Berlin is dressed for a celebration. At the Brandenburg Gate they have set out electronics for an event, just as they have at the Potsdamerplatz. Alexanderplatz is filled with an exhibit. All over town events are scheduled and even businesses are developing marketing oriented towards the festivities.
Monday is a major anniversary. It is the day twenty years ago, the 9th of November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. A guard gave the order to open the gates, based on what an official said on TV. Whatever the governmental intensions to contain the pressure and demonstrations within the former German Democratic Republic, time and people overwhelmed them.
The Wall was quickly dismembered and only a few pieces remain. One section is the East Side Gallery with pieces of a narrow wall painted in celebration and protest by various artists. The original paintings were destroyed and these are recreations once an artist created the park as a memorial. An other section lies on the edge of my neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg. Between it and the old neighborhood of Wedding.
On Wednesday it snowed. It did not seem cold enough, but the snow came quickly and fell thickly. It did not stick to the pavement, but did to the grass, cars, and signs. For some reason the falling snow filled me with a childish excitement, perhaps that which came when we would visit my grandparents in Utah at Christmas time and it would snow.
I put my laptop away, paid my tab, and left the cafe, A Sunday in August, and ran out into the snow. I started walking north, and kept walking, even though my shoes got soaked in the slush and the wetness was chilling my feet. For a while I went inside the mall at the Schönhauserallee train stop and sat in a coffee house inside while my feet warmed and dried. I also got lots of writing done.
Then the snow called again. I left and ran out. I had no plan, but the sign for the Mauerpark called me. So I followed its arrow. It never told me when I reached the death strip, but I knew. The street shifted to go through a cut tunnel and on the other side the neighborhood looked radically different. It had shiny, new buildings, though like many of my class, I liked the elegant detail of the nineteenth century buildings of Prenzlauer Berg better. The shinyness is ironic, probably from a massive mall deelopment, because that neighborhood on the other side of Bernauer Str. is one of the grittiest and poorest in Berlin with almost a quarterof its people out of work
A wall of six story residences looked out on the Wall. They were made the higher wall when their windows were bricked up so people could not look into the West. The death strip, though, was maybe fifteen feet high and more than thirty feet thick. It swung between the two zones like a thick and punishing belt.
I climbed on it and walked. Trees had been planted and benches placed. The trees were still young and on this snowy day the park seemed bleak.
Next to it was build a bright and shiny metallic events center and sports complex, on the Prenzlauer side. Almost no one was there because of the snow, but a young woman was still in the box office by posters for touring music groups and shows, looking very bored as she stared out into the snowy scene.
An event like that which happened in Berlin that day twenty years ago can be read so many ways and powers that be work hard to force meaning on it. The Economist Magazine, the New York Times and many other newspapers have published on it. For them, the meaning is the victory of capitalism over communism when the cold war ended and democracy reigned supreme. Forget that assemblage really doesn’t always go very well together and is forced in its messianic militancy. But that is the meaning they wish to give it.
In Berlin, by the highly symbolic Brandenburg Gate--the ancient gate of the city opening the way to the domains of the royal rulers, the Electors of Brandenburg before it was on the wall, a symbolic place marking the boundary between East and West--a massive new wall is being built of dominos. At the right moment on Monday it will come tumbling down as only dominos can, one after another in contagion. I fear the planners mean this in relation to the domino theory that was common in the West arguing strongly for the proxy-wars against the communists lest nation after nation fall to the reds. Maybe they just mean the ways in which the opening of the gates led to the fall some time later of East Germany and then of the entire sphere of Soviet Influence, including that master empire itself.
Despite that cold war reading, the German papers and Radio Deutsche Welle TV (that I have been watching on my laptop in German) give the Mauer Fall the meaning of German Einheit, Unity, through the great Wende, the change. All over one sees signs that says we are a people, a Volk, a single Volk. Other times, with a hint of irony, they way Wir sind das Volk, we are the people. Not only does this refer to German nationalism and unity, it also piquantly claims the revolutionary subject, the people, for itself. This is both a warning and a claim to history and has deeply troublesome reasonances in far right wing nationalism that is stronger in the East that in other parts of Germany.
This ambivalence is what strikes me in Berlin. The moment of change was great. The world tore that day and was knitted together differently. But the tear and the knitting leave a patched, stressed cloth.
Twenty years is a long time in human life. Kids were born twenty years ago and have grown up without ever knowing the Wall. My generation was raised under the Wall and spent most of their adulthood without it. Our parents and those between us and them, may have seen the Wall built and may have lived behind it, both its sheltering protection and its depriving of human rights.
Here is the beginning of complexity, different generations have very different experiences, and here is the motive for elites to take charge of memory and give it form and official life. However, there are plenty of counters to the official as people work it in conjunction with their interests and memories to oppose it.
Even businesses as they celebrate the Wall’s fall pick up the complexity, difference and ambivalence.
One poster I saw posted in many places reminded people that the 9th of November is a date with a deeper historical meaning that must not be forgotten in the press of officialdom to spin the Wall, something made so much easier with almost all the Wall gone.
In a tumble of books, the poster reminds of the destruction of Jewish property and learning on this date, which has passed into history under the name Krystal Nacht. There is still a standing synagogue in my neighborhood that somehow was not destroyed, but it was maybe the only one.
The poster warns of Fascism. It is very easy to become a fascist if you live in one of the conflicted neighborhoods with lots of immigrants or high rates of unemployment, I guess.
Strangely I have seen no neo-Nazi propaganda, though I know from press reporting it has appeared in the former east. But I see lots of warnings against Nazism and fascism.
