Saturday, 13 August 2011

"Mr Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall" - Berlin, 50 years On

Today is the 50th anniversary of the division of Berlin and the coming of the Wall on August 13th 1961.

At the Berlin Wall in 2006
It was the single most visible monument to the failure of Communism. It was an attempt by the authorities to stop their own people from migrating to the democratic west.

It was also as a result, the single seminal moment that marked the end of the Cold War. The indredulous scene of Berliners climbing the Wall unhindered by the East German Security Guards sparked joys throughout the free world.

The wall, which had torn a city in two, witnessed over its 28 years in existence, the deaths of at least 136 Berliners who attempted to scale it to flee that East for life in the free West.

My Pilgrimage to Berlin
As a historian, I have greatly enjoyed my many visits to countries around the world over the past 6 years. There is however, only one city that I would without hesitation put above all of the rest.

Being a historian in Berlin is like leaving a child loose on a box of chocolates. I was that child, in 2006. Is it quite simply, the best city in the world that I have ever visited.

Yes, there is little architecture left from down through the centuries that has survived the devastation of two World Wars and the division of the Cold War Era. But this is nevertheless, a part of that history.

From the concrete East, Alexanderplatz and Unter Den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate, the Wall itself, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, the Olympic Stadium and the Monument to the Holocaust alongside Hitler's underground war bunkers, every street in this city speaks and has a story to tell.

I fell in love with Berlin and lapped it all up. In particular, I become wholly engrossed in the post-war, Cold War era and the devastating division that the Wall brought to this city.

Here is JFK speaking at the Wall shortly after it was built in 1961...

In 1987, on the 750th anniversary of the city, President Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear Down This Wall".

"A Cheerfully Anarchic Night"
In 1989, the unthinkable became visibly thinkable.

I'm unable to watch scenes of November 9th 1989 in Berlin without shedding tears. When in Berlin, I bought at Checkpoint Charlie a DVD of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It is moving and incredibly emotional. To see the uncontrolled joy, shock, incredulity and sheer disbelief in the faces of the Berliners who either crossed the border or welcomed those who did so, moves me to tears every time.

The same can be said of a number of the clips that follow from the BBC news bulletins that covered the story. In particular, Brian Hanrahan's piece for me, captured the essence of what was a moment of history in the fall on the Iron Curtain. I blogged on this when he sadly passed away last December.

Here, in brief, is a concise and insightful history of the Berlin Wall to the very apt sound of Scorpion's Wind of Change.

For me, in audio, the perfect accompaniment to the Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall is Beethoven's 7th Symphony in full. The despair of the 2nd movement followed by the joy of the 3rd and 4th for me, hauntingly sums it up perfectly.

It is only right to give the final words on today's sombre anniversary to the current President of Germany, Christian Wulff who said:
"The world situation, of which this wall was a symbol, seemed irreversible to many people. But this was not the case. In the end, freedom is unconquerable. No wall can survive the will for freedom in the long term. The violence of just a few has no hold over the drive for freedom of many."
...and finally to the Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit who told a ceremony on Bernauer Street today:
"The Wall is history but we must not forget it."
Amen to that

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