproductive freedom and support for having children that women had in the GDR: “Women have long enjoyed the freedom to make informed decisions about birth control without worrying about its affordability of availability.” Still, I can only imagine the experiences of a difficult reunification for further marginalized people, stories not often told in the “mainstream.” In “Feminism and Post-Communism,” Nanette Funk explains that “in virtually all post-communist countries there is a tendency towards a repositioning of women away from the workplace and into the family,” citing high unemployment rates for women in the former GDR and the Soviet Union and decreased access to abortion and family planning resources.

Both davidson and Funk take a transnational approach to what feminist work should focus on in reunified Germany. They argue that not only did former GDR women have less support for reproductive labor after reunification, but that they also had different understandings of feminism and ideas about the goals of a women’s movement. This has led me to have a deeper understanding of the social and cultural implications of the division of Germany. I think seeing transnational thinking within a single country can help us to understand and extrapolate that different groups have radically different experiences that lead to their understanding of feminism. If people are to work across those divides, they must be willing to understand the other’s background.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The second part of our session was the “East-West Conflict in the Underground” tour with Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworlds). As we made our way down two flights of stairs into a bunker in West Berlin, I was afraid our tour would be led by some doomsday prepper dead-set on convincing us of the importance of bunker preparation. On the contrary, we had a wonderful guide, Elliot, who was not only extremely knowledgeable about the history but provided a critical perspective on the Cold War and the absurdity of the arms race and mutually assured destruction.

We began by touring a bunker that had been updated in the 80s to be a fallout shelter but had been used over 300 times as a bomb shelter during WWII. Despite believing Berlin wouldn’t have been bombed in the Cold War due to both sides of the conflict having citizens in the area, I was assured by Elliot that the city would have been sacrificed and that there were plans that could have been used to stage an attack if necessary. If bombed, the city of 3 million only had 28,000 spots in bunkers. As the guide described how ill-prepared the bunker was to handle the fallout and human survival, it became clearer to me that an attempt to survive an atomic bomb is futile, to say the least. As we sat under a direct replica of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that was used on Hiroshima, I struggled to comprehend how a 10 x 2.5 ft. piece of metal could generate 16,000 tons of TNT power and murder 139,000 innocent people. And how could someone decide it was necessary to hold that much power let alone detonate it? This was a stark reminder of how close the world once was to annihilation and that we still have this amount of power, more even.

Elliot ended the tour by telling us he believed good diplomacy ended the Cold War and prevented the detonation of atomic bombs. He gave the example of Stanislav Petrov, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, who judged a U.S. missile launch warning as a false alarm and made the decision not to launch a retaliation, thus preventing nuclear war. Another example was the Soviet border soldiers who were ordered to fire one warning shot and then to shoot to kill. Yet, many soldiers refused to shoot to kill, disobeying orders and therefore saving lives. I can’t believe I’m saying this but, this tour gave me some semblance of hope, hearing stories of those who resisted violence and knowing I’ve never in my life genuinely had to think about using a bunker. Maybe our world is moving in the right direction.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The Cold War was fundamentally an ideological conflict between capitalism and communism that affected almost every part of the world. The demarcation of Germany and subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall created division in an already fractured country. In 1945, two nations were created in a country that had not long ago rallied for an idea of nationhood far from what the East and West provided. Divides were not healed before more divides were created. Reunification came at last in 1990, but the future also contained struggles for women, racial minorities, and the unemployed that we must not forget. As Ika Hügel-Marshall poignantly writes in “Crossing Borders, Overcoming Boundaries,” “As we can see in Berlin, the society around me has a long way to go before it recognizes that crossing borders does not mean overcoming boundaries, if experience is limited to national borders.”

Margalit Goldberg is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from Denver, Colorado. She is interested in pursuing History-Philosophy and Feminist and Gender Studies although she has still not declared a major. Described by a friend as “a messy bookcase of a person”, she loves to learn and explore ways of knowing. She is especially excited to be in Berlin connecting the stories of marginalized people to the complex history of the city. When she isn’t reading for class or deep in a Wikipedia rabbit hole, you can find Margalit climbing and setting at the campus gym, having dinner parties with friends, and engaging in non-violent activism with the Bijou Community in Colorado Springs.

The 2022 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Click here to view a slideshow of pictures, and follow @FemGeniuses and|or @AudresFootsteps on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos.

