How seriously is Germany taking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall? Well, if you consider the people who are showing up for the event any index, try 10 on a 10-point scale.
For the Wall’s history, check out my post below called, “Remembering the unforgettable.” But today I wanted to talk about how Germany is treating this anniversary, starting with the invitation list.
These guests include three world leaders from the Cold War era and one of the best-known bands in the world, which is also known for its humanitarian efforts.
The three men who led the Soviet Union, West Germany, and the United States when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 were on hand today (Saturday) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, and George Bush spoke to some 1,800 pepole who packed the Friedrichstadt Palast theatre. The Berlin newspaper, Der Tagesspegiel, quotes former German Chancellor Kohl as saying, “I have every reason, above all anger and frustration, to be proud. I’ve nothing better to be proud of than the German unification.”
As current German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked on, the three world leaders spoke of the significance of the Nov. 9, 1989, event. Former Soviet leader Gorbachev, the man who is responsible for originating peristroika in Russia, then goaded Bush saying, “I tell you quite simply, America also needs a peristroika,” Der Tagesspiegel reports. He then commended President Obama for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and said that is a step in the right direction.
Bush praised Kohl as a “truly great statesman of the 20th century,” but said the events of 1989 were begun by the hearts and minds of the people deprived for too long of their God-given rights.”
German Federal President Horst Kohler called the fall of the Wall a “historic high point,” and called the gathering of the three world leaders “something special” and “a sign of hope and encouragement.”
The reunion of Bush, 85; Gorbachev, 78, and Kohl, 79, weas sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which has close ties to Chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Party. All three of the world leaders played key roles in the peaceful revolution that played out in 1989 East Germany that culminated in the fall of the Wall that year.
Berlin is organizing a “Festival of Freedom” for November 9, in which Merkel will host Gorbachev, Polish former anti-communist leader Lech Walesa, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will represent President Obama. French and Russian presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medved will also attend.
Also lending a hand to the anniversary celebration is the Irish band of superstars simply known worldwide as U2. They will perform a short outdoor free-ticketed concert Thursday night, Nov. 5, at the foot of the historic Brandenburg Gate. The concert is part of the 16th MTV Europe Music Awards, to be held in Berlin’s 02 World on Thursday and broadcast live over MTV the same day.
Germany holds special meaning for U2, as the band relocated to the city in 1990, a year after the Wall came down, to reinvent its sound and release its famous “Achtung Baby” album. The Hansa recording studio where the album was done is located close to where the Wall stood.
The band’s manager, Paul McGuinness, said on the U2 website, “It’ll be an exciting spot to be in, 20 years almost to the day since the wall came down. Should be fun.”
A testimony to U2′s enduring popularity is that all of the free tickets were handed out within 24 of the concert’s announcement last Wednesday.
On the more serious side, one of the anniversary events will be the voluntary return to jail of a former prisoner of East Germany’s Stasi secret police. Wolfgang Holzapfel, 65, is returning to a former East German jail cell for a week to remind the world of the brutality of conditions there before the Wall came down.
The former West German will be enduring the same conditions he did when he was sentenced in 1965 to eight years in Hohenschonhausen Prison for political activism. He will be locked in a small cell, wear a prison uniform and will not be permitted to lie on his bed during the daytime hours.
In other news related to the anniversary, the German newspaper, The Local, announced that China’s government has blocked its citizens from logging onto a German website celebrating the fall of the Wall because Chinese bloggers were using it to protest conditions in their own communist government.
The site is called Berlin Twitter Wall www.berlintwitterwall.com and its access was cut off to China Monday afternoon Beijing time, according to the KulturProjekte Berlin, the non-profit arts organization that sponsors the website.
“When we launched it on Oct. 20, we got a lot of worldwide attention, so naturally the Chinese people have seen it as a way to voice their opinions about internet censorship in their own country,” Carsten Hein, the project coordinator, told The Local.
