The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, was a 96-mile concrete wall and barbed wire barricade around West Berlin, separating it from East Berlin and from East Germany. Built by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), it divided the city into the American, British and French sector on the west side and the Soviet sector on the east. The Berlin Wall and a longer border further west, between the two halves of Germany, came to symbolize the Iron Curtain between the countries under the Soviet Union and those to the west.

East Germans broke through the wall in November, 1989, and tore most of it down by the end of 1990 as the Cold War ended.

We were in China that November, and it was only a few months after the student democracy movement had been violently crushed at Tiananmen Square. Many of our young Chinese friends celebrated the wall coming down, and even claimed that their demonstrations had inspired people in East Germany and Bulgaria to rise up against oppression.

The very month the Berlin Wall was opened, Bulgaria’s iron-fisted leaders for thirty-five years were removed from power, the beginning of democratic reform in that country. Czechoslovakia gained its independence the following year.

Before the wall was built, some 3.5 million East Germans had managed to escape into West Germany. The wall stopped most such emigration, with its guard towers, anti-vehicle trenches and other defenses.

As the revolutionary wave swept across the Eastern Bloc in 1989, the East German government announced in November that all GDR citizens would be allowed to visit West Germany and West Berlin.

Crowds from the eastern side climbed onto the wall, joined by West Germans to celebrate. Over the next few weeks, parts of the concrete wall were chipped away; thousands of pieces are still in collections of people around the world. Germany was reunified within a year.

Tourists today who come to Berlin to see the remains of the wall will find that only a few sections of the wall and some of the watch towers still exist. Double rows of paving stones on some streets mark the former course of the wall.

Checkpoint Charlie was one of three checkpoints along the wall through which diplomatic corps and allies forces could enter West Berlin.

There’s a Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, Friedrichstrasse 43-44, which is open daily. Office buildings now stand on the former empty sites that lined the wall.

A replica of the guardhouse at Checkpoint Charlie was built in August 2000 on the site of the original guardhouse. It is staffed by young men in uniform, standing at attention below American flags.

I asked one of them if they were soldiers or actors. He didn’t understand the question in English or in my lame attempt at German. But when I put the question this way: “G.I. Joe or Tom Hanks?”, his face lit up and he said, “Tom Hanks!”

Nearby, the western side of a portion of concrete wall was being painted a solid light gray during our recent visit. The eastern side was covered with everyday graffiti along with a few poignant painted murals depicting episodes of triumph and despair.

Berlin today is a lively, vibrant city, a great place to visit, and the remains of the wall are a grim reminder of a time when it was not.