Skip to main content

Notebook Lifestyle

Life in the death strip

West Berliners gather at the Berlin Wall in August 1961 while an East German soldier patrols on the other side. (Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images )

Associated Press

A West Berlin guard stands in front of the Berlin Wall as East Berlin workmen add blocks in 1961.

Bettmann/Corbis/AP

West Berliners wave to friends and relatives on the East Berlin side at Bernauer Strasse.

Associated Press

A man walks along the West Berlin side of the wall in 1962.

Associated Press

East German border guards carry away a man they shot who had tried to flee to the West.

Chris Hoffmann/DPA/Landov

The destruction of the Church of Reconciliation.

Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

Germans celebrate with sparklers after the wall came down in 1989.

Lifestyle

Life in the death strip

How the church rose and helped take down the Berlin Wall

In 1961, mourners would show up at a graveyard in East Berlin and mysteriously disappear. They opened a gravestone, climbed into the grave, and found new life in West Berlin. The grave led into a tunnel that ran beneath the infamous Berlin Wall into a basement on the West Berlin side of the border.

In fall 1961, roughly two dozen people escaped through the tunnel before a double agent in West Berlin revealed its secret. Other accounts say that a woman left a baby buggy by the grave, tipping off Communist authorities. The tunnel was just one of many strange stories about one of the strangest borders in world history—the Berlin Wall. 

The wall, which split Berlin in half, went up shortly after the border between East and West Berlin closed overnight on Aug. 13, 1961. It didn’t come down until Nov. 9, 1989—25 years ago this fall. 

Nowhere was the border stranger than along Bernauer Strasse, where the concrete division dividing East and West Berlin sliced through the neighborhood. On this street, the Berlin Wall abutted a row of buildings, so that when you stood inside one of them, you were in communist East Berlin—but walk through a door and you stepped into the free democracy of West Berlin. 

Buildings on Bernauer Strasse became escape routes in the early days after the border closed. Videos on YouTube show people dropping from windows into nets held by West Germans below. East Germany acted quickly to brick in the windows and eventually tore down the buildings. 

The wall was an ever-evolving monster, soon becoming two walls—an inner and an outer. Between them was the fittingly named “death strip”—a no man’s land laced with trip wires, dogs, and watchtowers, where guards obeyed shoot-to-kill orders.

The death strip also included a church: The East Germans allowed the ironically named Church of Reconciliation to stand for many years, trapped between the inner and outer walls. Although unused after 1961, it was an embarrassment to East Germany’s Communist leaders: In 1985 they blew up the church and brought it down in a cloud of debris, its large cross landing in a nearby cemetery. The image of the toppling church flashed around the world, becoming an even more powerful symbol.

The Church of Reconciliation signaled the continued existence and influence of the church in East Germany. In fact, the protests that eventually brought down the wall began at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, 100 miles south of Berlin. There in the early 1980s, a handful of people—led by a pastor with the unlikely name of Christian Führer—gathered regularly to pray. 

By 1989, that Monday prayer meeting had blossomed into a protest movement that drew more than 70,000 people on Oct. 9. The Communist Party’s decision not to crush the protest in Leipzig (as Chinese Communists had done in Tiananmen Square earlier in the year) set the stage for the wall to fall a month later.

Today on Bernauer Strasse, officials have preserved a portion of the death strip along with a memorial and a documentation center. A new Chapel of Reconciliation sits on the site of the destroyed church, although the outline of the old church remains visible. The cross that fell from the church is also on display, bent by the fall so that it almost resembles a plowshare, which is strangely fitting because the 1989 rallying cry of protesters in Leipzig was “Swords into Plowshares.”

The small, modern chapel has a compressed earth core. Mixed into this core are pieces of the old church, as if the former church has been absorbed into the new chapel, as a body absorbs bread. The chapel is an architectural communion—an ever-present sign that with Christ, life ultimately triumphs, even where death appears to reign. Even in the death strip. Even in a graveyard. 

—Doug Peterson is the author of The Puzzle People, a Berlin Wall novel