The 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall (part 2)
Sunday November 9, 2014- The Big Night
The city-wide celebration took place over the weekend of November 7th-9th. The city was once again ‘divided’ –with a light display consisting of 8,000 luminous white balloons. Typical of environmentally conscious Germany– the light-filled balloons were biodegradable. The balloons were each released by a sponsor, which consisted of various dignitaries and even school children. Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev were among the notable leaders participating in the release. [About five years ago, Mr. Walesa actually spoke at the community college where I work as an adjunct. It was surreal to see him in person half-a world and half- a lifetime from my Cold War experience.]
At Potsdamer Platz
Berlin was packed with people– so much so that we could hardly move down Potsdamer Platz– which used to be No Man’s Land during the time when I lived there. It was a almost unbelievable that I could bring my kids to a place that was previously so dangerous– now a thriving center of economic success.
As we walked towards Potsdamer Platz (the street)– I think we came up Stresemmannstrasse– we stopped to take pictures in front of the balloons. Then we made our way, very slowly, through the huge throng on Potsdamer Platz. I have never seen a sea of people this thick, yet I also have never seen such well-behaved crowds. In the US, I’ve rarely experienced a fun large crowd event where there wasn’t some pushing or shoving or rude behavior (it might be because Germans can hold their liquor better). Everyone was in high spirits, and the weather was perfect (with so many bodies, the frigid weather was quite comfortable). Everyone just moved unhurriedly through the press of people until they got to where they wanted to be. When we arrived at Potsdamer Platz (the city square), we stopped to look at an expansive Wall display and multi-media presentation which featured actual sections of the Wall (picture at the top of the page).
We then crossed over to the center of the square– to a section that lies in the esplanade of Potsdamer Straße’s north and south lanes. Germany is famous for Christmas and for the best Weinacthsmarkts (Christmas markets) in the world. We were in the city too early to visit any Weinachtsmarkts, which don’t begin until the Advent season — in late November. A newer tradition in Berlin is Winter Welt. On this day, the 11th Annual Winter Welt at Potsdamer Platz was being held. Winter World occurs in early November. There was a giant snow covered toboggan run, ice skating rink, curling and stalls decked out with Christmas cheer. Although I really wanted to try some authentic Glühwein at one of the drink stalls, there were too many people to even move about comfortably, thanks to the Wall celebration. We decided to move further on across the street to the famous Sony Center.
Potsdamer Platz is an important square and economic center in the middle of Berlin (which is why this burough or district is called Mitte: middle or center). The square (platz) is an intersection of streets, including Postdamer Platz, Postdamer Straße and Leipziger Platz. It is an enormous area encompassing malls, banks, hotels (including the Ritz-Carlton), shops and a major U-bahn station (U-bahn stands for ‘untergrund bahn’ or underground train). Sony Center is right across the street from the location of the world-famous Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival). There were not many people at the Sony Center, as German stores are not open on Sunday. So, we decided to go to the Brandenburg Gate to see who was performing.
At the Brandenburg Gate
The Brandenburg Gate is about half a mile away from Potsdamer Platz, so we took the very crowded U-bahn or maybe the S-bahn (‘stadtschnellbahn’ or city rapid railway). I can’t remember which, because not all the S-bahn and U-bahn routes were available. The Brandenburg Gate S-bahn station had been closed earlier that weekend for security reasons–thus we could not take a direct subway route to the Gate. So, we made our way on foot from the nearest station that we found and came out into the even more congested square– Pariser Platz (the area in front of the Brandenburg Gate). The pictures below show how packed Pariser Platz was. It was impossible to get close to the famous gate, and no one was performing at that time (Peter Gabriel had performed earlier that evening).
After slowly making our way towards the middle of Unter den Linden (the name of the very wide and beautiful avenue that leads through the Brandenburg Gate), we decided that we would not be able to get any closer and therefore would not get to see the highly anticipated Balloon Release. So I suggested to Michael, who lives in Berlin (whom I mentioned in my previous post), that we head over to Checkpoint Charlie. I knew the route of the Balloons was built to outline the Wall, and that meant there would be Balloons
going along Niederkirchnerstasse/ Zimmerstrasse, and crossing over Friedrichstrasse (where Checkpoint Charlie is located).
Michael thought that was a great idea, so we began the slow walk through the throng, headed Southeast. This trek was made even more difficult by the occasional emergency vehicle that can be seen in the picture above– also trying to move through the solidly packed mass of people. As you can hear in the short video I took with my phone below, it was a quiet and respectful crowd, despite the overwhelming numbers.
However, there was the occasional annoying person who didn’t seem to understand that they should not bring a bike into the middle of such a cramped area. Berliners ride their bikes everywhere, no matter the weather, but most people had tied their bikes to nearby fences, or left them at home and took the bahn (which, along with the limited routes further contributed to them being congested). The problem was, that since we were so densely packed, you could not even see beyond your own waist– so if a person with a bike was in the crowd– no one noticed it until they ran into it. Then, there were people with dogs– Germans LOVE dogs. However, this was not the place or night for them, because they too posed a tripping hazard. So, there was also the occasional dog in the crowd tripping people up, because you couldn’t see them.
Near Checkpoint Charlie*
Checkpoint Charlie is just under a mile away from Brandenburg Gate. Trying to get through the press of people made it take much longer than it should have. The release was to begin around 7:30 pm. We wanted to get to a good viewing position before they were released in our section of the city. I suggested we take Wilhelmstrasse, because I wanted Christian and Trisha to see Hitler’s infamous Reich Air Ministry building. Christian had never been to Berlin, and Trisha had not been back since high school.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise, you’ve seen the Reich Air Ministry building. It is the huge building that several of the office scenes take place in. Hermann Goering, as Commander of the Luftwaffe, had his office here. When it was built in 1936, it was the largest office building in Europe. It somehow escaped serious damage from Allied bombing during the war and was used by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as offices for various ministries over the years.
