25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, our reporter joined the crowds along the “border of light”
IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations November 10, 2014
by Elizabeth Pond
This was Germany’s first real celebration of the momentous fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989. After 24 years of subdued anniversary commemorations, it took a new generation to realize that Germans can legitimately rejoice in their country’s first successful revolution in history and at the same time still mourn the victims of “Kristallnacht”, the anti-Jewish pogrom on November 9, 1938, and prelude to the Holocaust. The non-wall of interior-lit balloons along 15 of the 140 kilometers of the once-upon-a-time death strip was the perfect symbol – especially when the balloons were released heavenward and vanished, much as the VEB cement slabs disappeared a quarter of a century ago.
From the East Side Gallery, which has morphed from in-your-face counterculture to tourist shrine, to Bornholmer Strasse – where Heinrich August Winkler answered serious questions about Germany’s long road to the West – Berliners and guests celebrated. (At least I think Winkler was on the local podium, though the tall Germans amiably pressing into me on all sides made it hard to verify if the historian was really with us in person or only on the quarter of the giant TV screen that I could catch a glimpse of now and then.)
Certainly Harald Jäger was there, the Stasi deputy commander at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing between East and West Berlin who, instead of giving the order to shoot, as he was supposed to do, ordered the lifting of the boom to let the ebullient eastern crowd surge through to the West. So was the East German woman who was televized in 1989 spontaneously kissing the border guard who finally let her through there – and so was the embarrassed border guard. There was also the West Berliner who was unexpectedly visited by a friend from East Berlin in the middle of the night 25 years ago and decided on the spot to lend his own flat to the Ossi indefinitely and move into the one-room apartment of his girlfriend and future wife. That East Berliner was there too, of course – along with others from the thousands who partied through the night on Kurfürstendamm on November 9, 1989. None of them could stop grinning as they recalled the joy of the right decisions they made that cumulatively changed history.
At the East Side Gallery, a small convoy of those putt-putt East German Trabis, with chassis repainted as spotted giraffes, defied today’s strict pollution laws as they started on their mock Africa Safari. At Bernauer Strasse, where the apartment buildings were in the Soviet zone and their sidewalks in the French zone, guides who were toddlers when the wall fell reran on their tablets the films from 1961 as the wall went up and firemen held trampolines for those who wanted to jump out their windows and escape to the West – first the mothers, then the children, finally the fathers. Plaques on the ground mark the underground tunnels that were laboriously dug out by hand to enable later escapes.
As the balloons were released by their child and adult patrons into the night sky one by one, beginning at the Brandenburg Gate and progressing toward both ends of the “border of light,” those of us jammed together on Bornholmer bridge or sitting above us on its old iron arches waited patiently for longer than it takes the S25 train to travel from Potsdamer Platz to Bornholmer Strasse. When we finally saw the first freed balloons in the distant sky, we cheered. And when our time came and the local patrons released the night’s last balloons right behind us, we erupted in shared jubilation.
By then we had bantered with the drunk in our midst who kept up a slurred patter. We had overheard snippets of life stories from 25 years ago. And we had celebrated life lived in a way that embraced and honored not only the victims of the Berlin Wall, but also the victims of Kristallnacht.
ELIZABETH POND, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification (Brookings).
© Elizabeth Pond