November 9, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the historic fall of the Berlin Wall, a moment that famously marked the unraveling of communism, as well as the reunification of West and East Germany. To commemorate the day, Berliners installed 8,000 illuminated balloons along the old route of the wall, marking how the division between west and east truly cut their city-center, and indeed an entire country, in half. Although the whole world was able to watch live on Sunday as the balloons were released, the evening took on a whole new light in the aftermath of this symbolic gesture. Here is my grainy, iPhone tour of what went down after the Berlin balloons took to the skies, and the German public took to the streets.
First off, plenty of fireworks could be seen both from the main stage at Brandenburg Gate and from people on the street.
After the balloons and fireworks made their way skyward, people started playing with the empty launchers, posing for pictures, and even taking the launchers home with them.
As I made my way closer and closer to Brandenburg Gate, I saw several giant screens playing footage from the historic 1989 fall of the wall. Leading up to tonight, the screens had been playing images of Berlin neighborhoods in the days when Germany was still divided.
One thing that was not apparent unless you were around the event is that there was a heavy police presence. Armored vehicles were at most major intersections, as well as large numbers of police in Kevlar suits. This is actually common practice at most large public gatherings in Berlin. Decades of violent protests, cold war military movements, and infrastructure sabotage from anarchists, neo-Nazis, and other extremist groups have hardened the Berlin Police into a security force that prepares for anything. It’s worth noting that life in Berlin today is still overwhelmingly peaceful, and well over 99% of the time the police are exceedingly polite, and far more empathetic than most law enforcement officers I have come across in major cities. That being said, there are also instances when they make their strength known. They are not hesitant to step in and seize control of a situation when things get messy, such as during the recent refugee protests in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood. So even when it’s routine, their presence is a source of tension. It was especially strange because of how many different roads had been closed to the public in and around Brandenburg Gate, the place everyone was trying to get to.
After negotiating several walls of police-made barricades, I and other people in the massive crowd were herded in a different direction, which took us by the British embassy and by the Brandenburg Gate from the eastern side of Berlin. Because the main event was set up like a concert stage, a stage that was facing westward, the east side of Brandenburg Gate had been walled off by police in order to prevent “überfüllung” or overfilling, according to the signs and to police on loudspeakers. Given how the event was set up, this actually made some sense. The Brandenburg Gate had become a stage of musical acts and fireworks, an environment that random people probably shouldn’t be crawling around. This walling off of the eastern part in front of the gate is also common protocol with big gatherings downtown, from concerts to the World Cups. Still, there was a certain irony of not being able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate during the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall due to it being walled off, albeit temporarily.
There were eventually so many people finding themselves congested on the east side of the gate that police scaled back their barricade and let the crowd rush up closer to Brandenburg Gate. They very politely asked people to proceed slowly, so as not to unintentionally knock down small children or the elderly.
This was not the main event though. The main event was only accessible from west (granted the city is no longer divided but the barricades divided us all up a lot). I went on to try my luck getting in from another angle. As I heard the weird German pop music radiating from the concert that followed the balloon launch, I started thinking I was in store for a corny, commercial show that would somehow disappoint once I arrived on the other side. Maybe it mirrored contemporary doubts among many former East Germans about whether capitalism has really been the solution to all of the social problems that they had faced. Either way, I kept going. Entering the main event from the side had proved difficult. I was pushed further west and eventually passed the Reichstag (Germany’s capital Building). A few fringe political groups made speeches in front of the building, none of which attracted more than about 20 people. They were, however, very much against the structure of today’s Federal Republic of Germany. Staatlos (Stateless) was a group that was particularly direct in their advocation of the idea that Germany was still an oppressive regime.
At this point I’ve gone west nearly halfway across Tiergarten, one of Berlin’s largest parks, where the entryway to the party side of Brandenburg Gate exists. Many people at this point were getting impatient and tried to enter through the wooded parts of the park. I followed a contingent of Germans trying to do this. They were only to be met by “stewards” in orange jackets telling them to turn around stay on the path.
It took quite a while longer, but I walked by few more police and barricades and finally found myself on the path to Brandenburg Gate once again.
As I began heading east again towards the gate, I saw that the Russian War Memorial had been walled off during the event. The memorial was built after the Russians took Berlin in 1945. They built it out of granite from Hitler’s bunker, and buried thousands of their dead there.
Finally, after stopping at one of the many beer and sausage stands along the way, I made it to the main event at Brandenburg Gate, where they were preparing for the final performance of the evening.
The final act of the night was none other than Paul Kalkbrenner, a major figure in Berlin’s local electronic music scene, as well as something of a local hero. With notoriety both as a music producer and as the star of the 2008 colt film “Berlin Calling”, Kalkbrenner became something of an icon for post-wall Germany. Born in Leipzig in the late 70’s, he gained notoriety in the wildest era of Berlin’s underground music scene, a rave culture that at the time reflected both the heritage of 70’s and 80’s German electronic music in the west from the likes of groups like Kraftwerk as well as the infusion of freedom hungry East German youth who put into motion the all-night party scene that has kept on spinning up until present day. Paul Kalkbrenner’s success in this world is a symbol in some ways of Germany’s own incremental cultural rebirth as a dynamic, creative, and open society—and a work still very much in progress.
In spite of the many walls (including the ones I spent half the night walking around to get to this show) and ghosts of its past, Germany remains a country in motion. No other land in the world has gone through monarchy, democracy, totalitarianism, communism, and then democracy once again followed by the absorption of one state by another all in less than a century. With each tragedy the country has had there have also been many different individuals with the energy, the creativity, and the work ethic to press onward and forge a better world than the one they started out in. As I found myself in the middle of thousands of young people ecstatically drinking, laughing, and listening to Paul, I felt a sense of optimism that one rarely feels when their mind is on political happenings. The fall of the Berlin wall is an event that often gets re-branded as a U.S. victory over communism, or worse yet, a Fukuyama end of history theory. In truth it’s no end but a beginning. The fall of the wall was a major mile marker for the unfinished work of not just Germany, but the whole world to be a more open, tolerant and inclusive place. Looking back on my utterly imperfect but ever fascinating trudge through town that evening, I can’t help but think that 25 years on, things are at least, for the most part, headed in the right direction.
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