On Sunday morning I arrived at Zoologischer Garten station with a Berlin ABC day ticket in hand, ready to travel west to Wannsee. I could have boarded an S-Bahn train, but instead opted for the faster DB Regio service. This had the bonus of travelling on one of DB’s brill double-decker trains, always a novelty for an Englishman constrained by a restrictive loading gauge.
I had decided to continue with the Berlin Wall theme of my visit. Why did I get off at Wannsee? Because there was something nearby I wanna-see. Do you see?
Wannsee, of course, has some dark associations with the past, but I decided to leave those for another time. Instead, I joined the queue of people outside the station, who were all waiting for the driver of the 316 bus to finish his break and pull up to the bus stop.
Wannsee is right in the southwest corner of Berlin; observing from the bus it felt more like a village than part of a bustling metropolis. The bus took us past the Großer Wannsee lake itself, then along leafy boulevards, past cottages, golf clubs and quaint restaurants. Less than 15 minutes later the stop for my destination, Glienicker Brücke, was announced.
At first glance the bridge is a fairly ordinary looking structure. However the Glienicke Bridge has a historical significance, as it marks the boundary between Berlin and neighbouring Potsdam. During the Cold War, it was on the border between the West Berlin enclave and East Germany. Between 1961 and 1989 it was a fiercely guarded checkpoint, open only to Allied military personnel and foreign diplomats.
The familiar image of the Berlin Wall in popular culture is of the fearsome concrete and barbed wire structure carving an ugly scar through the centre of Berlin. It’s often overlooked that the wall completely encircled West Berlin, and these leafy suburbs were just as affected as the urban centre.
If the bridge looks familiar, it may be because it appeared in the 2015 film Bridge of Spies where it was the scene of a prisoner exchange. Far from being a spy movie cliché, this scene was actually played out for real here on several occasions.
The border fortifications were completely dismantled after reunification, and today there is no trace of the Berlin Wall here. However, a metal plate embedded in the pavement, halfway across the bridge, shows the position of the former border.
On the Potsdam side of the bridge, a sign reads: “Here Germany and Europe were divided until 10th November 1989 at 6pm”. There are similar signs all over Germany at the former border.
Nearby, a small but tasteful memorial sculpture commemorates the victims of the Wall.
These days, the area around the bridge is a peaceful recreational area. Underneath the bridge, sightseeing ferries cruised serenely along the River Havel. Some boats from a nearby rowing club sculled from shore to shore. Dog walkers and picnicking families walked along the riverside footpath. None of that would have been allowed in that dark, grey era of division.
10th November was the 30th anniversary of the Glienicke Bridge reopening to pedestrians, and the structure was receiving a lot of attention. There were plenty of pedestrians milling about on the bridge, much to the annoyance of motorists who tooted their horns at anyone who dared to step into the road for a nanosecond. A couple of TV news vans were parked up, presumably to capture the ceremony that was due to take place later that day.
On the bridge itself, a series of placards had been set up to show the history of the bridge, including the historic moment in 1990 when a Berlin yellow bus crossed the bridge for the first time in decades.
After dark, the bridge would be specially illuminated as an anniversary commemoration. I couldn’t wait around, as I had decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in Potsdam.
As I headed for the tram stop, I mused that, during the course of taking these pictures, I had crossed the bridge back and forth at least half a dozen times. A simple act that would not have been possible three decades earlier. We take our freedoms for granted at our peril.