Berlin Celebrates the Day the Wall Fell

Daily News Article   —   Posted on November 9, 2009

(from German newspaper Der Spiegel) – It is a day for celebrations and commemorations, for festivities and sober reflection. Berlin is marking 20 years since the fall of the Wall on Monday with a series of events, big and small. Leaders from around the world are descending on the German capital to help celebrate the momentous events of Nov. 9, 1989, a date that has come to symbolize the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

The main focus of events will be the historic Brandenburg Gate, where 20 years ago, joyful East and West Berliners gathered together to dance on top of the wall and celebrate the sudden opening up of the Iron Curtain. The iconic gateway had once stood in the midst of no man’s land, surrounded by barbed wire and machine guns. Now 20 years on, a concert and fireworks display will recall those heady moments.

A line of 1,000 foam dominoes painted by 15,000 young people have been set up along the former line of the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate. The former Solidarity trade union leader and former Polish President Lech Walesa will push the first domino, symbolically reenacting the toppling of communism across Eastern Europe. He will be joined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh, former South African President Nelson Mandela and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who was one of the leaders of 1989’s Velvet Revolution.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the former East Germany, will then join her guests, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the other 26 leaders of the European Union for a celebratory dinner.

Merkel acknowledged on Monday that 20 years on, there was still work to be done on bringing together the East and West. “German unification is not complete,” she told the ARD TV station on Monday morning. She said that while there had been much progress, there was still much to be done to create “equal living conditions,” pointing out that, for example, unemployment is still twice as high in eastern Germany. Given the persistent inequality, the so-called “solidarity tax” that all Germans pay to help with the former East’s reconstruction was still required, Merkel said.

An enormous amount of money has been pumped into the former East over the past two decades. According to a report in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday, the Institute for Economic Research estimates that between 1991 and 2005 €1.3 billion ($1.9 billion) flowed into the region.

Earlier on Monday Merkel joined German President Horst Köhler to attend a ceremony at the Gethsemane Church, which was a focus for the peaceful protest movement in the Prenzlauer Berg district in 1989. While much of the mood on Monday is celebratory, there are also to be events commemorating those people, whose total number is estimated to be over 100, who lost their lives attempting to escape across the Berlin Wall.

The 155-kilometer (96-mile) construction was erected on Aug. 13, 1961, in order to prevent East Berliners from leaving. After months of pro-democracy protests that had already caused the ousting of the hardline East German leader Erich Honecker, the Wall finally fell on Nov. 9, 1989.

East Berliners rushed to the border that night after watching Politbüro member Günter Schabowski declare at a press conference that travel restrictions were being lifted “immediately.”

The first breach of the border was at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing in the north of the Prenzlauer Berg district. The first East Berliners without visas pushed through the checkpoint on the bridge at 9:20 p.m. Within hours, hundreds of thousands of people had joined them and by midnight East and West Berliners were celebrating on the streets and dancing on top of the Wall.

At 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon, Merkel and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit will be joined by Walesa and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to mark that historic moment with a ceremony at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing.

Then at 7 p.m. the Berliner Staatskappelle led by Daniel Barenboim will hold a concert at the Brandenburg Gate, followed by rockers Bon Jovi performing their song “We Weren’t Born To Follow.” After the dominoes are knocked over, Paul van Dyk, a Grammy Award-winning DJ who grew up in East Germany, will premier his song “We Are One.”

Aside from the official celebrations, a number of other more informal events will take place across the city. The Dutch band Noir plan to hold a “Wall of Sound” guitar performance at the Mauerpark, which runs along the former death stip. Meanwhile organizers of the “Mauer Mob” flash mob are hoping to recreate the Berlin Wall in human form for 15 minutes at 8:15 p.m.

Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from Der Spiegel. Visit the website at spiegel.de.

Questions

1. List the world dignitaries and leaders who attended the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany today.

2. Apart from being the date the Berlin Wall fell, what has November 9, 1989 come to symbolize?

3. Describe some of the activities taking place to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago today.

4. a) How many miles long was the Berlin Wall?
b) For how many years did it separate East and West Germany?
c) Why was the wall built?
d) In your opinion, is there is a difference between a government building a wall to prevent citizens from leaving thier country and building a wall to prevent non-citizens from entering a country?

