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“Do you see that row of cobblestones?” our guide asked as he pointed to the street in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. “That’s what’s left of the Berlin Wall. You’ll see it run across the whole city.”
Indeed, the double row of cobblestones — symbolic of the double wall that snaked through 96 miles of Berlin at the height of the Cold War — is about all that is left of what was once the defining image of a divided city. From 1961 to 1989, East Berlin was separated from West Berlin by the nearly 12-foot-high, barbed-wire-topped concrete wall erected by the East Germans to keep their citizens from fleeing to the West. Berlin, back then, was a city that sat in the middle of communist East Germany, and the wall was one more reminder of the divide left in the wake of World War II.
The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is illuminated during the Festival of Lights // (c) Alex Nikada
“Since the fall of the wall, Berlin has reinvented itself once again,” said Burkhard Kieker, the CEO of Berlin Tourism Marketing. “Offering a unique mix of history, exuberant lifestyle and culture, the German capital is now the most exciting city in Europe and the ultimate must-see destination.”
According to Berlin Tourism Marketing North America, U.S. arrivals for July were up 20 percent in comparison to the same month last year. The surge in American tourists can at least be partially attributed to the city’s milestone anniversary — the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In light of the auspicious occasion, the Germany National Tourist Office is taking the opportunity to market Germany as “the country without borders” and to place the spotlight on Berlin through a series of exhibitions, concerts and tours climaxing on Nov. 9, the day the wall fell.
Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate will serve as the hub for celebrations on Nov. 9, when a massive street party, the Festival of Freedom, takes place. The mayor of Berlin will give a commencement speech, giant video screens will show images from Nov. 9, 1989, and a concert series featuring groups tied to Berlin will follow. Some Berlin schoolchildren will play a special part in the street party, designing eight-foot-tall blocks for a domino display along the course of the former border. The last oversize block in the series to tumble will trigger a fireworks show over the Brandenburg Gate, serving as an allegory for the fall of the wall.
The Brandenburg Gate is the spiritual center of the city which is why, on the first morning of my trip to Berlin this year, I set out for it on foot. But before I got there, I had to pay a visit to the Peter Eisenman-designed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. One of the world’s more startling memorials, it takes up 4.7 acres and consists of 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern with sloping pathways throughout. As you walk down into the memorial, the slabs get taller, and the area gets quieter. It is an eerie experience but, somehow, an appropriate one.
I also searched for Hitler’s bunker, but I couldn’t find it. I was told that it was about a block-and-a-half south of the Holocaust Memorial and that there was a sign identifying the site but, when I walked there, all I saw was an empty lot. Later, I was told that I actually had been standing in close proximity to the bunker, which has since been plowed under, but I never even saw the sign.
When I later arrived at the Brandenburg Gate, I looked out in one direction at the Reichstag, the German parliament building that figures in so much of the city’s history (a fire there hastened Hitler’s rise to power), and then in another direction up a long boulevard at the Victory Column, where President Obama gave his European address last summer.
I thought back to the summer of 1964, when I was a college student traveling in Germany. I was actually able to pass through the gates of the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, untouched and unimpeded. I had learned from someone in Denmark that if you were an American traveling on a U.S. passport, you were not forbidden to cross between East and West Berlin. So, in the spirit of youth, I took a train from Copenhagen through East Germany and then into East Berlin. Of course, there were may stops along the way as the Vopo, the East German police, boarded the train and checked our passports. (I felt like I was living a spy movie, if only tangentially.) Once we arrived in East Berlin, I got off the train and walked through Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin. During my stay there, I crossed over from the West to East several times, sometimes to visit museums in the east, sometimes just to see if I could do it. And I always could.
Today, Checkpoint Charlie is swarming with tourists, many who arrive via a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, which runs about $20 per person. What remains of the famous entry point between the former East and West Germany is a modest monument adorned with actors dressed in French, U.S. and British army fatigues, who hold their respective flags and pose for souvenir photos at about $3 a piece. A block of the wall sits close to the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum, a museum dedicated to the battle of human rights and to preserving the memory of the wall.In modern-day Berlin, the marketing of the wall includes postcards allegedly containing small chunks of the wall in plastic pouches (some come with a certificate of authenticity). There are also sections of the wall appearing at odd places throughout the city (one slab was in front of my hotel, The Westin Grand, Berlin); and the nearly one-mile-long Berlin Wall Eastside Gallery section, close to the center of the city, has been reserved for posterity and, it seems, every graffiti artist who visits Berlin.
The fall of the wall has been good for business as far as local businessman Volker Pawlowski is concerned. He supplies about 90 percent of the Berlin Wall relics to souvenir shops in Berlin.
“To me, the wall is a product like any other business,” said the former construction worker. According to Pawlowski, chunks of the wall were not hard to find after it fell. He simply called around to Berlin’s recycling sites. Now, he stockpiles those chunks in a huge warehouse and then breaks them into smaller pieces that are sold as souvenirs. He will also sell larger pieces to those who request them. In a bow to consumerism, Pawlowski admits that he applies new colors to the wall pieces or lets them stand outside so graffiti artists can have their way with them.
“Packaging is everything,” he said.
Commercialism and new development aside, the old Berlin — the Berlin of Brecht and Sally Bowles and the spy novels of John le Carre and Len Deighton — still tugs at the visitor with any sense of the city’s storied history, a duality that just can’t be replicated anywhere else.
“Looking at our July statistics and the 20 percent increase in U.S. arrivals even during the economic crisis,” said Kieker. “Berlin seems to have further developed an irresistible magnetism.”
The Festival of Freedom on Nov. 9 is Berlin’s largest celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, with hundreds of thousands of spectators expected to attend. The street party, taking place at Pariser Platz and on either side of the Brandenburg Gate, will include a concert series, an address by the mayor of Berlin, a fireworks show and more.
Through Nov. 14, Alexanderplatz square will feature the open-air exhibition, “Peaceful Revolution 1989-90,” which depicts the course of the revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The free multimedia exhibition includes documents, film and photography and never closes.
Berlin is home to some 375 museums, and many of them are also taking the opportunity to reflect on Berlin’s history and the reunification of Germany. For instance, from Oct. 3 through Jan. 10, the German Historical Museum is showcasing artwork that was created during the division of Germany (1961-1989). The Deutsch Kinemathek, a cinematic and digital arts museum in Potsdamer Platz, is presenting the “Moments in Time 1989/1990” exhibition of film, photography and archived television clips related to the fall of the wall through Nov. 9.
Other well-known Berlin museums with related exhibits include the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, the Allied Museum, the Museum Karlshorst, the Stasi Museum and the GDR Museum, to name a few.
Berlin Tourism www.visitberlin.deGermany National Tourist Officewww.cometogermany.com
Click here to read about how Los Angeles is commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall through art.