Monday, November 9, 2015

Berlin Wall Falling Anniversary

I posted this a year ago on this day, to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now, it is one year later, and Germany celebrated a quarter of a century since reunification just a little over one month ago. 

I remember those times, although I witnessed them from afar. On the news, mostly. So, it was a view from afar.

Still, there was a sense of the historical significance of the moment which was really remarkable.  It felt like that because it was not just Germany, but all of Eastern Europe. 

Yet, there was something remarkable about the situation in Germany, specifically. A country divided, and set up against itself. A symbol of the divisions between East and West, suddenly watching the Wall, the most visible, stark reminder of the divided times, fall. And not because of any orchestrated maneuvers by politicians, but because of the people! Quite remarkable! 

So, it seemed appropriate to share this blog entry again about the event, including a little bit on my own visit to Berlin two years and change ago:

Okay, so by now, surely everyone has heard. Today marks a very special anniversary in the history of Germany, as it is 25 years ago to the day that the Berlin Wall fell.

It is so incredibly hard to believe that it has been this long since an event that I actually remember rather vividly! God, I must be getting old, huh?

In any case, it was a historical event, to say the least. I remember watching the clips on the news from home, and feeling just amazed. It really felt like a miracle! Germany had been divided for decades, and it seemed like it would always be divided. The Berlin Wall was the most visible reminded of this division, not just of Berlin, or even of the two German nations, but also of Europe as a whole. It was also a reminder of the level of distrust in and of Europe following World War II. Perhaps this would be as good an opportunity to remind people of just why, because while this day is huge in Germany for being the date that the Berlin Wall fell, it is also the anniversary of another huge, albeit far more sinister event in German history: Kristalnacht.

So, when such an ugly scar of a structure suddenly became the symbol of what humanity can peacefully overcome, it seemed like a miracle! And in Berlin, of all places! The city that had been the capital of Germany through two wars where it had shown aggression and militancy. Then, it lay in rubble following the last war, and was the most polarizing of places immediately afterwards, as east and west competed for the prize. Like Germany itself, Berlin was divided into four different sectors. The three belonging to France, the United Kingdom, and the United States became, collectively, known as West Berlin. The eastern part was known as East Berlin, and was communist. There was the Berlin Airlift in 1949. There was reconstruction, but it was often painfully slow. Then, the wall went up, almost literally overnight, with physical barriers being erected on the night of August 13, 1961. It was not exactly a whole wall immediately, but it would get there. Suddenly, the one time center of the German Empire was the center of a massive, physical division, unlike anything any other city had seen before. There were the checkpoints, and escape attempts. And always the Wall itself, running through the city, and dividing it, resembling almost a concrete scar.

It felt like it was always going to be there.

That is why it felt like such a miracle when the wall came down, and through peaceful means, to boot! It was a revolution of sorts, and it was one of the people. Both east and west, Berliners went to the wall and scaled it's heights. They took hammers and chisels and whaled away, taking pieces of the barrier home as souvenirs.

Suddenly Germany, a country that had seen, and caused, enormous tragedies over the decades, became a symbol of hope. We all remember the iconic images of Germans gathered at the wall, for days and probably even weeks afterward. Before too long, pieces of the Berlin Wall were being sold everywhere. I got a couple of pieces when I got the small gift boxes of Roger Waters great concert in the summer of 1990 in Berlin. Fittingly, of course, he performed "The Wall" in Berlin. He had been asked years before if he would ever perform it again, and said only if the Berlin Wall came down. By 1990, rather miraculously, the Berlin Wall had come down. By October of that year, East Germany was absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany (also known as West Germany), and the world saw the newly reunified Germany, which seems to have become a success story.

Germany has always fascinated me as a country, and perhaps Berlin was especially fascinating. This was a country that had gone through barbaric ages and the Roman Empire, that had seen feudalism, that had risen to become an empire itself, that had fought wars successfully, and grown to become the leading power of the world. Then, it went through two horrendous world wars, losing both times. It lay in rubble and ruins, yet it built itself up. Germany had seen the ultimate example of fascism, and it was the most visibly polarized of places between capitalism and communism, between east and west. And nowhere in Germany had seen these extremes to the extent that Berlin had.

For so many years, I had been burning to see Berlin. Last year, at least for one day, I got my chance, finally. It was June 5, 2013. My girlfriend and I were on our way to Poland, to Krakow, and then onto visit her family. But we got a day to spend in Berlin, and I was so very excited.

There were a lot of things that I wanted to see in Berlin. Some I got to see, some I did not. But the main thing that I wanted to see was at least a bit of the Berlin Wall.

Much to my pleasant surprise, I got plenty of chances to see reminders of it on that day. When the trip ended and we came home, I wrote a blog entry about it, including the pictures.

It seems fitting to report that today, on this, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall:

Throughout the city, there is now a marker line, like the one pictured above, to identify where the Berlin Wall once stood.

The longest single piece of the Wall still standing, I believe, is at the Topographie des Terrors, which is within easy walking distance of Checkpoint Charlie, and not too far from the Potsdam Platz, either. 

(Just a side note - I was wrong about this being the longest piece of the wall still standing)

When I was growing up, Berlin seemed somehow like a foreboding place. It had been the capital of the closest thing to an outright evil empire that the world has ever seen, before or since. And, more than any other city in the world, it was the most visible "hot spot", if you will, of the Cold War.

The Berlin Wall was the most obvious marker of these tensions, and the history is fascinating. It is a bit easier to take now that we have witnessed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in the inspiring and largely peaceful revolution of 1989. The only place that I specifically remember violence in was in Romania, although eventually, this was the case in the former Yugoslavia, as well.

