It was twenty years ago today

A BBC Clip from November 9, 1989


Karl Lemberg, a UN Dispatch reader born in Soviet-controlled East Berlin in 1979 sends us his reflections on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall:

Remembering those who perished.

Today is a day for celebration in Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden. Some celebrate the the political and economic freedoms we gained that day.  And some celebrate that in the course of the past 20 years we have become a ‘normal’ country, and not a divided double state in the heart of Europe.  For my younger brother’s generation (he was born in 1990) today seems like one of the many other out-door festivities that frequent Berlin’s downtown. Only instead of David Hasselhoff performing “Looking for Freedom” at the Brandenburger Gate, it is now Bon Jovi playing “Have a Nice Day.”

I certainly do not want to spoil the party, but I can’t help but feel that there is too much celebration and not enough commemoration today. The Wall, after all, claimed at least 130 lives. The last one, 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy, was shot trying to escape to the west only nine months before the Wall fell.

Watching newsfeeds from 1989 makes me proud to be a Berliner. But looking back at the past 20 years makes me sad to see that there is still no central space to commemorate the dead, and that after 20 years there is still no unbiased and open discussion about how to actively remember East German history.  (And this in a country that supposedly is a World Champion in “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” or coming to terms with one’s own past!)

To be sure, as a thirty-year-old born in a communist country, I have all reason to thank history for having saved me from years of ideological bending. The events of 1989 rescued me from the red (actually, more like “grey”) future prospects that would have awaited me.  Still, as happy as we all feel today, we Berliners need to carve out time and space to remember and honor those who died in pursuit of the freedoms we now enjoy. 


Praising the dissidents

Reading the manifold literature about the systematic injustices of the cruel state security apparatus and the brave struggles of dissidents makes me truly appreciate the choices I have today. My life belongs to me and I do not even have to fight for it. Dissidents certainly did not bring down the Wall but they instilled discontent into the general public and encouraged people to not accept life as it was. Dissidents like Robert Havemann and Wolf Biermann should be as much part of the high school curriculum as Claus von Stauffenberg and Anne Frank.

Knowing their stories not only helps me appreciate the life I enjoy today, they also help me understand the magnitude of events like the protests in Tehran, Iran this year or in Uzbekistan recently. To some extent, I can personally relate as to what life is like living under oppressive regimes. I am not alone, millions of East Germans also have the ability to relate. This, I believe, gives my country a unique responsibility country to take a pro-active stand against oppressive regimes anywhere.  That we often do not should be a source of national shame.


Other walls to bring down

I am flabbergasted when I hear that four days before the celebrations of November 9th the pop band U2 erects a wall right in front of the Brandenburg Gate (!) to fence off those who have not been able to get their tickets.  Welcome to the West.

I feel uncomfortable in segregated American communities as if an invisible wall prevents people from crossing from one neighborhood to the another. “Gated Communities” give me the creeps. I feel an angry knot in my stomach when I see pictures of the “Fence” separating Palestinians from Israelis.

Being critical is crucial for an active citizenship and is the foundation of any flourishing democracy. This was a luxury we were not accorded under communism. That’s why it is important to not forget to teach and debate history, especially recent history that still surrounds us. I want my younger brother to be able to recognize injustices and have him realize that he can do something about it.


Looking For Freedom