Twenty-five Years Later, the Berlin Wall Is Gone but Inescapable

Berliners focus on the triumph of peace-seeking young people - a subject much easier to deal with than the circumstances that led to the division of the city. It’s just a shame that those famous German trains went on strike on the festive weekend.

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A long row of slender poles wound through the middle of Berlin and 8,000 LEDs hidden in white balloons glow atop them, illuminating the route of the Berlin Wall as a long line of bright white light.

The temporary three-meter (10-foot) light poles stretched for more than 15 kilometers (9 miles). They were lit up for the first time on Friday evening and stayed lit for two nights. On Sunday evening, the balloons were released and sailed up into the sky. The long row of lighted poles was beautiful to behold.

This past weekend, November 7 through 9, Berlin marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hundreds of thousands of people - Berliners and tourists - wandered along the light-pole route and took pictures as they retraced the line along which the city was divided for decades, from the end of World War II until November 1989. The wall that physically divided the city was erected in 1961 and stood for 28 years.

Without the lighted columns it would be hard to say now just where the wall stood, where the city’s eastern and western parts were divided. The sides of the city have been fused together to the point that hardly a trace of the division remains.

A man walks past a row of lanterns that are part of the light installation Lichtgrenze (Light border) on the course of the former Berlin wall near the Reichstag building in Berlin on November 7, 2014. Photo by AFP

The special lighting, or the balloon installation as it was referred to here, served as a illuminating reminder.

Remnants and Reminiscences

The light installation was the celebration’s main attraction but there were dozens more cultural events, exhibitions, guided tours and other activities.

On any visit to the center of the city in the past few days, the wall was inescapable. The route was marked by the lighted balloons, but remnants were also to be found in many other places, some of them rather unexpected.

Reminiscences about the 28 years in which the wall divided the city are at a peak. The fall of the Berlin Wall is portrayed as the great triumph of the sane, unarmed freedom-lovers, those who wished to live as free and victorious people without war, solely with the help of peaceful mass protest.

The entrance to the large upscale Arkaden shopping mall opposite Potsdam Square. Photo by Moshe Gilad

The Berlin seen in the huge old pictures on display all over the city looks completely different from the rebuilt, wealthy and vibrant city seen in the streets. The Christmas market that just opened near Potsdam Square only heightens this contrast.

The event organizers are furious at the railroad workers, who declared a strike over the weekend, causing some disruption.

When the driver who took me from the airport to the city told me about the strike, I politely refrained from commenting about the efficiency of German trains.

The elderly lady with whom I chatted near the row of balloons said that things like this - a railroad strike on such an important weekend - had never happened before. She vividly recalled how she had danced in the streets 25 years earlier. But the city has changed beyond recognition since then, she said. There are good things, too, but now everyone is always in a rush and it’s not the same.

A Limited Focus

To an Israeli visitor one thing particularly stands out: The focus right now is limited almost exclusively to the era of the wall, i.e., to the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. What happened shortly before that, prior to and during World War II is not on the agenda at the moment.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit (R) put roses in a preserved segment of the Berlin Wall during the commemorations to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at the Berlin Wall Memorial in the Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, on November 9, 2014. Photo by AFP

It’s easier this way, apparently. The Berlin Wall and its fall, thanks largely to a mass protest, mainly by peace-seeking young people, is a much more comfortable subject for such a party, and this is quite a party.

On Sunday evening, the British musician Peter Gabriel opened the official event by singing David Bowie’s song “Heroes” next to Brandenburg Gate (Bowie lived in the city in the 1970s). Then the Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and the 8,000 balloons were set free to the sounds of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Among the guests given the honor of setting loose the balloons were Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, plus many others, including a number of Nobel Prize winners and veteran politicians.

At the entrance to the large upscale Arkaden shopping mall opposite Potsdam Square, two enormous concrete blocks were set up and covered with stylized graffiti. The blocks, perhaps formerly pieces of the Berlin Wall, now mark the mall’s entrance.

Amid the high-fashion shops and cafes in the mall is an exhibition of large black-and-white photographs from the Cold War era, when the city was divided. The ceiling has been decorated with barbed wire. High-school students on field trips here are given an explanation about the wall’s meaning and the city’s history since 1945. The exhibition emphasizes that the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, marked the end to the division of Germany and to the Cold War.

A man rehearses as part of 'Circus transcends borders' show at the East Side Gallery on November 8, 2014 in Berlin, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Photo by AFP

“No one believed then that we could do it without a battle, in a peaceful process,” says the descriptive material from the exhibition.

The Berlin Wall is now the symbol of the division of the city, of the division of Germany into two states, of restricted freedom of movement and the terrible tension that colored the Cold War years.

The event’s organizers say that it’s not just a big celebration; it’s also about memory and commemoration, and Berlin has become quite expert in these areas in recent years. As one wanders the city streets these days, the events marking the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall seem to have hit on the ideal formula for Berliners - a combination of a giant street party with commemoration and memory. What could be more appropriate?

`Open It Now, Open It Now’

The wall stretched for more than 150 kilometers (90 miles), but the main part of the installation extends for 15 kilometers. It is set up along the main streets, from Bornholmer Street to the Oberbaum Bridge. It passes by key sites like the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdam Square, and by the Checkpoint Charlie crossing, the most prominent Cold War crossing point between the two sides of the city.

Former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev takes part in the celebration on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, Nov. 9, 2014. Photo by AP

“The installation provides a reminder and illustration of the dimensions of the wall and its importance in the city, in the days when it still stood as a buffer between the two parts of Berlin,” said Burkhard Kieker of the city’s tourism office. “It’s a reminder not to take freedom and democracy for granted.”

Kieker excitedly remembers how, as a young journalist, he arrived on November 9, 1989, at the border crossing that still blocked the Oberbaum Bridge where we are standing. On the other side of the wall he heard the rhythmic chants of protesters shouting, “Open it now, open it now.”

It was then, says Kieker, that he realized that history was unfolding right before his eyes.

“The soldier put down his Kalachnikov, the gate opened, and from the other side we saw people gaping at us curiously,” he said. “All Berliners cried that day. Beer flowed for free and taxi drivers wouldn’t take payment. For several days, we demolished the wall with our bare hands, with hammers.”

Eyewitness Accounts

Looking at the route of the wall through the city center, one finds it a bit hard to picture what it was like here between 1961 and 1989.

In this period, 136 people were killed attempting to get across the wall from east to west while 5,075 people somehow made the crossing. Of all the tours being offered in the city, among the most interesting are the ones led by eyewitnesses who recount their experiences from the time when the Berlin Wall stood. Some are now in their seventies, but a few are much younger, and they talk about what it meant to live in a divided city.

Over my two days in the city, five different people volunteered to tell me where they were the day the wall fell. They remember just what they were doing, how they felt and how happy they were. Twenty-five years is a good time for such a celebration. When the 50th anniversary comes around, the wall will be just a historical artifact and not a living memory.

Remnants of the wall have become collector’s items and are coveted by museums around the world, but much of the remains of the wall can still be found in Berlin. In 1975, following a comprehensive renovation of the wall, 45,000 large pieces of concrete that were part of the wall were scattered around the city.

Most of the exhibits relating to the wall will remain open through the end of December. Notable among these is the colossal panorama created by artist Yadegar Asisi, and the Black Box, an exhibit about life in the city alongside the wall. Both are right near Checkpoint Charlie.

Before we parted, the tourism office’s Kieker cited an interesting statistic: This year, Berlin surpassed Rome and now ranks third among European cities, after Paris and London, in the number of tourists it attracts.

And this, he promises, is just the beginning.