As Germany celebrates Berlin Wall’s demise, harsh realities lurk

Lighted balloons trace the former path of the Berlin Wall, a public art installation to mark the 25th anniversary of the demise of the Cold War barrier. On Sunday's anniversary, the 8,000 balloons will be released.
Lighted balloons trace the former path of the Berlin Wall, a public art installation to mark the 25th anniversary of the demise of the Cold War barrier. On Sunday’s anniversary, the 8,000 balloons will be released.
(Steffi Loos / Associated Press)

To mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this weekend, 8,000 stationary lighted balloons snake their way through nearly 10 miles of the city, tracing the path of the hated Cold War divide.

The softly glowing orbs, which will be released into the night sky Sunday amid the celebration of the wall’s demise, wend through traffic-packed boulevards and charming side streets, past upscale apartments and elegant boutiques. The Lichtgrenze public art project — one of the largest in Berlin’s history — illuminates all that was blocked and broken by the notorious concrete barrier, often now forgotten in this city’s march toward a 21st century identity.

“It’s really good to be reminded of where the wall was and what it once meant,” said Alex Schaller as he admired the lights that run past — where there once had been a lethal no-man’s land — a newly built mall, upscale art galleries and the entertainment hub of Potsdamer Platz, where children ice skate amid advertisements for Hollywood movies.


“There are people,” he added, “who don’t know what it was like.”

Schaller was 18 when the ironclad symbol of communist confinement gave way that November evening. He was one of the first people across it, and proudly shows off his old East German passport with the Nov. 9, 1989 exit stamp, one of only about a thousand administered by guards before they quit trying to keep up with the joyous rush westward.

With its digital entrepreneurship, culinary adventurousness and glitzy entertainment, the Berlin of 2014 can feel a lifetime away from the hardships of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, as East Germany was formally known. This year marks the first major anniversary in which many Germans born after the wall fell will be old enough to bring children of their own.

With some exceptions, this city has largely healed the wounds of that era; Berlin possesses an identity no longer defined by East and West.

Europe’s post-communist odyssey has not been as smooth, nor has it been as easy to erase the symbolic Iron Curtain that once cleaved Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

As the continent turns its gaze to Germany’s silver anniversary celebration Sunday — festivities will include a giant street party at Brandenburg Gate with performances by Peter Gabriel and Cold War-era star Udo Lindenberg — the balloons and the hoopla will conceal harsher realities. Across Europe, political alliances have frayed, economies are struggling, and the specter of a resurgent Russia has set the former Soviet satellites of the Eastern Bloc on edge.

The persistent discord contributes to a sense that a region once overflowing with post-wall promise contains deeper divisions and taller obstacles than many could have expected on that night in 1989.

The Iron Curtain’s collapse has lifted tens of millions of Eastern Europeans out of isolation, poverty and despair. But the mending of a “Europe whole and free,” as politicians cheered a quarter of a century ago, remains a work in progress.

Russia’s natural-resource wealth has enriched and emboldened the former superpower, encouraging the Kremlin to grasp for the strategic clout it once wielded as capital of the communist empire. President Vladimir Putin’s incursions into Ukraine have raised the uncomfortable memory of Stalin-era land grabs, instilling fear in many former Warsaw Pact allies. Those jitters have been exacerbated by Moscow’s chokehold on energy supplies for much of Europe.

Economic progress across the continent, meanwhile, has been uneven, as a once-bright outlook for the Eurozone has dimmed in recent months. Countries as disparate as Ireland, Italy and the Czech Republic have fallen into recession. The euro — for years a shining success — has recently dipped, losing 10% of its value against the dollar over the last six months.

Long-standing class disparities between Western Europe and Eastern Europe remain, and many countries in the former continue to resent the disproportionate burden that comes from reuniting with the latter.

Political centrism also has been imperiled in parts of Europe. The far-right National Front party has gained ground in France, where a survey this week showed that party leader Marine Le Pen would outpoll President Francois Hollande by a margin of 2 to 1 if the election were held today.

In Hungary, now part of the European Union, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been championing a version of “illiberal democracy,” rejecting the economic inequality that can accompany constitutional democracies in the West and extolling the economic models of China, Turkey, Singapore, India and Russia — this from a politician who was once a young anti-Soviet activist. Orban’s aggressive brand of Magyar nationalism and suppression of press freedoms has sounded alarms throughout Europe.

At the same time, many European countries seem uncertain how to handle a wave of immigration from Islamic lands, sparking conflict in the streets and inconsistent policies in national capitals.

Pro-Palestinian rallies in France and Germany this summer sometimes took on an anti-Semitic edge, and in the courtrooms, where a German ruling against circumcision and the European Court of Human Rights’ upholding of the French ban on burkas have heightened friction with minority Muslim populations.

“There is no question that this is a time to celebrate,” said Sudha David-Wilp, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin who specializes in Europe. “But the European project faces epic challenges. Every time we commemorate a 1989, we should remember there may be many more 1989s ahead.”

A European Union that now binds 28 nations, each with its own interests, can seem an inadequate apparatus to handle these challenges. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 to the European Union — particularly for the reconciliation of France and Germany — was hailed by many on the continent, but some say it underestimated the bloc’s limitations.

Still, there is a feeling that Europe is incalculably better off than it was, and that, for all the challenges, the Mauerfall, as the wall anniversary is known in Germany, offers a chance to count collective blessings.

Mary Elise Sarotte, a USC history professor who has just released a sweeping account of the events of 25 years ago titled “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall,” noted the progress on a continent that was riven by world wars twice in the 20th century. A once-divided Germany is now not just an economic powerhouse but has built a geopolitical bridge between East and West. That bridge is epitomized by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first post-wall German leader to have been raised in the East, and a popular figure across Germany.

The landmark anniversary this weekend reflects Germany’s determination to keep the memories of division alive enough to deter any recurrence.

The Berlin Wall memorial at Bernauer Strasse, a key landmark, will reopen Sunday after a nearly yearlong renovation, and Merkel will visit it ahead of the festivities at the iconic Brandenburg Gate.

“Beyond the Horizon,” a Berlin stage musical that’s a kind of Cold War-tinged “West Side Story,” features a fictional Udo Lindenberg in a romance with an East German woman during the last years of the wall. It has been a long-running hit.

The decades-long phenomenon of Ostalgie — historical East Germans’ nostalgic and often amnesiac memories of the Cold War as a time of solidarity and greater care for one another — won’t seem to go away. Many West Germans still resent the taxes they’re forced to pay to Eastern municipalities. And for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a far-left party took control of an East German state this week when Die Linke, born of the East German Communist Party, formed a governing coalition in the eastern state of Thuringia.

The event prompted an outcry from German President Joachim Gauck, a former East German dissident, as well as from singer and fellow dissident Wolf Biermann. Upon playing an anniversary concert Friday in the Bundestag, the German Parliament, Biermann paused the performance to call Die Linke a “miserable remnant of what was fortunately overcome.”

But those divisions remain beside the point to many Germans.

“None of this is perfect,” said Schaller, the former East Berliner, as he gazed at the lighted wall of balloons. “But it’s so much better than it used to be.”