For more than 40 years, Berlin was on the frontline of the Cold War. Here, GDR dissidents plotted their escape to the West, where American and Soviet spies conspired and plotted, where chancellors, presidents and first secretaries on both sides of the Iron Curtain carried out political acts.
The German capital is now getting a museum that aims to bring the history of the Cold War closer.
The Cold War Museum, located at Unter den Linden 14, just a few hundred meters from where the Berlin Wall once stood, is the first of its kind in the world.
While other institutions cover aspects of the same history – such as the Stasi Museum in Leipzig, which deals with East Germany’s infamous secret police – the Cold War Museum aims to provide an interactive and entertaining overview of this critical period. casual visitor without prior reading.
After entering through the symbolic Iron Curtain that covers the front wall of the museum – shot through with holes and bearing images of Cold War politicians from Harry S. Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan – visitors can walk through the exhibition with wide access to history.
History revised through virtual reality
In sections on espionage, the space race, the Vietnam War, and nuclear disarmament, you can break through historical videos and dramatic re-enactments of key Cold War moments.
Put on your virtual reality headset and you’ll be transported back decades to a divided Berlin. You can watch the (re-created) experience of East German border guard Hans Conrad Schumann, who defected to West Berlin shortly before the Berlin Wall was built, by jumping over a barbed wire barricade, a moment captured in a world-famous photograph for Life Magazine.
Visitors can sync their smartphones with most exhibits and hear original eyewitness accounts from the time or set up augmented reality displays.
A museum for the younger generation
The high-tech approach comes from Cold War Museum CEO Carsten Kollmeier and CFO Harald Braun, the team behind Berlin’s popular German Spy Museum, and is designed to appeal to younger visitors, especially those with no memories and few associations with the cold war. .
“I hope we can reach more than the typical older museum goer and really engage across generations,” says Kollmeier, “the grandson, born after the Cold War, who visits with his grandfather who lived through it.”
Despite all the flashy technology, there’s still something to appeal to history buffs and old museum heads alike. Bernd Stöver, professor of international history at the University of Potsdam and author of several books on the Cold War, led the advisory committee that accompanied the design and ensured that everything in the exhibition was underpinned by the latest historical research.
From rockets to spacesuits
Among the artefacts on display is a Soviet-era S75 missile – the ominous missile hangs above the entrance – of the type used to shoot down American pilot and CIA spy Garry Powers over the Soviet Union in 1960, the event that triggered the international incident (and is pictured in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film “Bridge of Spies”).
There’s one of the Telex machines that provided direct communication between Moscow and Washington during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Cold War-era spacesuits from both NASA and Soviet cosmonauts.
The sealed container contains a “scent sample”, a substance soaked in the scent of arrested dissidents that the Stasi used to train dogs to identify and track those who opposed the East German regime.
Echoes of today’s war in Ukraine
Russia’s war against Ukraine, seen by many as an act of reigniting the Cold War, is nowhere to be seen in the current exhibit – the museum was designed long before the February 24 invasion – but current events in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol give new urgency to the history depicted here.
The iron curtain at the museum’s entrance, notes Sergei Tchoban, the Russian-born, Berlin-based architect who designed the Cold War Museum, was created by a Ukrainian graphic artist.
And several design elements—from the museum’s blood-red floors to the life-size model of a nuclear bomb hanging precariously next to a coat check—evoke the clear and present dangers of Russia’s recent war with the West.
As Tchoban notes, “It’s history that should never repeat itself.”
Berlin’s Cold War Museum opens to the public on November 26.
Editing: Elizabeth Grenier