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Shopping und Sehesnwürdigkeiten am Kurfürstendamm
Alter Kiosk am Kurfürstendamm © visitberlin, Foto: Philip Koschel

Living in a Divided City: West-Berlin

From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall divided the city, with its western part completely surrounded by the Wall. The result was a historical oddity, a city with a special political status that resulted in a very unique way of life. The name alone is problematic, at least in German: officially, it was known as Berlin (West); the East Germans, if they referred to it at all, wrote it as Westberlin; whilst in West Germany, they wrote it with a hyphen in German: West-Berlin. As you can see, even the spelling was a political matter. West Berlin consisted of the present-day districts of Tiergarten, Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf, Reinickendorf, Spandau Steglitz-Zehlendorf, Neukölln, Schöneberg, Tempelhof and Wedding.

Special Political Status: Life under Division and Occupation

Even if West Berlin’s Senate took care of day-to-day business for the partial from 1950, West Berlin retained a special political status until German reunification in 1990 because technically, West Berlin was not a part of any state. Though the city as a whole was initially governed by a Four Power Allied Control Council with a leadership that rotated monthly, the Soviets withdrew from the council as East-West relations deteriorated and began governing their sector independently. The council continued to govern West Berlin, with the same rotating leadership policy, though now only involving France, Great Britain, and the United States. West Berlin was divided into three sectors with the Americans in the south, the French in the north and the British in the west. And the Allies made their presence felt across the city: streets were named, for example, Avenue Charles-de-Gaulle, there were shops and cinemas exclusively for members of the Allied forces (for example at Truman Plaza in Zehlendorf). And in summer, American and French festivals were also celebrated, with typical specialties such as burgers or merguez being served. The special status of the city was also evident by the fact that West Berliners did not carry West German identity cards but instead temporary ID cards with green instead of grey covers. Also, unlike in the Federal Republic, there was no mandatory military service, a fact which made West Berlin a magnet for many conscientious objectors, and no mandatory closing times for bars, which led to a thriving nightlife.

The Wall in the Cityscape

The wall divided the city, cutting across streets and squares. In urban districts such as Kreuzberg, the Wall would run directly on the streets or along rows of houses. The Wall also stood directly behind the Reichstag and then went in an arc around the Brandenburg Gate, which was marooned in the middle of no-man’s land. Waterways such as the River Spree were off limits because they also belonged to the territory of the GDR. As a result, several children drowned in Berlin waters because they could not be saved from the western side; later, special emergency phones were installed. Over the years, the West Berlin learned to live with the Wall, painting it with colourful graffiti and accepting it as just a part of everyday life in a divided city.

“Ich bin ein Berliner:” Life with the Allies

After the currency reform of 1948, Soviet troops sealed off West Berlin in a bid to secure economic and thus political control over all of Berlin. The American and British occupiers then began an airlift of food and coal to secure the survival of West Berlin until the end of the blockade. The West Berliners nicknamed the Allied planes the “Rosinenbomber” (“raisin bombers”), since soldiers would drop sweets with very small parachutes to the ground to the delight of Berlin’s children. On 26 June 1963, almost two years after the Wall was built, American President John F. Kennedy visited the city and held what was to become one of his most famous speeches in front of the Schöneberg Town Hall, where he proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner”. For the Berliners who had felt abandoned by the Allies and the German government (as then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer took days to come to the city after the Wall had been built) these words were a true refreshment. Years later, towards the end of the Cold War, U.S. President Ronald Reagan held a speech at the Brandenburg Gate and famously demanded of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev: ”Tear down this wall”. By this time, however, the city, many of its inhabitants and their relationship with the Americans had changed. Reagan’s visit was greeted with enthusiasm by some, but also by demonstrations and a healthy dose of scepticism.

The islanders don’t want to give up their peaceful existence

For many West Berliners after the blockade and then the construction of the Wall thirteen years later, there was an island mentality, as West Berlin was seen as an island in a red sea of communism and the last bastion of Western values. Typical proof of this special brand of local patriotism was found in the song “Der Insulaner verliert die Ruhe nicht” (“The islanders don’t want to give up their peaceful existence”) on West Berlin radio station RIAS. Part of this defiant persistence was also a conscientious rejection of the offers of the East German government. As a result, during the blockade and later, many refused to make purchases from East Berlin shops. Some people would not even use the S-Bahn, since it was run by the East Berlin government.