In Germany, however, the fall of the Wall came rather unexpectedly, and with amazing speed. Suddenly, the Wall was relegated to symbolic status, and Berliners were taking it upon themselves to hammer away at it, so that it was quickly more a memory than anything else. 

It was amazing to behold, and I longed to go there in person. Of course, I was still pretty much just a high school kid yet, so it was not in any position to purchase my ticket to Berlin. But I have longed to see the city since. 

Well, I finally got my chance to see it earlier this month, and there were a few things that I really wanted to see. The main thing was the Brandenburg Gate. The next thing was the Berlin Wall. 

I will review my overall Berlin trip very soon, complete with pictures. But right now, here is the blog on those parts of the Wall that I did actually see. There were three areas in particular where I saw the remnants of the Berlin Wall. Upon arriving at the Brandenburg Gate fairly early in the morning (and it was very quiet yet, no throngs of tourists), I asked someone who was dressed in an East German uniform and offering different stamp cancellations where I could find "The Wall". He pointed in a particular direction, which turned out to be Potsdamer Platz. Later, after seeing Potsdamer Platz, I noticed that we were not actually that far from Checkpoint Charlie, which I also really wanted to see. And it so happened that we were then very close to the Topographie des Terrors, which I believe has the longest stretch of the actual Berlin Wall still standing and relatively intact.

None of them actually gives an accurate feel of what the Berlin Wall must have been like when it actually divided the city mercilessly, but this one stretch of the Wall here was as close as you can get, I think, and I was very glad to have seen it!

I had done some research on the Wall before the actual trip, in hopes of at least getting to see some of it. some of the material was a bit confusing, and did not really give a good picture of just how to get to these places, and how far they were from one another, the quality of the Wall still standing, etc. 

Since I hardly think that I was the only person who ever visited modern day Berlin with a keen interest in seeing what's left of the Wall, it seemed important to me to perhaps write something about this, and to give someone who is interested in visiting Berlin and seeing the remnants of the Wall an idea of what to expect. I was on foot the entire time, from the Brandenburg Gate to Potsdamer Platz, to Checkpoint Charlie and the Topographie des Terrors, and then onto the Berlin Cathedral and the Unten den Linden, back to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, and a little into the edge of the famous Tiergarten Park. 

I had limited time, since it was a ten hour layover. Yet, I was amazed at just how much I saw in such a short space of time. My main focus was on the seeing the Berlin Wall, and we got to see a decent amount of what's left. So, here, without further ado, and in chronological order, as the pictures, and some personal impressions, of the most famous landmark that no longer really is, The Berlin Wall:

Pieces of the Berlin Wall by the Potsdamer Platz

A lot of the remnants of the Wall look like this - which is to say, absolutely nothing like the way that it did before it fell. This is at the famous Potsdamer Platz, which is an easy walk from the Brandenburg Gate, and also not far from the Topographie des Terrors, as well as Checkpoint Charlie. As you can see, the remnants of the Wall here are essentially little slices. You can easily walk around it and, frankly, if you were across the street or something, you might easily walk by it without fully realizing what it was. It is interesting to see these pieces, and they were the first actual parts of the Berlin Wall that we saw on that day, but don't expect it to look like it once did, when it actually divided the Potsdamer Platz.

Not entirely sure what the rocks gathered at the bottom of this piece of the wall meant, but it seemed interesting nonetheless, so here is a picture. Thought I would mention it, while we're on the subject of the Potsdamer Platz, that one of the concerts that I really wished I had attended was the Roger Waters "The Wall" concert from here, in between the Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate. After Woodstock, this would have been a dream concert to have attended, and my brother got me the video of it for my birthday back then. I have watched it many times, and could not help but recall it while visiting Potsdamer Platz this time around, for that matter. 

Pieces of the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie

Some more blocks of the Wall, with artwork displayed. These are located right by Checkpoint Charlie, and are interesting. But, again, they hardly give the feel of what the Wall must have felt like back in the day, when it actually served its purpose to divide the city very efficiently.

The painted pieces of the Berlin Wall near to Checkpoint Charlie were interesting, and had the feel of art exhibits. But by that point, we had already seen the remnants near Potsdamer Platz, and since these felt even less like the actual Wall then the one there, and since Checkpoint Charlie has a very touristy feel now, it was more just a point of interest than anything that will give you a feel for the peak days of the tensions of the Cold War. I mean, there is a McDonald's there, for God's sake! But the next location felt much grimmer, and I think this was as close as you can get these days to getting a feel for what the Berlin Wall actually felt like and meant, even though the stretch that still stands at the Topographie des Terrors is not so long that you cannot simply walk around it, if you want to. Still, it felt more like the images that I had seen of the infamous Berlin Wall when it once stood, and iit is definitely recommended that you pay a visit there, if you want to see the closest thing. Checkpoint Charlie was famous and if you are in the area, is worth a visit. But it is a few blocks away (maybe a short walk of five minutes away), that you come to the Topographie des Terrors.

Topographie des Terrors

Memorial to the Victims of the Berlin Wall at the Tiergarten

Memorial to the victims of the Wall in the Tiergarten, across from the Reichstag.

I saw this postcard all over the place in Berlin, and there was even an image of it in my souvenir book, so I thought I'd share it. This is the silhouette of a famous photograph of an East German soldier who really did cross the border, just like that, and someone managed to get a picture of him doing it in real life. 

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