5. Read about the Berlin Wall in “Background” below and watch the videos posted under “Resources.”
Some newspapers are reporting on President Obama’s choice to decline Chancellor Merkel’s invitation to attend the commemoration. Do you think it was important for the President to attend? Why or why not?


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Background

THE BERLIN WALL:  The Berlin Wall was a wall in Berlin, Germany that separated Communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin. It was one of the most visible symbols of the Iron Curtain. The wall was built in 1961 by the government of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to stop the tide of emigration to West Berlin.

Because of dissatisfaction with the economic and political conditions (forced collectivization of agriculture, repression of private trade, supply gaps), an increasing number of people left the GDR. From January to the beginning of August 1961, about 160,000 refugees were counted.

Armed guards patrolled the eastern side of the wall. In 1962, Peter Fechter was shot while attempting to cross into West Berlin, and slowly bled to death in front of a large crowd, which started a riot and led to Fechter becoming a symbol of resistance against the wall. Onlookers did not attempt to aid Fechter, as they feared the communist guards might fire upon them as well.

The symbolism of the wall as a representative of the divide between capitalism and communism was not lost on American President Ronald Reagan, who, in a famous 1987 speech, urged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” These words proved prophetic, on November 9, 1989 the German Democratic Republic announced that the border would be re-opened. The wall was promptly destroyed. In the following year the parliament of the German Democratic Republic voted for reunification and became new states (Bundesländer) of the Federal Republic of Germany.

CONSTRUCTION OF THE WALL:  The Wall was erected overnight on 13-14 August 1961. This was a Saturday night and most Berliners slept while the East German government began to close the border and install barbed wire fences through Berlin. The first concrete sections were installed on 15 August 1961, and over the following few months the concrete block sections were extended. In June 1962 the wall was further consolidated, and in 1965 the “third generation” of Wall replaced this earlier construction. Consisting of concrete slabs between steel girder and concrete posts with a concrete sewage pipe along the top, this was itself replaced in many areas after 1975 with newer concrete segments which were more resistant to breakthroughs.

ESCAPE ATTEMPTS:  East Germany jailed more than 75,000 people who tried to flee to the West across the Wall, and 809 died in escape attempts. Of those who died, 250 were killed at the Berlin Wall itself; 370 died on the border between East and West Germany; and 189 had been trying to get out via the Baltic Sea. An average of seven people were jailed every day for trying to get out between 1961 and 1989. Many thousands of East German border guards (Grenztruppen, known colloquially as “Grenzers”) also tried to escape, and around 2,500 succesfully made it to the West. However, 5,500 were captured in the attempt and received an average jail sentence of five years, compared to civilians who were imprisoned for an average of one or two years.

Historians researching the files of the Stasi found that in 1961 the secret police devoted virtually all of their resources and their 50,000 staff solely to stopping people leaving the country. Anyone thought likely to flee was forcibly moved away from border areas. Other people were encouraged to spy on their friends, neighbours and colleagues and inform on them if they were considering an escape. (from conservapedia.com)

Resources

For Der Spiegel’s complete Berlin Wall coverage, go to spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,k-7540,00.html.

Take a Berlin Wall quiz at Der Spiegel at www1.spiegel.de/active/quiztool/fcgi/quiztool.fcgi?id=45748.

Read a commentary on the fall of the Berlin Wall at humanevents.com/article.php?print=yes&id=34332.

Watch a video of President Ronald Reagan at Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany, June 12, 1987 in which he urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.”

Watch a film about the construction and the fall of the Berlin wall ending with the united Germany’s new year celebrations in Berlin 1990.

View a video of the dominos that will be used to symbolically reenact the toppling of communism across Eastern Europe (Britain’s Daily Telegraph website):

On December 26, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a magnificent concert before the fragments of that toppled Berlin Wall, which for so many years had “protected” tyranny from freedom. His centerpiece was Beethoven’s Ninth containing Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” in which the word joy (Freude) changed into freedom (Freiheit). The orchestra and choir were from both East and West Germany, as well as from the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and the United States. That concert celebrated the fall of the Soviet empire. A year later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed.  The video for part 1 is below: