If there was any place I expected to experience an emotional connection to the long-distant confusion and euphoria of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was definitely not Checkpoint Charlie.
Yet, last weekend I stood at the intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse, wiping away an unexpected tear of awe and thankfulness at being part of the celebration of such a monumental event… and dumbfoundedness at the human cruelty of building a wall between friends and family in the first place.
It was not the 8000 illuminated balloons forming the ‘Lichtgrenze’ (light border) along a 15km section of the former barrier between East and West Berlin that caused this reaction, despite this bringing a tangible reminder of the communities divided overnight by the DDR.
I lost count of the number of times I coincidentally crossed the Lichtgrenze over the three days leading up to the balloons’ release, an unimaginable feat little over 25 years ago.
It was not the celebration at Brandenburger Tor, the new wall flying away into the nigt (one part released by Mikhail Gorbachev ), nor a triumphant rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, or performances by the German Keith Richards look-alike Udo Lindenberg and DJ Paul Kalkbrenner.
I’d be lying if I said that was not special. The night was something to remember, especially given that one member of the group we experienced it with might never have known us, given that she was born in East Germany.
It was standing at Checkpoint Charlie, surrounded by neon lights, not far from the fake border control house and the gaudy poster urging us to gawk at history; “The Berlin Wall, See it here!”
As we stood warming our fingers with a Glühwein, a short film began to play on the big screen which had previously shown footage of the celebrations. The crowd began to pay polite attention. Then stopped still and paid little attention to anything else.
In one of the first scenes, two women, maybe sisters, maybe neighbours soon-to-be separated by the wall, pay each other a sorrowful goodbye, under the sober gaze of border control guards. In the best scenario they may have been reunited through escape or have been able to meet sporadically in years to come. Realistically they might have been separated for up to a quarter of a century, or simply died before then.
The film is Marc Bauder’s ‘Mauerstück’ (wall pieces) and features 28 minutes of grainy documentary footage: One minute for each painful year Germany was divided until a press conference blunder broke the wall.
As the Mauerfall celebrations faded off the screen and the silent audience gradually became aware of itself again, I found myself wondering why this film should have such a profound effect; after all the wall and its history is barely fresh news.
For me, the answer lies in the many faces of Berliners the documentary reveals – something difficult to glean from strolling the East Side Gallery, taking a photo at Checkpoint Charlie or reading information boards at Bornholmer Strasse.
Anguish and joy, the wall builders and guards, the protestors and the politicians, the refugees climbing into Prague’s West German Embassy… The wall, an almost impermeable barrier for 28 years, is now a symbol of inhumanity, and the human victory in reuniting Germany is something that has to be treasured in the face of the fact that this construct existed in the first place.
On this note, I’ll leave you with some more photos from the 25th Mauerfall anniversary celebrations.