The leafy neighbourhood of Dahlem in south west Berlin is home to the Allied Forces Museum. It is located on Clayallee, a wide avenue named after General Lucius Clay, the father of the Berlin Airlift.
In 1945 Berlin was carved up in four sectors, one allocated to each of the military forces of occupation (American, British, French and Soviet). When the Soviets closed off all land and river access to West Berlin in 1948/1949, the Western allies flew in vital supplies to their own sectors. West Berlin became one of the battlegrounds of the Cold War, an island of democracy in the red sea of Communism.
Under the title of ‘How Enemies Became Friends’ the Allied Forces Museum’s permanent exhibition illustrates the changing relationship between West Berlin and its allies, first as conquerors, then occupiers and finally protectors. It documents the history of the Western military forces in Berlin, from their entry into the city in 1945 to their withdrawal in 1994, the East-West divide and how the post-war years shaped the city and Germany as a country.
The museum offers a unique set up divided in three areas. Between the two buildings which house the indoor exhibitions is a spacious courtyard dominated by the largest exhibit: an RAF Handley Page Hastings which transported goods during the Berlin Airlift and used to greet me every morning on my way to work at RAF Gatow.
The other outdoor exhibits are a railway carriage from the French military train, the last real guard house at Checkpoint Charlie, an East German watch tower and a segment of the Berlin Wall.
Visitors can get aboard the plane Tuesday to Sunday, 10 to 18 hrs. However the other large exhibits can only be accessed as part of a tour.
The first building visitors should head for is the Outpost Theater, the US forces cinema built in 1953 in Art Deco style. The stage and seating areas have been transformed into an impressive exhibition space dedicated to West Berlin and its occupation from 1945 to 1950. It houses a huge amount of artifacts including maps of the planned sectors, first newspapers in Berlin and everyday objects used by ordinary Berliners. A large area displays items from the time of the Airlift, such as uniforms or food items flown into the city. I was struck by the generosity of the Berliners towards their saviours too. In the display cabinets, for instance, is a good luck pin with a chimney sweep, a German symbol of good luck, from West Berlin mayor Ernst Reuter to Airlift pilots. On one of the many radio recordings a mother and her children hope to give presents to Gail Halvorsen, the Candy Bomber, and return a handkerchief he used as a parachute for dropping candy.
On the opposite side of the cinema, the former Nicholson Memorial Library covers the period 1951 to 1994. It features objects relating to the daily life of the allied garrisons, such as military bus stop signs or sporting memorabilia. The exhibition also covers the Cold War confrontation between East and West, particularly the relationships between the Western Allies and their Soviet counterparts. For those spy movie enthusiasts the top exhibit is a replica of a segment of a tunnel built under the Wall by the military to tap Soviet lines in East Berlin.
Besides the permanent exhibitions the museum put on temporary ones which change on a regular basis. Some visitors might find that the museum is quite small. As an Airlift enthusiast who belonged to the British forces in Berlin in the 80s and a budding author of children’s books about the Cold War, I spent at least two hours there on each visit. Comments about the items on display, audio exhibits and documentaries (between 15 and 60 minutes) are mostly in English, French and German, although having a reasonable knowledge of German enabled me to enjoy some of the radio broadcasts. Organised overview or thematic tours or film viewing on specific topics can be planned and scheduled by the staff. It is worth getting in touch with them or checking their website (alliiertenmuseum.de). The museum is better suited to adults and teenagers than children, unless they have studied aspects of the Cold War at school or with keen parents.
In spite of its location further away from the usual tourist hotspots of the capital, the museum is easily accessed by bus (115 or X83 – ‘Alliierten Museum’ stop) or the underground (U3 to Oskar-Helene-Heim towards Krumme Lanke) with a pleasant 10 minute walk from the U-Bahn station. There is also free car parking.
The museum is open every day, except Mondays, from 10 to 18 hrs. Entrance is free but I have always donated since the staff is friendly and eager to help. In the foyer of the former cinema visitors can leave bags/coats in the lockers, there are clean toilet facilities, and a small seating area with tables, chairs and vending machines. The museum shop doesn’t sell touristy items such as themed clothing or novelty pens, but rather postcards, posters and a well curated selection of books about the Cold War in Germany/Berlin and museum exhibitions past and present.
Between the U-Bahn station and the museum is a small parade of shops, including a bakery which offers an appetizing selection of sandwiches, pastries and drinks at very reasonable prices.
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Marie-Claude Hawkes lived and worked in Germany for 30 years as part of the British Forces. She enjoys sharing her passion for Berlin history as well as her family memories of occupied France and D-Day with school children in Norfolk, England, where she lives. She has written the Berlin Airlift diary of a teenager and is currently working on book 3 of a trilogy entitled ‘Airlift Hounds’, aimed at younger children.