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Insights & Trends 7 min read

History of the Berlin Wall through maps

History of the Berlin Wall through maps

All maps are to some extent political, and rarely more so than in divided Berlin. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, C.J. Schüler looks at the ways map-makers responded to the partition of the city – and to the rapid changes that have occurred since the Wall came down.

After the Second World War, Germany was split into four zones of occupation: American, British, French and Russian. Berlin, which lay deep within the Russian sector, was similarly divided. At first, Berliners were permitted to move freely between sectors, but by 1960 around a thousand East Berliners a day were voting with their feet by moving to the West.

On 13 August 1961, the East German government surrounded the Western sectors of Berlin with barbed wire, cutting them off from the outside world until 1989. Across the city centre, this was later reinforced by the notorious concrete wall. This ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, as it was called in the East, was not of course intended to keep ‘fascists’ out, but to keep the good citizens of the workers’ state in.

A hole in the map


The division of the city presented map-makers on both sides of the Wall with a dilemma: its practical transport implications meant that it could not be ignored – but neither side wanted to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other. An East German map produced in 1960 labelled the eastern and western halves of the city ‘Democratic Berlin’ and ‘West Berlin: The area of the occupation regime of the United States, Great Britain and France’ respectively. Others reduced ‘Westberlin’ to an outlying suburb of ‘Berlin, Capital of the German Democratic Republic’. This one, dating from 1988, simply shows West Berlin as a gaping hole.

This West German map, on the other hand, emphasises the division by representing the Wall pictorially as a harsh red-brick barrier. The map dates from 1961, at which time the barrier actually consisted of barbed wire only.

Almost all the transport links between the two halves of the city were severed. But two U-Bahn lines went under the Wall, connecting different parts of West Berlin via the Mitte (centre) in East Berlin. The 11 eastern stations they passed through were abandoned. Western trains would not stop there, but slowed down, allowing passengers an eerie glimpse of these dusty Geisterbahnhöfe (ghost stations) with their peeling, long outdated advertisements.

Rail passengers could cross at only one station, Friedrichstrasse. In 1962 the East German authorities set up a steel and glass checkpoint there. Riddled with surveillance equipment and a maze of tunnels and walkways to prevent Easterners and Westerners from coming into contact, it soon became known as the Tränenpalast, or ‘Palace of Tears’. (It is now a memorial exhibition centre.)



This East German map of the Berlin rail network (above) uses a cunning ploy to obscure the division of the city: an inset of the Potsdam area is superimposed on top of West Berlin, with its rail connections to East Berlin shown by arrows, foreshortening the distance and almost obliterating the hated capitalist enclave.


1963 West German Berlin underground plan. The Wall is shown in grey, and the lines beyond it are shown more faintly.


West Berlin transport maps, in contrast, sought to downplay the division of the city by showing the lines to the east of the Wall as if they were part of one continuous network; just the discreet label “only accessible by trains of the BVG East and DR” indicated that this part of the system was off-limits to Westerners

On 9 November 1989, after a mass exodus of its citizens via neighbouring Communist countries that had already relaxed their draconian controls, the East German regime finally capitulated to public pressure and opened the border. Crowds of East Berliners climbed over the Wall to celebrate with their counterparts on the other side. Less than a year later, on 3 October 1990, the two halves of Germany – and Berlin – were officially reunified.

No end to map-making

The removal of the Wall presented map-makers with a new set of challenges. Roads connecting the two parts of the city were opened once more, and the ‘ghost stations’ sprang back to life as rail links were re-established.

Then there was the matter of place names. Many streets – and even whole towns – in East Germany had been renamed after communist heroes. The Saxon city of Chemnitz, called Karl-Marx-Stadt since 1953, now reverted to its original name. The Berlin Senate set up an independent commission to review the issue. Between 1990 and 1994, more than 80 streets were renamed. Leninallee became Landsberger Allee; Wilhelm Pieck Strasse, renamed in honour of the GDR’s first president, reverted to its old name, Torstrasse; Otto Grotewohl Strasse, after the East German prime minister, went back to being Wilhelm Strasse; but Rosa Luxemburg Strasse and Karl Liebknecht Strasse, commemorating the revolutionaries murdered by right-wingers in 1919, kept their names.

Once Berlin became the capital of a unified Germany and the Federal government moved there from Bonn, whole districts were re-shaped in a frenzy of redevelopment. The ‘dead zone’ around the wall, which had been cleared of buildings, was rebuilt. Potsdamer Platz, a no-man’s land for four decades after its devastation in the Second World War, was sold to developers and became a glittering commercial hub of sleek buildings by prestigious architects such as Renzo Piano, Hans Kollhoff and Richard Rogers. The adjoining Leipziger Platz was rebuilt to its original octagonal plan.

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Elsewhere, modernist squares and high-rise complexes built on ‘socialist’ principles by the East German authorities were swept away, and the former street plan restored.

If the ideological pressures facing cartographers of the German capital are less overt today, the pace of change on the ground is so dizzying that printed maps are out of date almost as soon as they are issued, and only online digital resources can keep up.

CJ Schuler

CJ Schuler

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