November 10, 2009
It was an attempt to recapture the past, to to relive some of the joy we felt in Berlin in 1990 when we watched bulldozers open streets closed for 28 years, to recapture the joy of the final stages of the Prague’s Velvet Revolution. It didn’t quite work for me. It didn’t give me the emotional jolt I was looking for. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we went to Berlin for the 20th anniversary of the wall fall — “Mauerfall,” but it was a party organized by bureaucrats, and (state) television directors, a reflective spectacle not a joyful explosion, except, perhaps for the fireworks at the end. But maybe reflection is what
My personal reflective moment came at the new memorial to the wall on Bernauer Street. I first visited Bernauer Street as a student in 1964, then again in 1990. It’s the street where we watched bulldozers open up the wall. The sidewalk was in West Berlin while houses along one side were in the East. People jumped from windows to escape until the East Germans bricked up the windows on lower floors. Then they jumped from upper floors, some died. After several years they tore down the buildings and put up the “fourth generation” wall that we’ve come to know from old newscasts. The memorial is a reconstructed part of the wall system, with its multiple barriers. Reflective stainless steel walls on each end make “the wall” look like it goes on forever. On the outside the steel is intentionally corroded. There’s a place to leave candles along one of the corroded walls. On November 9 students stood with small boom boxes labeled “the wall speaks” broadcasting the sound of “wall-peckers” chipping away “tink, tink, tink.” Our family was among those wall-peckers. Other students wore nametags identifying those who died on that street and read their stories. I lit a candle for Olga Segler, one of those who died on Bernauer Street. I have photos of her memorial spanning nearly 50 years.
The interpretive center on Bernauer Street lays out the situation in Communist Europe as well as any I’ve seen. Another museum, the DDR (German Democratic Republic) Museum, chronicles everyday life in East Germany. It gives the impression of wry amusement, “well that wasn’t so bad.” It misses the point. It comes close to commie nostalgia. Those who lived though the era will understand the context, some pensioners may even feel wistful about a society where everyone got free medical care, kids went to camp every summer, nudists practiced egalitarianism at factory run Baltic beach resorts and people loved their crappy little cars. Standing on line brought camaraderie comrades. All true — and fascinating, but the further in time we get from the “Evil Empire” the more this museum leads to misinterpretation. I’ve seen much more balanced, if not better presented, exhibitions of this sort in Slovakia and Hungary, where you get the sense of everyday life, but you also understand that people were living a lie, saying one thing in private to friends and the opposite in public to please the state. Confiding in friends in the Stasi State ran you the risk of you being turned in by one of those friends, or by your own kid. I lived with the dual standards of lies and truth in the “Evil Empire’s” 20 year aftermath. Communism demeaned trust, initiative and honor. But, if you go to Berlin go to the museum. The exhibits are interactive and the museum catalogue, “Everyday life in a long gone state in 22 chapters” presents the balance missing in the museum itself.
Most cities show amazing changes over 20 years. Jersey City’s waterfront is utterly changed from when I was a kid (ok 60 years). But Berlin’s changes are stunning. I remember in both 1964 and 1989 looking over the wall into the desolate wasteland of Potsdamer Platz. In the years between the wars it was the busiest intersection in Europe. In 1990 the intersection was open with a pre- fab border station. In 2000 it was mostly reconstructed but still had dozens of yellow construction cranes. Now it’s an urban fantasyland of entertainment and shopping. I walked by the spot where I took the pictures over the wall several times before I recognized where I was.
I have a picture from 20 years ago where the wall blocked off Wilhelm Strasse. The Berlin Wall, covered with colorful graffiti, contrasted with a grey blank wall on a building in the East. The gaily painted wall is gone but the gray wall beyond is gaily painted with a “Ben and Jerry’s” billboard. And the famous ‘Checkpoint Charlie,” a block beyond, is now “Snack Point Charlie” with pizza, sushi and a submarine sandwiches. The “Berlin Wall” has become the “Berlin Mall,” complete with food court.
The Brandenburg gate is a gate again. It’s no longer a “stand alone” monument but a gate with buildings, including the new US and French Embassies, abutting it. It’s the gate between Under den Linden and the Tiergarten. The middle of Berlin is unrecognizable from 20 years ago while the former main street of West Berlin, the Ku’dam, is pretty much the same. Venturing further East there is still some fine Stalinist “wedding cake” architecture and Socialist Realism murals, including one that would work in well Alaska, caribou wandering among oil wells, “Exxon Realism.”
The official wall fall celebration included several sitting world leaders (looking bored sitting in the stands) and celebrities including Mihail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, and Jon Bon Jovi. But the real rock star, Barak Obama, had Hillary as a stand in. The one man who could have really rocked the joint appeared only on video tape.
The headliner event of the celebration was falling dominoes. President Eisenhower explained the “Domino Theory” at a press conference in 1954 when he said “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” He was referring to Viet Nam, if it went Communist the rest of Asia would follow. And it actually worked, but in an ironic turnaround. Poland fell and the spread of falling dominoes brought the rest of Communist Europe with it, including the Soviet Union.
“Mauerfall 2009” commissioned school groups from around the world to paint 1000 dominoes that were lined up along part of the route of the wall. The dominoes were serious, whimsical, good art and bad, painted many with corporate sponsor logos. (CNN also had some sort of sponsorship. A “crime scene” tape reading “CNN, Go beyond borders” marked part of the old border.) One of my favorite dominoes portrayed the former East German leader, Erich Honecker as a zombie brought to you by Marriott. Another favorite, playing off the theme of “the wall,” read “all we need is education.” The kids just don’t get it.
The first domino was pushed over by Lech Walesa and that started the chain reaction, as it did in real life. The domino fall was projected on the big screens. It was better in concept than in execution, an anticlimax after too many speeches. The show on the big screen ended with a collage of scenes from the years of the wall the final clip, that famous voice “As a free man I am proud to say Ich bin ein Berliner.” It was my emotional moment; followed by fireworks.
But by then the rain had driven us back to the hotel. Our room overlooked a section of the wall still standing, and we could see one corner of the Brandenburg gate. We had a great view of the light show from the gate playing off the rainclouds and the fireworks shot into the clouds from both the top of the gate and the Tiergarten beyond.
My favorite part of the celebration was the unexpected appearance of guardian angels on rooftops lining Ebert Street. The wall once ran along that street. Now there’s a commercial wall of Subway, Marriott, Haagan Daz and Starbucks, to entice you to cross the line. One angel has a suitcase. Street actors talk to the angels through horns, silently. It’s a mime troupe. They appeared in order to spread the message of love and peace.
Love and Peace,