From where I sit: 'People power' and the Wall's fall

November 5, 2009

Memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 are shaped by images: iconic moments that include the crowds gathered around the Brandenburg Gate; daring individuals climbing the barrier; helpless border guards looking on at the checkpoints; and, much later, a line of champagne bottles along the Wall.

Right from the beginning, history became a media spectacle: documented, filmed and photographed from every conceivable angle. These images are imprinted on our minds, shared by those who took part, but also by those who had their eyes glued to the television screens, and those who learnt about events much later at school.

My own memories feature a soundtrack: the hammering that went on for weeks, as people secured their own piece of history from the concrete "protective barrier"; and the omnipresent word Wahnsinn, "madness", that sought to describe something that defied words - disbelief that history might for once so easily take a turn for the better.

The numerous events, exhibitions, readings and concerts marking the 20th anniversary are perfect examples of "historytainment". On offer is a recap, at the authentic original sites, of the Peaceful Revolution and the end of the Wall itself, re-enacted, for example, by the symbolic toppling of domino stones and projects reflecting the changes that a once-divided Berlin has undergone since. This is a party for the next generation.

It is close to impossible to do this anniversary justice. There are those who feel the German Democratic Republic's dictatorship has not been dealt with properly. To whom does the year "belong", anyway? From today's point of view, the occasion is made more complicated by the sheer number of anniversaries this year in Germany and beyond, predominant among them the outbreak of the Second World War.

As with any historical anniversary, there is no way to recapture the real mood of the time, the lingering uncertainties as to whether there would be a happy ending. This day was only the first instalment of exceptional months to come, as Germans explored new territories in East and West that had been so close and yet so far.

There was a sense of new beginnings - and then mutual disappointment when both capitalism and communism turned out to be even more complex than had been anticipated. Disillusionment of a sort was bound to set in at some point. The predominantly jubilant images of the night the Wall fell in Berlin and events elsewhere set a benchmark, but as political and economic developments unfolded, the euphoria proved to be short-lived.

However, this particular 9 November in German history - 1989 in a nutshell - does for once stand for a kind of success story. What is more, it is an event that captures people's imaginations across generations and borders. It deserves to be enjoyed: a one-off concoction of nostalgia for those of us who shared the excitement during the months when everything seemed possible; a sense of a historical moment revisited; plus a good dose of entertainment that will be memorable in its own right.

This is not about historical correctness. Instead, the fall of the Berlin Wall and its commemoration symbolise a desire for happy endings and a longing for something that 20 years ago, albeit very briefly, seemed to have come into existence: genuine "people power".

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