BERLIN — It’s Saturday and this city of 3.5 million people is poised for a big party Monday night. No, it’s not Hank Williams Jr.’s football party; it’s a bit bigger than that. It’s a party to celebrate freedom. It’s a party to celebrate unity.
It’s a party to celebrate the right to have parties.
Actually they had a pretty good one here Thursday night when U2 wowed 10,000 beneath the Brandenburg Gate. Want to see some of that? Try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZfUAMehb24
Officially the Monday party is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall or, as the locals put it, 20 Jahre Mauerfall. The city is abuzz, and the party is being heralded everywhere. The city’s largest newspaper, Berliner Zeitung, carries a full-page front-page picture today of jubilant Berliners straddling the top of the Wall back on Nov. 9 & 10, 1989. The picture reminds you of the remake you’ve probably seen of the line of iron workers from the 1940s straddling the high-rise carcass of a skyscraper while dipping into their lunchpails for a sandwich.
Young people from all over the world crowd Pariser Platz near the Brandenburg Gate Friday as Monday’s big party approaches. A stage is under construction for world leaders and entertainers. U2 performed here Thursday night.
The Zeitung also carries a special 16-page section today called simply, “1989 – 2009,” featuring a large picture of East Berliners rushing to freedom on Bornhomerstrasse the night of Nov. 9, 1989. The headline reads, “Das Volk sind wir, und wir sind Millionen,” or “We are the people, and we are millions.”
It’s hard not to feel emotion over images like this.
I was talking with American George Glass, who is a senior U.S. Embassy official, Friday and he said the same exact thing. Reflecting on all the photos and videos of the that night, Glass said, “For me, the images live on. Last night when I looked out the embassy window and saw U2 performing to 10,000 Germans, and remembering what conditions were like here before the Wall came down, I could hardly believe it.”
Just down Unter den Linden, the main street running into Pariser Platz, I caught up with a veteran ZDF Television reporter who covered the fall of the Wall that night 20 years ago. He is Christhard Lapple, and he worked all night the night of the fall, having the privilege of interviewing the ecstatic East Berliners who were making their dash to freedom, streaming into West Berlin through the now-open gate.
“It was a special atmosphere,” Lapple said with a glowing smile that suggested the years had not dulled the memory nor the emotion. “These people … just to be able to decide for yourself that you can move and go where ever you want to go. That you can bring your sons to their grandparents for the first time!”
The German newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, has been featuring Lapple’s remembrances of what some of those elated East Berliners had to say that night. Here is a sampling:
Christhard Lapple, a ZDF-TV reporter who covered the fall of the Wall, shows off a chunk of the "monster" he still keeps on his desk.
“We want to do our work, we want to travel, we want to live like everyone else!” a young woman beamed as she and her husband came past the Wall that had kept them from doing all three all their lives.
“Tear down the Wall! Let us tear it down at last! It has stood long enough,” another woman shouts happily. Most of those streaming through the main gate at Bornholmerstrasse are young; maybe 20 to 30.
Lapple wrote of his own feelings, “Now, streams of people pass through the Brandenburg Gate in both directions. The border troops with shouldered Kalashnikovs stand on the edge. Wait. Will they intervene? There is an unreal, happy and peaceful mood.”
A man with a huge mustache says: “It must remain in any case that you can go back and forth. This is the most important thing that we will not shut up again like all these years. “
Amid the elation there were also many questions both East and West Berliners had. How will the country subsidize all these people who have virtually nothing and whose basic needs have been taken care of by the communist state all these years? How will the economy absorb them? Some East Berliners, who knew nothing since World War II than communism, wondered if they really wanted to be capitalists or if they just wanted the freedom to move back and forth as they chose; to reunite with family members once again.
But the questions and concerns failed to dampen the spirit of that night. And the echoes of the hundreds of East Berliners who had died trying to make valiant escape attempts during the Wall’s 28 years of existence seemed to be loud and clear in what these fleeing East Berliners had to say on this 1989 November night.
A double row of cobblestones follows the path the Wall took through Berlin, separating East from West. Now Berliners stroll freely across that line, usually without even noticing it.
Ironically, since Germans put the day before the month when they communicate dates, they refer to this anniversary night of freedom as 9/11. It’s quite a different connotation than Americans have of that number sequence.
A few days ago I was visiting with two close friends in the eastern city of Magdeburg. Drs. Holger and Kristin Kersten both teach at the University of Magdeburg and, although they are from the western cities of Lubeck and Cologne, they moved to eastern Germany for Holger to take his position at the university where he now heads the Department of English Studies.
In moving east, however, the Kerstens are unusual among Germans because it is much more common for Germans raised in the East to move west. The reason? Inequities still remain in job opportunities and pay scales. Things are somewhat better in western Germany, although that gap is closing as George Glass noted in our Friday interview and as a story in Der Tagesspiegel on the “brain drain” in eastern Germany pointed out.
George Glass feels that psychological division between Germans has greatly diminished, however. “Now you hear virtually no references to ‘Ossis’ and ‘Wessis’ (Easterners and Westerners),” he says. “You don’t feel that distinction much any more.”
Holger Kersten grew up in Lubeck and sees the fall of the Wall through a prism of pain because he had family who lived in the East, and members of his family were prevented from seeing each other for many years.
“When I think of the Wall, I think of violence and anger and forced separation of family members, he said. To me, reunification is more a coming-together of family members and friends. Bringing back together those who should have always been together. So he can’t see how any in the East, who lived under that restrictive regime, would say the Wall should still be standing.”
Kristin and Holger Kersten both moved from western German cities to the eastern city of Magdeburg. Most Germans seem to go the other way, but that may be changing.
My own impressions? To say I am a bit surprised by all the attention this anniversary is getting over here, is an understatement. I thought it would be more of a politically-staged celebration which everyday German citizens, caught up in the same kinds of nagging economic issues facing Americans, would push to the back of their minds. But I was wrong, and I think I was wrong because I come from a country that has come to take basic freedoms for granted.
By Chris Lapple’s count, some 4.5 million East Germans got out of East Germany when they could in the years following 1949. Clearly, that became impossible for most when the Wall went up in 1961, but it shows that when a people are confronted with being stripped of their freedoms, many will say no thanks. I’m headed West.
I can’t wait for the party Monday night that celebrates freedom and inspires the rest of the world to cherish it.
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