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Berlin Celebrates: 25 Years After the Fall of the Wall

 

Celebrating 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Courtesy Visit Berlin.
Celebrating 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Courtesy Visit Berlin.

by Bobbie Leigh

It’s hard to imagine a livelier and more memorable  celebration than November 9, 2014, when  a city-wide event marked the demise of the Berlin Wall.

Berlin planners of this huge  anniversary pulled out all the stops, lining more than eight miles of the  Wall’s inner-city border with an installation of 8,000 illuminated balloons meant  to evoke the brutal division of the city.  Typical of Berlin, a highly environmentally conscious city, all the balloons  were  biodegradable. They were released to a cheering crowd  that heard speeches by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mikhail  Gorbachev, whose leaning towards democracy helped  East Germany break free of Communism. Tears of happiness  greeted the main event at the Brandenburg Gate when Daniel Barenboim conducted Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

The Wall came down 25 years ago  against a background of constant pressure, peaceful demonstrations, and a serious glitch. To everyone’s astonishment a minor  member of the GDR (German Democratic Republic, former East Germany) Politburo was asked about  travel visa requirements to West Berlin.  At a  6 pm press conference, he  announced he thought  East Germans would be allowed to travel across the border  — immediately.

A remnant of the Berlin Wall
A remnant of the Berlin Wall

About four hours after the press conference, on  November 9, 1989,  tens of thousands  of  East Berliners  pushed through  the barriers on foot.  Thousands  of  East-German Trabants also  drove across the border in traffic-clogging long lines to get their   first view  of the Western part of the city.  (The stunned border guards didn’t know what to do.)  West Berliners greeted people from the East with Champagne.  No one anticipated that the demise of the Wall would be so swift. It was not predicted or  according to historians, intended. Berliners on both sides  tore down the  Wall’s concrete slabs along with huge heavy equipment  so  today, little remains.   So-called “wall pickers” finished the job.

The Wall went up in  August, 1961, when everyday  life in the GDR was a series of catastrophes—lack of power, heat, light and  mostly consumer goods  which had been in short supply.  Along with economic problems,  thousands of well-trained people— doctors, lawyers, engineers – were crossing the border from the Soviet sector into West  Berlin.  East Germany had to act and began  stockpiling barbed wire and cement  to build a barrier. Basically the  Wall’s goal was to stop the stream of refugees escaping to West Berlin by  hermetically sealing  off  East Berlin and the rest of the territory  of the GDR. The first sections went up in August, followed  by many transitions evolving into 12-foot high  walls and 116 watch towers.  Between an inner and outer ring lay what was called a “death strip.”

The reality of Berlin as a divided city is hard to fathom today.  On a trip focusing on the fall of the Wall organized by Academic Arrangements Abroad,  visitors were able to immerse themselves in German history and visit various museums and installations which evoke the horror  of  the Cold War and a  city split in two.

The immensely professional and energetic tour  leader,  Maria Höhn, a Vassar College professor,  and expert guide Tim Schmutzler  (www.berlinprofis.de) provided  fascinating  historical footnotes  and personal anecdotes at each destination.  One highlight was a visit to the site of the Free University, founded in 1948 in Dahlem, a district that was part of the American zone of the city where many middle-class German Jews had lived before the war. In a documentation center  in the district of  Schöneberg, another former center of Jewish life in Berlin,  the group visited an  exhibition, “We Were Neighbors,”  at Schöneberg City Hall, which presented 150 biographical albums of Jews who lived in the neighborhood who were  deported to camps  or forced to flee. Several albums, set up along long library-style tables,  documented the lives of such luminaries as Alfred Einstein, Billy Wilder, and Helmet Newton among others.  (Information at 030 90277 4257)

 

Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate

Höhn also took the group  to St. Mary’s Church in former East Berlin where Martin Luther King Jr’s  1964 sermon is said to have inspired the desire for peaceful social revolution on both sides of the Wall.   The group met two women who had been in St. Mary’s Church to hear the historic message on September 13, 1964, only three years after the Wall was constructed.  An interesting sidelight is that apparently when King got to Checkpoint Charlie, he had no passport and used his credit card to persuade the East German guards to let him in.  The women  remembered King’s words: “We will struggle together and we will be free someday.”   They recalled that King’s  sermon moved them deeply and gave them courage, even as they were surrounded by a  repressive regime.

Some of the other places  to visit where you can where relive history: 

The  Memorial of  the Murdered Jews of Europe (www.stiftung-denkmal.de/en)

Topology  of Terror Museum,  the former site of the Nazi headquarters of the Secret State Police, the SS, and the Reich Security Main Office which documents the crimes of the regime.  A Wall remnant abutting the site is covered with documentation illustrating the complexity of the location. The current exhibition is “Germany 1945-the last months of the war.”  (www.topographie.de/en)

The Berlin Wall Memorial (www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de).

German Historical Museum, special exhibition of Germany and 11 countries after the liberation. (www.dhm.de)

On your own, take the self-guided walking tour  along the path of the Wall by following the double row of cobblestones through the city center that passes several memorials sites including Checkpoint Charlie.

Academic Arrangements has  an exciting  roster of trips worldwide. Like this trip to Berlin,  all are distinguished by intimate and informal  meetings  and encounters with  local people as well as distinguished guests. (www.academicarrangementsabroad.com)

 GETTING THERE

Keep in mind that you can now fly directly to Berlin on airberlin which recently received the “Best Business Class Airline Europe” award.  Flights on ab’s new Airbus are configured for privacy and  sleeping  horizontal seats. (www.airberlin.com)

Vassar professor Maria Höhn’s  most recent book is “Breath of Freedom, The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany.”

Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
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