Berlin – 9. November 2009
Sitting at Café Segafredo at Unter den Linden, across from the monumental Russian Embassy, I watch people float towards the Brandenburg Gate, where at 7pm the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall celebrations will begin. I returned to Berlin in early November 2009 to finish up some research for Berliner Chic, and inadvertently walked into my own and millions of other people’s history. Earlier today, walking past the German Guggenheim just down the street, I think I saw Frank Gehry walk towards me. There are so many people here, all wanting to be part of something big, to re-live or to experience what happened here twenty years ago.
What happened here? The Cold-War world order came to an end, triggering an unprecedented global mobility and migration. Berlin is celebrating the anniversary of freedom; the “revolution of freedom” as the Berlin Morgenpost announced on its front page today. The city is celebrating the courage of people who put freedom over everything else, over homes and comforts, over families, careers, friends, and fortunes. That was my parents’ generation. People who made a very distinct choice in 1989, a choice for change, so that my generation could grow up in a different world.
Now twenty years later, I sit here, in the city that has seen it all, in a global-chain coffee shop, trying to understand what it is that my parents have accomplished, and what all this talk of freedom means. Growing up in a free society unfortunately has the side-effect of allowing us to take freedom for granted. I have no concept of what it means no to be free, not to travel across the world, following work or friends, or what-ever it is that captivates my attention. The only restrictions my generation is aware of are financial. When the money runs out, it means a temporary end to the globe-trotting and coffee-shop frequenting, and back to work until there is enough saved up for the next trip.
Here, in Berlin, hearing the stories of the people whose lives have been affected by the Wall, walking along the 1000 dominoes placed along where the Wall used to stand, I have a momentary glimpse of what it must have felt like in 1989. I started the domino walk at Potsdamer Platz, where the first stone is, which will be ceremoniously collapsed by the polish politician Lech Walesa later tonight. Walking along Ebertstrasse towards the Brandenburg Gate, past the Canadian Embassy across the street, with its large sign announcing an exhibition of Wall photographs by the Ryerson University, I decided to see the exhibition. Only there was no way through the domino wall, other than to go back to the first stone. There it was. My pathetic face-to-face encounter with the experience of the physical barrier of the reconstructed Wall, facilitated by the striking, physical presence of an art project. It could not be crossed! It was inconvenient. It separated you from what you wanted to do or see.
As I walked back and around to the more interesting, eastern side of the domino wall, I began to understand and feel what so many people must have felt on November 9th, 1989. The simplicity and empowerment of moving through urban space without barriers and impediments, and simultaneously the oddity of taking this basic human right for granted. When ideological or political barriers collapse, an individual is free to live out all of her creative potential, and to achieve all that can be achieved. While so many people had to fight for that basic right, I grew up with it, not fully realizing its value. That’s freedom.
Outside the Segafredo café it has started to rain. Another hour and the Wall will fall again. Symbolically. In the form of the domino stones, painted by school children in Berlin and across the world through the Goethe Institutes. Stretching from Potsdamer Platz to the Reichstag, the dominos re-create the experience of the Wall, for everyone who came here today, in the rain, to understand what it meant to be here then, what it still means now.
A group of young Frenchmen sit across from me at a bigger table – what does the fall of the Wall mean to them? A young German couple on my left – were they born in the East or the West? They were probably also too young to be here twenty years ago. I was surprised that my Berlin-born friends did not care to be out here in the rain tonight. They have seen it all before, they understand it, they have lived it, and will see it again for the 30th anniversary and the 50th. This is a night for touristic curiosity, for nostalgic moments for the parent’s generation, for discovery quests, but not for those who have always been here and personally know what happened. They are not searching for answers in the rain.
A Trabi parade livens up the street outside Segafredo. Honking, the parade makes its way from the East to the West. They are also symbols of the freedom fight. Many of them tried to break through the Wall, causing increasingly harsher border security, which at its height included numerous fences, barbed wire, and even a mine field between the walls, cleverly commemorated in Ralph Grüneberger’s poem, Es war nicht alles schlecht (Not everything was bad). Traces of this insane urban border can still be seen at the Berlin Wall Documentation Center at Bornholmerstrasse. It was never just one Wall. It was a border zone that ran through the whole city, with no-man’s-lands in between.
Many of the Trabis had secret compartments built into them to smuggle people across the border, some of them are still on display at the Check Point Charlie Museum. The Trabis even made it to the Cleveland Museum of Rock and Roll, the ones from the U2 video One that so cunningly asks us, is it “too late, tonight, to drag the past out into the light. We’re one, but we’re not the same.” Four days ago U2 got to sing that song again, right at the Brandenburg Gate. They first came here in October 1990, at the time of German reunification, to record their album Achtung Baby at the Hansa Tonstudios in Köthenerstr. 38, just a few streets over from Potsdamer Platz and where the Wall used to be, and where Bowie recorded Heroes in 1977. Now there is a Bono wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum near Pariser Platz, along with other historical figures. One of the domino stones was painted with Trabis and the inscription “Go, Trabi, Go!” referencing the satire films of Trabi adventures in the West after reunification. As the last Trabi goes by towards the former West, people cheer in the street.
I made my way to Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate and watched the Staatskapelle perform. As the rain would not stop, and the screen was increasingly blocked by umbrellas, and I was getting cold, I began to make my way out of the crowds, out of the now sealed-off Pariser Platz, back along Unter den Linden, towards Alexanderplatz, looking for a cafe with a TV. Luckily I remembered Andy’s Diner in the Radisson Hotel complex on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, which is the extension of Unter den Linden after the Museum Island and the former Palace. I had been here with Carolyn three years ago for burgers, and like all American diners, this one had enough flat-screen TVs to make my night complete. I watched the rest of the celebrations, chewing on a veggie burger and eating coleslaw.
During the speeches by the world politicians, Hilary Clinton, in her official role as the US Foreign Minister, talked about people following their dreams and living out their potential as a result of the fall of the Wall. Obama in a televised message talked about equality of all people who can live out their dreams in freedom. Freedom and dreams seem to go together tonight. Wim Wenders has articulated this yearning in his film Wings of Desire (1987), the freedom of the free-spirited woman trapeze artist and her dream of a man; the freedom of the angels to cross all barriers and walls and their dream to become human. Berlin is the place where freedom has been fought for to actualize dreams. The marketing campaign for the celebrations specifically entitled, “Fest der Freiheit” (Festival of Freedom) reminds Berliners and the world that freedom is something not to be taken for granted. As I finish my American-German veggie burger, the domino pieces fall, and it stops raining.
This article was also printed in Descant Magazine, The Berlin Project in 2014.