Multimedia Podcast Index:

The RomaniPhen Feminist Archive + the Romanja Power Walking Tour with Estera Iordan” by Christiana García-Soberanez
A Conversation with Jasmin Eding” by Eliza Strong
Jewish History & Culture Walking Tour + Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt with Adam Schonfeld” by Bridget Hanley
BlackEurope: The Beginnings of Black Self-Organization in Europe” by Erin Huggins
German Colonialism Walking Tour w/ Josephine Apraku + the Neues Museum” by Amalia Lopez
A Conversation with Sharon Dodua Otoo” by Latra Demaçi
The Wall Museum + the Berliner Unterwelten Tour” by Margalit Goldberg
Blackness in America and Europe: Where the Grey Space Exists” by Monica Carpenter
A Conversation with Dana Maria Asbury, Mona El Omari, and Iris Rajanayagam” by Vicente Blas-Taijeron
Graffiti & Street Art Walking Tour + the Urban Nation Museum” by Alexis Cornachio
A Conversation with Judy Lynne Fisher” by River Clarke
Queer Berlin Walking Tour w/ Mal Pool + the Schwules*Museum” by Riley Hester
A Street Art Workshop with Berlin Massive” by Judy Gonzalez

To read and|or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous #FemGeniusesinBerlin, click here

Some Final Thoughts on the Block 4 2017 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

Kai (Dylan)

Photo Credit: Dylan Compton

This podcast—led and produced by Kai Mesman-Hallman—provides some final reflections on the Block 4 2017 section of Hidden Spaces, Hidden Narratives: Intersectionality Studies in Berlin with Professor Heidi R. Lewis. Throughout the block, the #FemGeniusesinBerlin have taken walking tours, visited museums and cultural centers, and met with activists and artists in the city to conduct situated examinations of how the identities of marginalized people and communities in Germany (especially in Berlin)—such as Black Germans, Turkish Germans, migrants, refugees, victims of Neo-Nazi terrorism and police brutality, and LGBTQI communities—are constructed, particularly how these constructions are dependent on racism, heterosexism, colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. Additionally, we examined how these communities resist, reject, revise, and reproduce these narratives as they construct their own subjectivities.

Kai is a junior at Colorado College majoring in Psychology, and is originally from San Diego, CA. She is especially interested in consciousness and the ways our brains’ processing and collecting information can shape our beliefs and thoughts. She spends her free time with her dog and watching conspiracy theory videos.

Joining Kai in her discussion are Uma Scharf—a Baltimore, MD native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Neuroscience, and Drew Ceglinski—a Bath, ME native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Geology.


Block 4 2017 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see even more pictures and videos!

Jewish History & Culture Walking Tour” by Maggie Mehlman
Das Verbogene Museum” by Anna Balaguer
Interkulturelles Frauenzentrum S.U.S.I.” by Bridget O’Neill
Women’s Perspective Walking Tour” by Caroline Olin
Jüdisches Museum Berlin” by Britta Lam
Jewish AntiFa Berlin” by Dylan Compton
Berliner Unterwelten” by Atiya Harvey
BlackBox Cold War Exhibition” by Karl Hirt
Generation ADEFRA” by Maya Littlejohn
Queer Berlin Walking Tour” by Judy Fisher
Queer City: Stories from São Paulo” by D. Adams
A Right to Mourn; A Right to Monument” by Maddie Sorensen
The Spirit of 1968 Walking Tour” by Anabel Simotas
Reframing Worlds: Mobilität und Gender aus Postkolonial Feministischer Perspektive” by Elsa Godtfredsen
Queer@School” by Drew Ceglinski
RomaniPhen: Rromnja Archiv” by Kendall Stoetzer
Reflections on the Asian Diaspora in Germany” by Uma Scharf
Street Art Workshop & Tour” by Wynter Scott

To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here

Berlin Unterwelten


Photo Credit: Professor Heidi R. Lewis

This podcast—led and produced by Atiya Harvey—examines our “Subways and Bunkers in the Cold War” tour with Berliner Unterwelten. According to the organization, this tour “follows the traces of the Cold War in the underground. In West Berlin, civil defence shelters were reactivated or newly built in preparation for a possible nuclear war. Particularly after the building of the Berlin Wall, the West German government and the West Berlin senate invested millions in these projects. Some of these were built as ‘multi-purpose structures’ and are currently used as underground stations, parking garages and storage facilities. By explaining the practical preparations made to help people survive, this tour attempts to make the realities and horrors of such conflict easy to comprehend.”


Photo Credit: Atiya Harvey

Atiya a senior Feminist & Gender Studies major from Washington, DC. She is taking this class in Berlin, because she enjoys learning about world history. She is a blunt, empathetic, and outdoorsy person who stands up for social and environmental issues.


Photo Credit: Atiya Harvey

Joining Atiya in her discussion are Karl Hirt—a sophomore at Colorado College and New York native who hopes to either double major in German and Economics or International Political Economy, and Maddie Sorensen—a junior at Colorado College hailing from Chicago and majoring in Organismal Biology and Ecology.

NOTE: The photo credit for the featured image also belongs to Atiya Harvey.


