David Whitley paddles his way along the often-forgotten water divide that once made up part of the Berlin Wall
The River Spree acts as a barometer for what’s happening to Berlin. Every time I visit, the buildings alongside it look shinier, newer and more futuristic. Expensive-looking new houses have boats outside, media companies have moved into purpose-built offices and the graffiti-strewn, semi-ruined squats are slowly giving way as the years pass.
A huge aluminum art installation — dubbed Molecule Man — rises proudly from the water, as a symbol of the new Berlin. But take a quick left down the Landwehrkanal, and it quickly becomes about the past again. This section of the canal divides the districts of Kreuzberg — formerly in West Berlin — and Treptow, which was in the East.
Canoeing along it serves to change perceptions of what the Berlin Wall was. The popular image — a single wall dividing the democratic west and communist east — is surprisingly far from the truth.
Elsewhere in the city, particularly along Bernauer Strasse, this is clearly shown to be an oversimplification. In reality, there were two walls — one built roughly along the boundary of east and west, and another built a little further inside the eastern sector. The East German authorities didn’t want people getting to the actual border, so a ‘death strip’ was created between the two walls. Get over the first wall, and into it, and you’d have either dogs or machine guns set on you. But in key places, this set up was never going to work.
One of them was underground, where a complex metro system had already been established before the division of the city. Although there were rare outbreaks of pragmatism — trains running through the eastern segment between two western districts were allowed through as long as they didn’t stop — many tunnels and station entrances were simply barricaded .
The other unconventional frontier was the water. The technical boundary between Treptow and Kreuzberg was the bank on the Kreuzberg side. Obviously, it wasn’t possible for the East German authorities to build a wall there, so a wall was built around the park on the eastern bank, and the Landwehrkanal effectively became the death strip.
Between 1961 and 1989, entering by canoe would be a fairly certain way of getting shot. Now it’s a curiosity; paddling along the Berlin Wall puts the Cold War city into a whole new perspective.
It was only once on the western bank that potential escapees were safe, but the open water made for a tempting escape path. Paddling along, Backstage Tourism’s guide tells the tragic story of two children who swam for the shore. They were shot by guards in the towers who, in the darkness, had no way of knowing how old the victims were.
Now, though, two venues on either side tell the tale of what’s happened in Berlin. We pull our canoes over in a traditional riverside beer garden on the western shore. It’s relaxed and feels like an idyllic time warp. On the eastern side, however, is an ugly tower. It is, apparently, a popular venue for DJs playing large-scale raves. The physical barrier may have gone, but the barrier in attitude still stands.