The Berlin Wall: An enduring memory of a dark period

20:53, November 09, 2009      

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Checkpoint on Invaliden Street in Berlin, on November 10, 1989(Photo: Global Times)

"The wall was a monster; victims, suffering, blockade ... obscene, ugly, hateful..."

"The wall was not only ugly, it was something people could not believe that our regime was able to set up."

"It had an air of unreality; you knew it was abnormal, you knew it couldn't remain forever."

These people, seemingly middle-aged and speaking English with heavy German accents, are referring to the Berlin Wall at the beginning of a short video made by

Today, November 9, marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the most enduring and concrete symbols of the Cold War.

Western leaders are also set to reunite to celebrate what they called a victory of the "free world," but even the perception of the fall of the Berlin Wall is quite different to different people. November 9 can only mean one thing to Germans.

Checkpoint on Invaliden Street in Berlin, on November 10, 1989(Photo: Global Times)

Dazzling events

The celebrations will start at Bornholmer Bridge, which connects East and West Berlin, in the afternoon. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with Mikhail Gorbachev, then-leader of the Soviet Union in 1989, Lech Walesa, former chairman of the Solidarity movement in Poland, and many witnesses of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, will pass across the bridge.

They will share their memories during those dramatic days in the cold winter of 1989.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and European Commission Chairman Jose Manuel Barroso will join Merkel in the commemoration ceremony at Schloss Bellevue in the evening.

The formal ceremony, themed "the Festival of Freedom," will start at 7 pm at Potsdam Plaza with an open-air commemorative concert to be conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

A 1.5-kilometer long wall of 1,000 giant dominos, each of which is made of 2.5-meter tall plastic foam, has been erected between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdam Plaza, and will bring a climax of the celebrations to be set tumbling by Lech Walesa, symbolizing the establishment of Poland's Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Warsaw Pact member country.

The last piece of the domino is set to fall in front of the Brandenburg Gate about an hour after the first piece is toppled.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel tours an exhibition during the opening of the new museum of German history at Villa Schoeningen in Potsdam November 8, 2009.(Xinhua/Reuters Photo)

Intangible wall

Sebastian Herbstreuth, who grew up in Stuttgart, West Germany, and is now a doctoral student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, said, "For me … trying to make sense of the events on November 9 is still very difficult. Of how people in East Berlin would hold out at the border installations in the cold of the night, simply refusing to go home; of how they finally crossed the border and climbed on this wall, cheering and actually beginning to physically tear it down."

"I think the fall of the Berlin Wall was necessary. It united not only Germany but also Europe," said Jan Sonnenschein, a German scholar on European politics at Leiden University. "There is no other way. We are the same people; we share common history, language and culture; we belong to each other."

However, a poll result of 1,002 Germans released in September by the Forsa institute found that one in seven Germans want the Berlin Wall back because they were better off when the country was divided, according to Reuters.

Many Westerners are bitter about paying higher taxes to rebuild the East, where some 1.2-trillion euros ($1,762 billion) worth of state funds has been transferred in the last 20 years. At the same time, East Germans are unhappy about income levels that are, on average, only 80 percent of West German levels.

"Many well-educated people went to the West, and lots of people lost their jobs due to the difficult financial situation in the East, with the unemployment rate twice as high as the West," Sonnenschein said. "Therefore, although the living standard is higher than before, for many old people who live in the East, the wall still exists, and they do want to go back to the old time."

Dennis, whose father was a teacher 20 years ago at a high school in Halle, a small city in East Germany, was brought to West Berlin on the evening of November 9, 1989, when he was only a 2-month-old infant, and he now studies at Hamburg University.

"My classmates always call me Ossi (those from the old East Germany) ironically, and my roommates pretended to levy a 'unification tax' on me," Dennis told the Global Times. "Some friends growing up in West Germany even raised questions to me, at a party, about whether East Germany still uses toilets without water and whether there are Mercedes-Benz cars in the East."

Rethinking after 20 years

Against the backdrop of the financial crisis, political science professor Gareth Stedman Jones, director of the Center for History and Economics and a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, told the Global Times that the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall would be muted.

The current situation has led people in Europe to reevaluate capitalism. There is anger toward those who are responsible for the financial crisis, while others are suffering from unemployment. It is clear that the neo-liberal ethos that dominated American and British politics in the past 20 years needs to be reformed in some way, Stedman Jones said.

He also noted that, "For better or worse, capitalism remains the most dynamic economy." However, there is some space left for socialism in Europe. He noted that "the space left is not whether it is to abolish capitalism or not, but how far other concerns could control and shape capitalism. And in that sense, social democracy still has a future."

Compared to the time up to the 1960s, when young people still believed in some form of socialist utopia, what dominates now is "dystopia," Stedman Jones said. "Young people now have all kinds of concerns about things that are making the world worse, including climate change. They are pessimistic and don't have the sense of the possibility of a truly free society. In this sense, part of the socialist tradition is lost in Europe."

The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall

August 13, 1961. To prevent a growing number of East Germans streaming into West Berlin, East German troops begin erecting an ?anti-fascist protection barrier.?

June 26, 1963. US President John Kennedy rides in an limousine through West Berlin.

March 11, 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev, 54, becomes leader of the Soviet Union and embarks on a course of cautious reforms.

January 1989. Popular protests against the East German government become bolder and more widespread, but leader Erich Honecker insists: The Wall will stand in 50, even 100 years.?

October 18, 1989. Honecker is forced to resign on health grounds amid growing protests.

November 4, 1989. Half a million demonstrate in East Berlin.

November 9, 1989. Honecker's successor Egon Krenz says all East Germans can go to the West starting the following day if they apply for an exit visa. By midnight, hundreds of thousands breach the Wall and pour into the West.

Source: Global Times
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