Tags: Berlin | wall | celebration | merkel

Reminders of Berlin Wall Hard to Find

Monday, 09 November 2009 10:34 AM EST

BERLIN, Germany — The official proceedings of Monday’s day of remembrance for the fall of the Berlin Wall were held when Angela Merkel, international dignitaries and heads of state in tow, came to the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse. This quiet, far-off corner of Germany’s capital offers little indication of having once been at the crossroads of history.

Only a small plaque, marred by graffiti, and a gray stretch of the city’s eponymous wall together make quiet claim that this is where East and West Germany first met on the fateful night of Nov. 9, 1989.

Tourists don't visit Bornholmer Strasse and the locals who use the bridge don’t pay the place much mind, so no one much notices that the unlit plaque is impossible to read after dusk. It may not be an idyllic or ideal backdrop, but it will have to do for Monday’s events.

Merkel no doubt found herself in a dilemma familiar to many Berliners who receive guests from other countries. Foreigners usually come to Berlin seeking reminders of the Western triumph in the Cold War. But they’re confronted by a city that is so diffident toward its own Cold War history that it removed nearly the entirety of its infamous wall as soon as it could.

The weighty symbolic resonances of the events from 20 years ago — the end of communism, the victory of freedom over tyranny — don’t quite carry over to Germany, where the fall of the wall is a reality with a mundane and difficult legacy that the country is still living with.

The guests this week may be higher-profile than usual — they include Hillary Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy, U2, Mikhail Gorbachev and Jay-Z — but the problem remains.
Berlin Wall anniversary

Indeed, many Germans feel that the pomp and circumstance of the anniversary celebration — from U2’s rock concert in front of the Brandenburg Gate last Wednesday, to the symbolically restaged fall of the wall that will conclude Monday’s events — have been for the sake of people living elsewhere.

Maik Henning, a carpenter who grew up in East Berlin and now lives near the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, was incensed by a press conference that had been held the previous week in Berlin that had George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, Germany’s former chancellor, together on stage to reminisce about the anniversary.

“For 20 years, we’ve been hearing about Kohl! But, what does he have to do with 1989?” Henning asked indignantly. “1989 was a revolution that happened in the East. But, the only easterner the media knows is Angela Merkel. And she also had nothing to do with the revolution!”

Whereas Merkel was an apolitical physicist in East Berlin who later rose quickly through the ranks of West Germany’s Christian Democrat party, the actual revolutionaries of East Germany — the founders of groups like New Forum and Democracy

Now, and the clergy at churches like Leipzig’s Nikolai Church and Berlin’s Zion Church — have largely been forgotten in today’s Germany. The activists, organizers and progressive churchgoers who organized the protests that brought tens of thousands onto the streets and, ultimately, forced the communist government to flinch, succeeded in producing the most successful democratic movement in German history. But their names have not entered the common history books with equal prominence to notable West Germans.

Partly, that’s because the movement quickly started pursuing goals that the original organizers hadn’t had in mind. Where New Forum and Democracy Now had envisioned an independent East German state that would slowly move toward unification with the West, as soon as East Germans were given a chance to vote, they elected for the fastest possible union with the West. The leading activists were pushed to the background in favor of professional politicians sponsored by the West who promised quick economic fixes.

For their part, western Germans have always had a tenuous relationship to the events of 1989. The events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall were things that they observed, but weren’t able to participate in. “Of course, I am happy and I was happy,” said Jens Reich, a political consultant who was raised in western Germany. “But, it is a more abstract feeling. I had never been to East Germany, and I didn’t have family there.”

On the whole, the popular consciousness of today’s Germany is focused less on the successes of 1989 and more on the dislocations of 1990. That was the year of the expedited unification that allowed East Germany to be subsumed by the West; the decisions made by western German politicians and businesses many believe led to the collapse of the eastern German economy; the first discussions of how to prosecute former communists and keep them out of public life, and whether East Germans, on the whole, were really ready for democracy and diversity. Though the wounds from 1990 have been healing slowly over time, they still distract from the more fond memories of 1989.

If Merkel had been less focused on indulging her foreign visitors' feelings of triumph, she might have considered forgoing Monday’s visits to the out-of-the-way Bornholmer Strasse and the obligatory Brandenburg Gate monument, and bringing the visitors instead to Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the center of the former East Berlin. That’s where an impressive multi-media outdoor exhibition has been examining in detail the events of 1989 in the former East Germany. This past weekend, dozens of Germans were braving the cold to learn more about the revolution that the whole world is so interested in.

“These were very brave people,” said Ute Gehlker, a tourist from Munich, after having read about one of the mass protests in Berlin in 1989 at the exhibition. “It’s a scandal that we don’t know more about them.”

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BERLIN, Germany — The official proceedings of Monday’s day of remembrance for the fall of the Berlin Wall were held when Angela Merkel, international dignitaries and heads of state in tow, came to the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse. This quiet, far-off corner of Germany’s capital offers little indi
Monday, 09 November 2009 10:34 AM
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