Berlin Celebrates: 25 Years After the Fall of the Wall
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.
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)
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)
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.”