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The Berlin Wall: A St. Louisan Recalls The Fall As Germany Celebrates Unification

Robert Koenig
Bornholmer 2014

BERLIN - One by one, like birds soaring into flight, the bright orbs surged upward into the night sky.

To the cheers of tens of thousands of people, the white balloons of the Lichtgrenze flew past the Reichstag’s giant flags, floated above the divine music of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at the Brandenburg Gate, and lifted spirits along the 12-kilometer scar that marked the path of the Berlin Wall.

Across a city that had once been divided, the 8,000 balloons – each tagged with a message or a wish – brought a spirit of unity to the thousands who watched them rise into the darkness. And, for many in Berlin on Sunday night, the soaring “Border of Lights” rekindled memories of the momentous days 25 years earlier when a divided city – with a startlingly peaceful swiftness – became one.

“The fall of the Wall has shown us that dreams can come true,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the East Berliners who surged through the Wall’s checkpoint into West Berlin on Nov. 9, 1989. “Nothing needs to stay the same – no matter how high the barriers may be.”

Credit Robert Koenig
Bornholmer 1989: East Berliners crossing to the West at Bornholmer crossing, which is a rail trestle bridge.

Merkel, then a young East German scientist, had crossed the border over the stark steel rail bridge at Bornholmer, the first point of the Wall to open. That is where I arrived 25 years ago today – on the morning of Nov 10 – as a St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist covering the Berlin Wall’s fall.

Amid the tumult of the thousands of Ossis (East Berliners) surging across the bridge into a crowd of cheering Wessis, I interviewed a 26-year old factory worker who declared: “My father helped build that monster [the Wall]. Now his son is going to help tear it down.”

On Sunday, a quarter century later, the Bornholmer crossing was jammed with Germans and international visitors who packed that bridge, wandered through an exhibit that featured a section of the Wall, and wandered along the Lichtgrenze path of balloons – each supported by a plastic stand the height of the Wall – that followed the rail tracks towards the city center.

Credit Robert Koenig
Bornholmer 2014

I followed that path about a mile to the next major crossing I had visited that morning, at Bernauer Strasse, where guards had just cut a new opening in the Wall and a cheering crowd of 1,000 West Berliners greeted the Ossis who streamed through it. One of those was a middle-aged man whose best friend had died trying to escape at the Bernauer shortly after the Wall went up in 1961.

Built by the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) to stop its citizens from fleeing to the West, the Wall – which GDR leaders disingenuously billed as an antifaschistischer Schutzwall (“anti-fascist protection wall”) – began as a hastily constructed cinder-block and brick structure but was fortified over the years into parallel 12-foot-high concrete walls separated by a wide “death strip.” At least 136 people were killed trying to flee but many more escaped into West Berlin.

On Sunday, a big crowd gathered at Bernauer – a place where friends and family were split by the Wall, but now reunited as a peaceful residential neighborhood – to follow the Lichtgrenze path, to view the Mauer Park (Wall park), to read the exhibits that told the stories of the Wall’s construction and the escapes, and to glimpse Chancellor Merkel as she opened a new exhibit.

Perhaps more than any other individual, Merkel – who became chancellor in 2005 – symbolizes the aspirations of former East Germans who endured at times difficult economic and social transitions after Germany re-unified in October 1990. This weekend, she recalled to journalists that she “celebrated with total strangers” when she crossed at Bornholmer, on “a night I'll never forget.”

After the moving Lichtgrenze, the triumphal music and solemn ceremonies, many Germans would say the same about this Sunday evening. Some dissonant notes were struck. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in Berlin for the Wall festivities, warned that a new “Cold War” could emerge in Europe. But the overall mood was upbeat, peaceful and thoughtful, especially at the sites where “Wall Pieces” film collages reminded residents and visitors of the Cold War’s impact on Berlin.

And visitors were also reminded that German unity was not confined to Berlin; indeed, mass demonstrations in Leipzig and other East German cities had paved the way for the Wall’s fall.  And, after the initial exhilaration, the reunification of Germany proved to be difficult for many.

My distant relatives, whom I visited a week after the Wall’s fall in their East German village south of Weimar, were jubilant in the initial weeks after the border with the West opened – just 30 miles from their home. But they soon lost their jobs at an outmoded factory that closed its doors, and it took decades to improve their lives.

Credit Robert Koenig
Potsdamer Platz 1989: The Berlin Wall being opened at Potsdamer Platz on Nov. 11 1989.

But overall, most Germans agree, the changes have been profoundly positive. As someone who was in Berlin for the momentous events of November 1989, and who had first lived in Berlin as a young diplomat in 1980, it was startling to see how much has changed in this city in a quarter century.  And nowhere is that change as evident as at Potsdamer Platz. Once the thriving center of pre-World War II Berlin, rubble ruin for decades afterward and a vast No Man’s Land during the Wall years, it is now a bustling area of new towers and business and transportation.

I vividly recall the cloudy morning that the Wall was first opened at Potsdamer: the graffiti-covered Wall in a dusty, trash-filled field. Hundreds of people milling about, hammering at the Wall, peering through the holes in the concrete at the East German guards and military equipment in No Man’s Land. And then, suddenly, a crane started lifting segments of the Wall, the crowd cheered and the vast expanse of what had once been the city’s transport hub was suddenly open for business.

Credit Robert Koenig
Potsdamer Platz 2014: What that scene looked like Sunday, with the Wall's path traced by the "light balloons."

When I returned to Potsdamer Platz on Sunday, so much had changed that I couldn’t even find the spot where I had stood that morning.  Where once there had been guard towers, there now stood skyscrapers;  a death strip replaced by a lively office and shopping complex; a No Man’s Land teeming with people from around the globe.

The transitions are also stark around the iconic Brandenburg Gate – once a scarred and blackened monument through which no one could pass, now cleaned and accessible, with neighbors on Pariser Platz that include a new U.S. Embassy and a moving Holocaust monument.  And the historic Reichstag building, a pock-marked 19th-century relic just a few yards west of the Wall in 1989, is now the completely renovated seat of the Bundestag (the lower house of parliament) with a giant glass dome on top

Of all European capitals, Berlin is the most changeable – not beautiful like Paris, hardly eternal like Rome, but intense and fascinating because it transforms itself. The deep scars of the Wall have mostly healed over the last quarter century, although some social and economic divisions remain.

"For peace and freedom!" Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit told the crowd at the Brandenburg Gate as he gave the signal to release the first Lichtgrenze balloons. One by one, with two-second delays between each balloon, individual “patrons” – most of whom had written short messages attached to the spheres – flipped levers that released the bright spheres into the night sky.

And as the balloons rose, a German choir sang Beethoven’s stirring “Ode to Joy” whose words – written by the great playwright Friedrich Schiller in 1785 – expressed some of the night’s soaring emotions:

Deine Zauber binden wieder/ Was der Mode Schwert geteilt / Bettler werden Fuerstenbrueder /  Wo dein sanfter Fluegel weilt.  (“Thy magic powers re-unite/ What custom's sword has divided / Beggars become Princes' brothers / Where thy gentle wing abides.”)

In simpler terms, that exhilaration was expressed a quarter century ago, in the headline of a West Berlin tabloid the morning after the Wall fell:  Die Mauer ist Weg. Berlin ist wieder Berlin!

“The Wall is Gone. Berlin is again Berlin!”

Robert Koenig, a former St. Louis Beacon correspondent in Washington, was cited by the National Press Club for his coverage of the Berlin Wall’s fall and German reunification as a journalist for the Post- Dispatch. He now works in the press section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.