In 1952 a huge 60 ft long mural was created on the northern-most wall (pictured right).The mural, made of Meissen porcelain tiles, is an incredible remnant and example of the Socialist form of art-as-propoganda (pictured below). Ironically, this was the spot that the Uprising of 1953 began (see also Strasse des 17. Juni). On the ground in front of the mural is a huge blown-up photograph of the 1953 protesters shortly before their gathering was suppressed (part of which can be seen in the picture to the left). The former Air Ministry building is now the home of the German Finance Ministry.
Although its formal name is now Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus, most people still know it as the Air Ministry Building. The building takes up a whole city block, so when we got to the south end of it, we were now a block west of Checkpoint Charlie. This is the intersection of Wilhemstrasse and Niederkirchnerstasse. That is as far as we could get given the crowds were nigh impassable the whole length of that block between us and Checkpoint Charlie. This street intersection is also where the Topographies des Terrors is located. This is where the longest standing exterior piece of the Wall is located. The Balloons were placed along the length of this street all the way past Checkpoint Charlie. So, we actually unintentionally ended up in a really good place to watch the Balloon release.
Topographies des Terrors (Topography of Terror)
Standing at the intersection of Wilhelmstrasse and Niederkirchnerstrasse, when we look ahead of us towards the south side of Niederkirchnerstrasse, we are looking at the Wall remnant I mentioned before. This part of the Wall used to be the outer border between Soviet controlled East Berlin and the American zone of West Berlin (there were two Walls– with a Death Strip in between).**
This remnant of Wall (pictured above) runs along the back of what was the site of Prince Albrecht Palace, built in the 1700s. During the Nazi era, it was used as headquarters for the SS and Gestapo. Prisoners were held and tortured in the basement. It was destroyed by RAF bombing during the Battle of Berlin. All that is left is remnants of the basement stalls where prisoners were tortured. Now it serves as the open air museum, Topography of Terror.
In the video above, you can see the Balloon release as it goes down Niederkirchnerstrasse, then past the tour bus, on Zimmerstrasse toward Checkpoint Charlie. [Everyone was annoyed with the bus for blocking the clear view we all had up until moments before the Balloon release began]. We were beyond ecstatic that we could be here on the EAST side of the Wall– witnessing this historic moment–one most of us never really thought would happen. It was like being in a waking dream. I wanted to pinch myself!
After the release, we made our way back to the nearest S-bahn station, but it was SO full, that it took us a very long time to get home that night. We had to wait 20-30 mins on some of the segments — which is VERY unusual in Germany. Since each train that arrived was already filled to the brim with people from stops earlier down the line, we had to strategize a round-about train route to get home. I wish I had taken a picture– but the U-bahns were packed like the ones you see in Japan! At one long wait, Christian, who was always looking to make an ‘international love connection’ (he’s watched too many chick flicks), struck up a conversation with a girl on the platform who was playing hacky-sack. They played until our bahn came. He made friends and took pictures with as many new friends as he could over the week ( all of them female). Although we didn’t get back to our place until well after midnight, it was definitely worth the waiting– even though I hate crowds! It was literally a dream come true to participate in this historic event! So many people sacrificed so much to make the Fall of the Wall a reality, and thus to make this celebration possible.
My next post will be about my further adventures in Berlin during this fabulous weekend!
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**Berlin- A city Divided
Many people don’t understand how Berlin was divided, or don’t understand that the Iron Curtain was not just the physical Berlin Wall. The term Iron Curtain was used by Winston Churchill in 1945 in reference to the Soviets well before the Wall went up in 1961. The easiest way to envision Cold War Berlin is to think of it like a doughnut. Actually, think of the city of Berlin as the doughnut hole in the middle, surrounded by Communist East Germany (the doughnut). Then divide that hole in the middle in half– one half belongs to and is occupied by the USSR. The other half is shared and occupied by the US, Great Britain and France. So, all of Berlin was in East Germany– 110 miles inside of the East German border.
One can liken it to living on a Capitalist island in a sea of Communism. Therefore, when I reference East Berlin, I am referring to that half of the doughnut hole that we visited on occasion, but to which we had limited areas of access. [If you read our book, you will see that some Americans were not even able to visit East Berlin, depending on their father’s line of work– for example, CIA kids or Counterintelligence Corps kids]. In the picture and video above, we were facing the Wall remnant at the Topography of Terror, standing on the east side– we were in former East Berlin.[Mind blowing to me still after all these years and numerous visits to this very spot]
We were never allowed to visit East Germany (the doughnut)– although we did travel through it to get to West Germany. There was only one highly restricted rail route and one highly restricted road route in and out of West Berlin. The dangers and inner workings of both modes of Soviet-controlled transport are detailed in our book Cold War Memories: A Retrospective on Living in Berlin.
The cause of the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ ( Antifaschistischer Schutzwall) being built was the brain drain of 3.5 million East Germans escaping to the West during the years preceding its construction. The GDR (German Democratic Republic) wanted to convince their citizens that they were keeping Fascists out, not that they were trying to keep their own people in. Yet, the Death Strip (which lay on the East side) between the Inner and Outer Wall was a constant reminder that the ‘Rampart’ was meant to keep their unwilling citizens in. Despite these strong-arm tactics, 5,000 people successfully defected and 138 people died trying to join the Fascists on the Western side of the Berlin Wall.