Three days ago, rock band U2 played a free mini-concert in Berlin. On Monday, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall — an event that led to the unification of Germany — Berlin is dancing to the music of time.
At 3.30 pm (8 pm IST) as twilight swiftly approached, German chancellor Angela Merkel — accompanied by two architects of the new world order, former Polish president Lech Walesa and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev — crossed the Bosebrucke bridge between what used to be east and west Berlin. People, standing innumerable rows deep on the spit of road alongside the bridge, applauded.
The bridge, an unremarkable steel mesh, has not been turned into a kitschy memento like the Brandenburg Gate, where the showcase celebration — attended by world leaders including British prime minister Gordon Brown, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and French president Nicolas Sarkozy — began close to midnight IST.
But this bridge is almost as powerful a symbol of unification as the Gate. Merkel’s homage was rich in symbolism because this was where, 20 years ago, the Wall was first breached. On November 9, 1989, as guards with guns stood stupefied, thousands of people from the east smashed the Wall and poured into the west.
As Merkel’s action alluded to this historically charged moment, Berlin was winding itself up into a state of frenetic anticipation ahead of the big evening event.
“‘My family was from the east, I was six when the Wall collapsed,” said Stefanie Sprangot, a receptionist at a hotel. “‘I wouldn’t miss tonight for anything.”
Through the day, heaving with people and swarming with vans marked ‘polizei’ (police), Berlin grappled with what the legacy of the Wall and its collapse might mean.
In today’s Berlin, remnants of the Wall exist merely notionally or as tourist attractions — as cobblestoned markers, as revived Wall trails for visitors, as grim slabs of concrete sprayed with graffiti.
All this is an exemplar of how the division has somewhat eroded. A redevelopment boom in the former east has altered the face of the city. “Even 10 years ago, you could look at a block of flats and say whether they stood in the former east or west,” said Ursula Harmann (42), an executive with Berlin Partner, a firm that promotes the city. “Look around. You can’t tell any longer.”
Although many elderly people in what used to be the former east are still bitter about how their lives were engulfed and reshaped by the west, the lines have begun to dissolve. “A lot of the old divisions have been erased,” said Professor Eckart Stratenschulte (54), director of the European Academy of Berlin.
“The former east is trendy. Artists, writers live there,” Stratenschulte said. “That’s where my daughters would go to clubs and bars on a Saturday night. They are not aware of it as the east.”
This is indication of change, and it holds out hope. On the 20th anniversary of the fall of a monument erected by a repressive communist regime, this is a triumph worth celebrating.
By the time you read this, the most spectacular of those celebrations will be over. The party will go on till the early hours of the morning.