Period of Unrest

In the late 60s and 70s, West Berlin was one of the strongholds of the student movement against the rigid structures of post-war society. The Vietnam War led many students to adopt a critical attitude against America which stood in sharp contrast to older West Berliners who tended to see the Allies as friends and protectors. Besides politics, the younger generation questioned the ways of private life and tried new ways. For example, Kommune 1 was founded to try to find new ways of living together. When the Senate wanted to demolish old buildings especially in Kreuzberg to make way for new high-rise buildings and wide boulevards, the houses were occupied to prevent their demolition. There were repeated clashes with the police. Over the years, many of the squatters became owners and began renovating the flats and houses. West Berlin gained notoriety as a drug capital with the 1978 publication of “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (“We Children from Bahnhof Zoo”) by Christiane F. The book, made in 1981 into a film known as “Christiane F.” in English, showed the dark side of drug use, crime and prostitution under the glittering surface of the island of West Berlin.

Artists and the art of living

The artistic life flourished in West Berlin. The bourgeois district of Friedenau was well known as the home of authors such as Günter Grass and Uwe Johnson. Theatres such as the Schaubühne put on experimental pieces and created new approaches to stage productions. Many people moved to West Berlin from towns in the West that they found to be too stuffy and cramped and pursued alternative lifestyles that would have been unthinkable elsewhere in West Germany. A typical model of such alternative living was (and is) the ufaFabrik with its many cultural projects in Tempelhof. Juppy, one of its residents, has gained great notoriety well beyond Berlin.

Berlin Originals

It’s now gone, but for years even after reunification, well-known German comedian and actor Harald Juhnke could be seen smiling from a now legendary advertising image for a Chinese restaurant. Harald Juhnke was one of the typical West Berlin celebrities in German film and television that shaped the image of the city, although in a very different way from Rio Reiser and David Bowie. These included Edith Hancke, Brigitte Mira, Hans Rosenthal and, of course, Rolf Eden. Then there were those that everyone knew when they saw them, even if they didn’t know their names, for example, Tüten-Paula, a homeless woman living on Kurfürstendamm or the activist who would present her theories about peace with catchy slogans to a rather astonished audience.

Heroes: Berlin’s music scene

There’s hardly anything else for which West Berlin is still well known as its vibrant music scene and subculture because, unlike in West German cities, there was no curfew. People went out all night to Dschungel, Risiko, SO 36, Shizzo, Penny Lane, Anderes Ufer, Frontkino, Ex’n’Pop, Kumpelnest 3000. Youth from suburban Berlin also liked to visit Linientreu, Riverboat, Meadow and Big Eden, that later on mostly attracted tourists. The flamboyant star was David Bowie, who lived on Schöneberger Hauptstraße from 1976 to 1978 and recorded his legendary Heroes album in Berlin’s Hansa-Studios. He also worked with Iggy Pop, who lived in the same house, to record the albums The Idiot and Lust for Life. Depeche Mode’s album Some Great Reward was recorded at Hansa Studios in 1984.


The most famous district of West Berlin was and still is Kreuzberg, which was often seen as typical of the whole of Berlin. Kreuzberg, directly affected by the course of the Wall and pushed to the edge of eastern edge of West Berlin, was formerly a working class district with many, often ramshackle old buildings. It became a magnet for artists and students looking for alternative lifestyles. In addition, many migrants, mostly from Turkey, moved to Kreuzberg, which soon got the nickname “Little Istanbul”.

West Berlin Today

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, not only did East Germany but also the old West Berlin disappear. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the night-life scene shifted to the east, where new clubs emerged with new styles of music. Meanwhile, the renaissance of the newly dubbed City West has begun. With the renovated BIKINI Berlin and Zoo Palast, the Cumberlandhaus and numerous new businesses, Kurfürstendamm is quickly regaining its gloss.