“Berlin from Below: Dark Worlds”

By Melissa L. Barnes

UnterweltenThis evening, we attended a tour entitled “Berlin from Below: Dark Worlds.” Berliner Unterwelten offers five tours, and “Dark Worlds” showcases an underground museum of a civilian air raid shelter under a modern-day train station. We were not allowed to take pictures during the tour, because the tour company does not own the copyrights for the artifacts and does not own the complete rights to the air raid shelter. The tour company also does not receive government funding, so they rely solely on private funding, donations, and guided tour income.

This particular shelter was completed in 1942, and became a museum in 1999. The shelter has four levels, with a total of forty-eight rooms. Our tour guide also talked with us about the difference between civilian air raid shelters and bunkers. Bunkers were solely for military/defense use and were expensive to construct, because they use more steel—thicker walls and roofs—than civilian shelters and have a more chess board-like, square architecture. Generally, bunkers held about 200 people, while the civilian shelter we were in was designed to hold 1,300 people. Bunkers were designed to look like houses or simple buildings in order to distract and confuse countries that were attacking Germany from the air. Germany was not allowed to have an air force due to the Treaty of Versailles, so this was a well-known weakness utilized by the opposition.

Before 1941, there were no civilian air raid shelters, because the Nazi regime did not want to convey that there was any potential harm for civilians to worry about and, secretly, civilians were thought of as collateral damage during wartime. However, in 1941, it was clear that Berlin would be under continuous attack, and German citizens would be less cooperative if they were not given a “safe space” during the air raids. Before the civilian air raid shelters were constructed, the Nazi regime tested many different architectural designs: first with animals, then with people imprisoned in concentration camps. To this day, no one knows how many trials the Nazis completed before they were satisfied with the design of the air raid shelters.

The walls of the shelters were different lengths, each floor was built at a slope, and every door is facing a wall. If a bomb were dropped into the shelter the shockwaves of the explosion would destroy the whole shelter – whatever was left after the initial destruction of the bomb. The shelter was built in such a way, then, that the shockwave would not reach people two rooms away from the epicenter. Additionally, if any chemical weapons were dropped into the civilian shelter, the toxic gas used was usually heavier than air, so the chemical would float down into the lower areas of the shelter, saving the people in the higher levels. This especially illustrates Hitler’s belief that civilians are collateral damage.

BunkerIn each room, there is a room number and occupancy limit painted on a wall. However, when an air attack happened, civilians obviously did not care about the occupancy limit and tried to get into the shelter no matter what. The shelter is very spacious and each room looked like it could definitely hold more than the limit; but, ventilation for fresh air was only installed in nine of the forty-eight rooms. Hence, many people died from suffocation, because each room was sealed with thick doors. So, if there were too many people than the Nazi’s calculated air for, then the air would not reach everyone. At the end of the air raid, firefighters and police officers were sure to tell surviving civilians, “Remember, the Fürher has just saved you!”

Once the war was over, most men were dead, injured, elderly, or too young, so the women were expected to rebuild entire cities by hand. During this time period, unlike times before and during the war, women were not considered too weak to do a man’s job, but were expected to do so in order to provide for their children. They had to use their imaginations to build things from the remains of the war. For instance, they used bomb shells to make stoves, soldiers’ helmets to make pots and drainers/strainers for cooking, and rubber from tires to make shoes and insulation during harsh winters.

Speaking of the “end” of the war, forensic pathologists estimate that the war will not truly be over until all human remains are found and identified. Along these lines, there are still 3,000 live bombs within Germany’s soil that could be accidentally detonated. The detonators on the bombs have a life of 100 years, so they will remain live for about 30 more years. For these reasons, the government requires that police and forensic specialists examine all sites where new buildings will be constructed in order to ensure that no live bombs are near the area. We learned how important this is when our guide discussed the case of September 15, 1994, when a construction worker detonated an underground WWII bomb. This accident left 3 people dead and 17 people injured.

Throughout this tour, I was trying to imagine myself as a civilian whose daily routine included a trip to an air raid shelter about four times a day. This was challenging, because I also thought about some civilians’ cooperation and support of the war, racism, and genocide. Given the content of our course, I also wondered about the role of Black women after the war, especially whether or not they were expected to perform the same duties as other women—what happened to them during these times? We have learned during our seminars throughout this course that some, but by no means all, Black people were spared from murder and/or concentration camps. If Black people were still present in Germany, were they allowed to enter the civilian air raid shelters? Throughout this class, we have also discussed the importance of multiple perspectives of history, and I feel that popular narratives of the WWII period are dominated by the White civilian perspective, even if we are talking about the victims of WWII.


Melissa IIIThis fall, Melissa will be starting her final year as a student at Colorado College, double-majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and Psychology. This fall, she is planning to apply to Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology.