The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was one of the first major events I can remember watching on the news as a child. Whether you saw it through a child’s eyes or an adult’s, it was hard to comprehend that a wall could be built to divide a city, and that those living on the east side of it didn’t have the freedom to come and go as they pleased.
Watching the people on the news celebrating, climbing on top of the Wall with the famous landmark – the Brandenburger Tor in the background, I was fixated. I doubt I understood entirely what was happening, but I believe this implanted my fascination with Berlin.
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Der Mauerfall. Judging by the celebrations that I was lucky enough to be a part of for two days, when I lived in Berlin for the 25th anniversary, I’m sure Berlin will again deliver stunning events to mark this milestone in true Berlin fashion – a commemoration and celebration for locals and visitors which I aim to be a part of again.
Until then, here is my experience of being there during such a poignant time in not only the city’s history, but the world’s too.
Day 1 – Wall Stories
I headed out of my apartment, which was off Bornholmer Strasse with my friend Mel, and we were instantly met with a spectacle of some of the illuminated balloons. These were just some of the thousands of balloons part of the 15km long light installation that were erected the day before to evoke the countless candles – the symbol of non-violence during the Peaceful Revolution in 1989/90.
100 wall stories along the Lichtgrenze/light illuminations tell tales of successful and tragic escapes, as well as the resistance of the division. There’s a section of the wall that remains along Bornholmer Str up to the train station. This area is deeply significant as it was the first border crossing where East Germans gathered to enforce the opening of the border and were amongst the first to cross over to the West. A young Anglea Merkel is said to be one of those approximately 20,000 people that poured through. During the division Bornholmer Str S-Bahn (overground) train station was one of the major checkpoints and one of the only stations that had both East and West train lines passing through, although they were never on the same tracks and were separated by a fence.
There is now a touching memorial by the section of the wall which stands today, showing the peaceful storming of this checkpoint with both ends displaying a street sign which simply reads, ‘Platz des 9 November 1989’. The area was busy and there was a large screen in place showing key footage, including the infamous press conference blunder, yet blessing, that shaped the beginning of Germany’s reunification.
We followed the route of the illuminations through Mauerpark (Wall memorial park), the glow of the balloons intensifying as the sun was beginning to set. In the distance, you could see another well-known landmark, the TV tower at Alexanderplatz. After a quick pit stop at the Royal Elephant Thai restaurant on Oderberger Strasse, we strolled to Bernauer Str (bordering Wedding and Mitte districts) where the largest Wall memorial (1.4km long outdoor exhibition), is situated. This has a more sombre ambience as it portrays the grim construction of the wall and border fortifications, as well as commemorating how people risked their lives to escape or sadly those who lost their lives in the process. It was dark (and cold!) by the time we reached here. The wall and the high steel markers looked very spooky, but the illuminations surrounding it were a haunting contrast. Here you can also see the death strip and original watchtower, a true snapshot back in time, which sends shivers through you.
We stood watching the wall stories, this time it showed the true scale of the wall, the impact of it going up and the people’s reaction/protests throughout its existence. The programme showed a demonstration, which started peacefully, but soon, turned violent.
One man stood there calmly speaking to the DDR police/guards asking why it was an offence to have freedom of speech and how could they arrest people for speaking their mind. The film also showed that when the night of the fall happened the guards had no idea what to do, some tried to stop it or waited for orders on what action to take, while others thankfully gave in.
We hopped on the S-Bahn to Brandenburger Tor to see the illuminations around this famous landmark. As expected, the area was buzzing with locals and tourists taking photos of the Brandenburg Gate, which beamed with a rotating colour lighting scheme as its backdrop.
We passed through Potsdamer Platz, a true example of modern Berlin with its tall skyscrapers, modern buildings and shopping centres. A rather controversial area in the city due to the huge costs accumulated to redevelop it. Seeing small sections of the original graffiti wall against the background of these contemporary shining buildings, as well as the first winter market of the year in full swing.
Our final destination was Warchauser Str. (Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district) to visit the East Side Galley, a 1.3 km long section of the Berlin Wall and an international memorial/art mural representing freedom – a fitting end to day one of our Berlin Wall exploration. The illuminations looked particularly stunning here and it is the most spectacular I have ever seen the artwork. Holding true to the districts partying reputation, it came as no surprise to stumble upon a street party blaring dance music.
During the many hours Mel and I explored the Lichtgrenze, I asked her a few questions on what life was like in East Berlin, where she was born and grew up. Although she was also very young when the Wall was around and when it fell, she can recall snippets. For her parents who had spent half their lives in the DDR and knew no different, the coming down of the wall was emotional. Mel’s parents, like many went off to explore one of the checkpoints to see if what they had heard on TV was actually happening. Mel mentioned she can remember that there was a real sense of community growing up in the East. People really helped each other and shared the lack of resources they had, a mentality that older generations in Berlin maintain today.
Her Mum is a hairdresser and back in those days would trade haircuts for oranges, for example, or other essentials that we take for granted today. Mel’s Dad, a mechanic who had to fix vehicles with a lack of utensils and parts, certainly had a tough position. The skill to be able to do this was so remarkable, that when he began to work in the West after the reunification he was more skilled and greatly admired for this by his counterparts. Mel’s family were fortunate in the sense they had relatives in West Germany (Stuttgart) who were able to send them clothes and other basic items that weren’t available in the East. Although, like many others it must have been an incredibly difficult decision for her Grandparents to have made to stay in Berlin just before the wall was built and not emigrate to the West. There wasn’t a lot of time for people to be able to make these drastic decisions and many weren’t convinced the division would actually occur.
Day 2 ‘…And we are free,’ the releasing of the balloons
Festivities were happening throughout the day around the whole city but it was in the evening where hordes of people were gathering at significant spots to watch the illuminated balloons be freed into the cold, dark and slightly misty air.
The trains and stations were packed with a huge mix of people, many were families with different generations (and their dogs!) joining in the celebrations. After meeting my friends, we went to East Side Gallery to watch the balloons be released, as we figured that the Brandenburg Gate would be crammed full of people. We had absolutely no idea what time the balloons would be released in this area, so while we waited we walked along the wall taking final photos of the illuminations against the murals and absorbing the superb atmosphere.
Suddenly, on the big screen they showed the Brandenburger Tor event ‘Standing up for Freedom’ (the scale of the crowd was insane!) there was a concert with performances by Peter Gabriel, an orchestra and about 200 choir members. As the balloons were let go there, the crowd were cheering with an array of fireworks going off around the well-known landmark. We stood in anticipation waiting for the release to reach the East Side Gallery, when all of a sudden, there were cheers where we were standing and you could see in the distance the balloons beginning to be released, the ritual creeping its way down the 1.3km long section of the wall. We followed it down with the crowds of people cheering and fireworks crackling. Instead of classical music as a soundtrack though, very appropriately for this area, there was techno.
Arriving back at Bornholmer Str, I stepped over empty beers bottles, rubbish and saw a few people making their way home. By this time, the area was quiet and as I walked past the wall there stood a single candle flickering in the darkness that someone had placed in a cup. It was very moving. The whole event was organised tastefully and it had a remarkable and touching impact infused with celebration, and a sense of liberation. It’s fair to say that the Berliners have had hard obstacles to overcome, but this is what makes the people and Berlin the amazing, unique and united city it is today.