Through an astonishingly accurate virtual reality tour, Rachel Stern saw Berlin’s former divide when it was still standing.
Experience the Berlin Wall first hand on a 360-degree virtual reality tour. BY RACHEL STERN
I n the summer of 1961, residents of Bernauer Straße in Mitte watched as a giant barrier was built down the middle of the street, slowly obliterating their view of the other side. The Berlin Wall stood for a full 28 years, splitting friends, families, and neighbors into the capitalist West and communist East.
On a frigid February afternoon 56 years later, I stood on the same street, which now hosts a 1.4-kilometer-long memorial with scattered pieces of the once-imposing barrier. Bundled-up tourists read memorial placards detailing deadly escape attempts and visit a reconstructed chapel, once blown up as it stood in construction’s way.
As a self-proclaimed history nerd, I’d visited here many times. Yet even standing amid remnants of the past, I had a hard time feeling connected to it. Suddenly, however, that changed. I put on a large set of goggles to begin my first 360-degree virtual reality tour, a collaboration between When in Berlin
Tours and Time Rift Tours. My exact location suddenly looked and felt like it did in 1965, as I stood eerily alone in the middle of the Death Strip, the passage between either side of the wall, covered with gravel so that footsteps would be easily detectable. I could see a soldier with a gun, stepping out of his military vehicle and slowly walking towards me. Feeling uneasy, I glanced to the left where a sharp barbed-wire fence, set to electrocute anyone who touched it, laced another layer of concrete. The set-up seemed so real that I could even see dark green tree leaves outside rustling in the wind, and the brown and dingy facades of buildings to the east were sharp and vivid.
My guide advanced the year to 1979, and suddenly I noticed how much West Berlin had developed, the polished highrise apartment buildings towering above the border, while the unrenovated, wardamaged buildings to the East remained the same.
“Fifteen years ago [Berlin Wall] guides would have had photo albums with them, five years ago they would have pulled up photos on a phone, and now we have this incredibly powerful product,” said Brian Fellbusch, co-founder of When in Berlin Tours. “From five to 80 years old, people seem to get it in a way that they couldn’t otherwise.” To date, about 800 people have gone on the tour, which is offered privately or through a group.
The companies worked with several Berlin academics to capture the minute details of the past. They didn’t want to trivialize it, or turn it into a video game. They wanted a way for people to reflect upon history by feeling like they had actually lived it. "It’s a serious topic, and there are still more walls being constructed in the world,” said Fellbusch. “If we have provoked a conversation, we feel like we’ve done our job.”
From top to bottom: A view of the Berlin Wall; the Chapel of Reconciliation, used as a tower for snipers before being blown up in 1985; Views of the Death Strip; Visiting students trying VR.