Particularly troublesome to Chinese authorities was the request by the Berlin Twitter Wall for users to describe, “which walls in the rest of the world should, in their opinion, now fall.”
All in all, the week ahead is shaping up to be an interesting one in Berlin.
Ever tried to erase ink from the printed page? Pretty hard to do. That image remains, no matter how hard you try to scrub it away.
This is the 20th anniversary of this world-changing event.
Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be writing about this anniversary, the event that it marks, and the impact the fall of the Wall has had on Germany, Europe, the United States, and the world. I hope you will come along with me as we travel to Berlin and a couple other cities in the former East Germany.
Along the way, you’ll see some images of what things look like today. Such as the Wall itself, or what remains of it. Like this image with your blogger in front of it.
Following WWII, the eastern portion of Germany was ceded to Russia for its contributions to winning the war for the Allies. As the Soviet empire grew into the USSR, East Germany became a country within that communist coalition. The former Germany became two Germanies: East and West, communist and democratic.
Ironically, communist East Germany was known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, and was officially so founded and named in 1949 by the Soviet leadership which would hold sway over the country until the wall came down and eastern communism fell apart under its own weight.
Increasingly, the East German government found it hard to keep its people from fleeing to the West. To stem the emigration, the government decided on a plan to make it nearly impossible for East Germans to leave without permission. The most visible part of that plan — and a very effective one — was the Berlin Wall, whose construction began in the August, 1961.
It was the final barrier to freedom to be put in place after the previous plan of securing all other parts of the East-West German border than Berlin itself, had failed to prevent emigration to the West. The entire border was now officially closed, and East German soldiers at the border were ordered to guard it with their lives.
When the Wall was through, some 97 miles of the forbidding “monster” as it came to be known by man, would divide the two Berlins, virtually encircling West Berlin along the border created by post-WWII negotiations. The Wall included guard towers atop the concrete structure which circumscribed a swath of no-mans land often called “the death strip,” containing anti-vehicle defenses. A “baby wall” was built on the eastern edge of this death strip.
Defection came to a standstill among East Germans wanting to flee. In the months and years ahead, many brave souls would try, and many would fail and lose their lives in the process.
When the border was closed, a large number of Berlin families were split off from each other and many would not see their loved ones again. West Berlin became an virtual island of freedom in a hostile land. West Berliners demonstrated daily against the construction of the Wall. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt criticized the U.S. for not trying to stop construction of the Wall.
For its part, the East German government officially declared the Wall as the “Anti-fascist protective rampart.” GDR leaders said defection to the West was an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity.
The Wall and the extensions of its closed border that separated all of East from West Germany, was often referred to in world affairs as the “iron curtain.” That curtain would remain closed until communism began to crumble in eastern Europe in the mid- to late 1980s. In East Germany, peaceful demonstrations had been occurring regularly in 1989, and all of it led up to the opening of the wall on the night of Nov. 9, 1989. That opening, however, caught everyone — West Germans alike — by surprise when it happened.
Here is how I described it in my coverage of the 10th anniversary in 1999:
“It was more of an accident of history. A mistaken or misinterpreted televised remark on Nov. 9, 1989, of an East German Politburo member Guenter Schabowski that East Germans were free to travel ‘without meeting special provisions,’ and that the new rule would go into effect immediately.
“Still Harald Jaeger, then a lieutenant colonel in the East German Army, had received no orders to let East Germans pass to the West that night. A growing crowd of vocal Germans appeared at his post at Berlin’s Bornholmerstrasse Crossing. Confusion reigned. Jaeger called his superiors for orders. There were none. Jaeger took a chance that Schabowski’s statement was official. He opened the gate and it never closed again.”
In the days to come, we’ll take a look at what the fall of the Berlin Wall has meant to Germany and also hear from some Americans who have intertesting stories to tell about their time in Berlin. Then we will attend the anniversary festivities in Pariser Platz, beneath the Brandenburg Gate on the night of Nov. 9.
I look forward to your joining me on this journey.