Last weekend was pretty special for Berlin. It was the 25th anniversary of the wall coming down. To celebrate/commemorate, the city organised for over 8000 balloons to be placed along a 10 mile stretch of the old wall’s border. As night fell, the balloons were lit up from underneath, creating a beautiful and educative display.
Because A. and I are history nerds and walking nerds and (now) Berlin nerds, we decided to walk the entire 10 mile route. The balloons were up from Friday to Sunday the 9th of November (being the exact day the wall ‘came down’). We spent a good part of Saturday afternoon and evening walking from Prenzlauer Berg in the north to Freidrichshain in the (more) south-east.
Along the way, there were information points telling you about an aspect of the wall’s history in the surrounding area – how someone had escaped here, or how an important building had been destroyed. Large screens were set up at various points playing the same, almost wordless documentary and these constantly changing images provided a stream-of-consciousness memories of life under the wall.
I find a lot of the stories of the Berlin Wall very difficult to deal with and spent much of the early part of the walk crying in the street. Documentary footage detailing people’s desperation, their misery, their confusion at this sudden change of events was extremely distressing. For example, this old woman trying to jump out of her East Berlin apartment into the street below, which was West Berlin.
You can see East Berlin border guards attempting to pull her back into her apartment, and West Berliners attempting to pull her down by her legs. She is crooked and curled up in the middle, desperately trying to protect her fragile body from the onslaught from both sides (she was pulled into West Berlin and she survived, in case you were wondering).
Footage of a young West Berlin couple receiving blessings & gifts from the bride’s parents, confined to their East Berlin apartment 4 floors above them, destroys me every time.
It’s not just the sad stories of the wall being built that affect me, but also the incredible footage of the wall coming down – the optimism and hope seeping out of those images always chokes me up. An East German woman kissing a border guard on the cheek before jumping up and down like an excited 5 year old and running through the border. The East Berlin men joking with the border guards in front of them, ‘Come on, let us out, we’ll all come back, we promise. Just half an hour, we just want to have a look,’ happy and confident because they know that they have the power: with hundreds of other East Berliners behind them and only a few, elderly border guards in front, the joking men can tell it’s a matter of minutes before these guards capitulate and the border will be opened. Some incredible footage (which I CANNOT find on the internet ANYWHERE) of a huge group of East Germans running towards a country border (Hungary?), their cars abandoned on the roads behind, their children gripped in the middle, bags flying, aiming for an open strip of grassland free of walls and barbed wire. The guards from the road border simply walk out slowly from their posts stand on the road and stare. They are made weak by the sheer number of people, the overwhelming force of their emotion and determination. The border guard credited with ‘opening’ the Berlin Wall, Harald Jäger, said he had never seen such euphoria before or since.
What was incredible on the day was connecting these emotions, these huge, world-changing emotions with the ordinary streets of Berlin that I have been living on for the past few months. A lot of the route I had walked before whilst just going about my everyday Berlin life- unconsciously popping across the wall here and there, going to an event, viewing an apartment, visiting a park, a museum, a landmark. Walking the route altogether made me feel like I was seeing the streets in a new way, peeling back the surface image and finding something completely different underneath. I saw many elderly Germans on the route, in wheelchairs, with walkers, being helped along by younger relatives or friends. Of course I’d passed plenty of people of this generation in the street before, but they took on new significance now – I felt an almost irresistible urge to grab each one and ask them where they were from, how did they grow up, where were they when the wall fell, how did they feel then, how did they feel now and whatever else they cared to tell me. I wanted to extend this experience of living history, of the past and present and future suddenly crashing together in front of my very eyes.
This experience becoming suddenly, bodily aware of the past in the present, incidentally, something that one becomes used to in Berlin – places that seem innocuous turn out to be hiding actual physical remnants of modern 20th century history. A. and I took a walk in Grunewald in October and climbed a hill that looked out over all of Berlin. Intrigued by the landscape (Berlin is mainly swamp – there aren’t many high points) and wanting to know more, we did some research and discovered that this was a man-made hill, built over Albert Speer’s Nazi architecture and engineering institute with all the post-WWII rubble of West Berlin. Perched on top of this mid-20th century hill is a decaying NSA listening post from the Cold War era that no-one can decided what to do with: museum? Ski resort? Apartments? Remembrance or Capitalism? Looking forwards or backwards? And if it’s forward, where exactly does 21st century Berlin go from here?
And furthermore where exactly DOES the 21st century go from here? Or, more accurately for my mindset last weekend, where does my 21st century go from the fall of the Berlin Wall? Over the course of our 10 mile walk, A. and I were given the opportunity for a lot of reflection. The triumphal celebration we were witnessing was not big on nuance. Whilst the city was peeling back it’s facade and showing us something new, in many ways what were being shown was a simple, emotional and inspiring story of tragic oppression and glorious freedom. I’m not arguing that isn’t part of the story of the wall. But the consequences of that glorious story arc for the here and now is a silencing of any alternatives to liberalism and capitalism – within this specific, Western, capitalist bubble, the fall of the Berlin Wall really was the ‘End of History’. Certainly the Left in the West has never really recovered its bite since communism failed so spectacularly. The 21st century is glorious, capitalist freedom, with no need to ask any further questions or fight any other fights and certainly no need for any more revolutions on the scale of the Fall of the Wall. With this lack of alternatives comes a coinciding loss of passion and the world-changing emotions that choked me up in the street at the start of this post. We’ve slid into a historical period with all the excitement of a middle-aged, middle-class life in suburbia. Sure, it’s super-comfortable, but, really, what’s the point? And as any film about the dark side of suburbia is keen to point out – the comfort and the contentment only hides an underbelly that no-one’s willing to talk about.
I’m not suggesting that the wall should go back up just so I can get some emotional jollies out of politics again. I’m pretty against walls, unless they’re the walls of your house and they’re keeping in the heat, keeping out the rain and keeping up your ceiling. What was interesting about the 10 mile walk, however, was that whilst I felt like I was becoming hyper-aware of the past, I was also aware of not getting a complete story. The border guard who I quoted up above? His world collapsed along with the wall – he lost his (admittedly, shitty job) and struggled to make ends meet in the new capitalist paradise before having to retire. The wall coming down wasn’t all sweetness and light, just as it wouldn’t hurt to occasionally question our slavish devotion to economic liberalism. Just because there was a wall and it was bad doesn’t mean that everything since there wasn’t a wall is automatically good.
All in all, the night was thought-provoking, educative and beautiful. I will admit that by the 5 and a half hour mark I was sick of being hyper-aware of history and only wanted to be hyper-aware of a vegetarian burger, a comfy seat and some glühwein. I spoke to a few people afterwards who said they thought it was ‘disappointing’ because the balloons weren’t lit up when they flew into the sky (after the balloons had made the border for the weekend, they were released into the sky and most people assumed they had a light attached so they could be seen far off into the distance). I couldn’t have disagreed more. For me, the event was about the coming together, the remembering and the consideration, not the spectacle.
But, hey, I suppose there’s a different side to every story, isn’t there.