This particular poster is advertising a demonstration to take place in Moabit, a working class part of Mitte affected by gentrification and next to historical Wedding, one of the most hard-hit working class neighborhoods in the city, though it was in the French Zone and not East Berlin.
Of course, the warnings against Fascism may be a veiled code. I do not know. Fascism is another complex trope with a great variety of potential readings.
The West saw itself as a stake formed after Nazism was defeated and it paid reparations for Nazi acts. It built a consciousness against Nazism and to make the ethnic cleansing and invasions of neighbors that Hitler did impossible. But the East also saw itself as a state that defeated the Nazis. The militant socialists who risked their lives to resist Hitler, and even earlier who tried to build a people’s republic against the elitist republic that became Nazi was codified and ritualized int he memory and actions of the East.
I read that even today, most of the population of former East Berlin tends to vote for the successor leftist party that replaced the communists although the ultra-right also polls strongly in the East, and especially in the nearby areas of Saxony. I do not know, but in the constant warnings against Nazism, may be a new combination of a progressive, militant left that has a different historical memory than the official West, at the same time there is a right that is processing the economic and social difficulties and stresses of the Wende, including the movement of non-Germans in this area, the forced migration of Germans from Poland among other places, and the horrendous bombings by allies on Germany, to build its own amalgam of social welfare and racism.
In either case, the reunification of Germany, then, is a problem waiting for a solution. Angela Merkel, the Chancelor of Germany, may be from East Berlin, but evidently, she does not represent the feelings of many people who are far more leftist and rightist than her center right position in power.
In East Berlin, and elsewhere in East Germany, Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the East Block is a fashion that finds all kins of ironies, like a supermarket chain, ironically named Kaiser, that trumpets the holiday and says that they celebrate with both products from the East and from the West, together. Politics made commodity.
East Berlin fashion is a rage. One of my favorites is a shop near Rosa Luxemborg Platz is called “Redspective.” This is a rich and complex play on words, especially right there near a major Folk Theatre that has survived the fall and the words of revolutionary, democratic militant, and marxist theorist of the great generation following Marx whose words are engraved in metal slabs slicing across the pavement and street.
Another is a music promoter called Ostfunk, East Funk. I actively promotes the east Berlin music scene and organizes major events in West Berlin clubs.
Though filled with ironies, and not at all clear, these put together suggest a deep river of alternative conscience and alternative readings still active in the hearts and minds of East Berlin. I wish my German, particularly my Berlinish--which I am finally beginning to understand, and my Sachsisch, my Saxon, the Plattdeautsch of the region, were better. I would talk to people and do ethnography, though I did not come here to do that, but to write and in my spare time explore and use German. I am sure there are people working on this theme and I shall find them because I am curious.
The massive department store of West Berlin, the Kaufthaus des Westens, or KaDeWe, for short covered its walls this week with pictures of its employes saying where they were when the Wall fell. They range from people who were not born then to people who where elsewhere, to people who were front and center, on either side. Other than being framed on the walls of a capitalist business and a center of West Berlin, there is not preaching here. I saw people stand and read, one after another, as they walked.
This makes them ask where they were and as they narrate their stories of where they were and what they were doing on the day of Wende, the complexity of memory is recreated.
One also sees this in the large installation in Alexanderplatz. KaDeWe was the center of West Berlin’s commercial life, Alexanderplatz was a socialist response with its massive , open plaza surrounded by train stations and large glass and steel buildings in the sixties socialist modern style to show the east as progressive and modern in its attempts to realize a workers’ paradise. But it was also a dictatorship, of the people they said.
There is the irony of the Volk again. In the focus on dictatorship, socialism comes out as a value still. The display is filled with alternative readings and complexity, as it narrates the events in a series of broken walls with lines of metallic banners above, a new creation of modernism, even a post-modernism.
People stand and read, intensely. I do not presume to know their feelings, but can see the intensity.
One banner says Democracy and Human Rights, at the same time economic freedoms are considered Human Rights, like the right to sustenance and work. It says “we are the people”. “For our children.” “Privilege for Everyone.” And so on.
My favorite poster I found up where the S-Bahn and U-Bahn have paired stations in the Schönhauserallee Stop, and subsequently elsewhere. It is officially in response to the “free market” development and such around the Mauerpark. In its right side panel a wrinkled, elderly woman stands with her middle finger flung forward into the air.
Here is the resistance, the alterity, the other Berlin,. actively struggling with Capitalism. It may have been victorious in the Wall’s fall, at least according to many Western officials, but here in deep east Berlin it is fought.
I saw signs on walls that said, Kapitalismus Out, No Socialism, Communism is in Tibet. Whatever the politics of this, whether right wing or left wing, it captures a common spirit of resistance and alternative memory that has roots in the pre-Wende East, and yet is even among the Yuppies drawn to East Berlin. It is a consciousness that seeks alternatives to mainstream capitalism and that does not buy the dominant narrative of the Wall’s fall.
Fate intervenes in weird ways. Long before I arrived in Berlin and realized the importance of this anniversary, I was invited to give a key note address at a conference in Mexico and felt I could not say no. Funding came through to fly to Mexico City to attend the conference in Puebla, and then return to Berlin. Today, the day before, as I write, I am in Mexico with its own ironic revolutionary history. I sit in a cafe near the boulevard that transverses this immense labyrinthine city, called Insurgents, and write about Berlin over a plate of Chilaquiles. I will be back there, but like most of you, I will be reading and listening about the celebration on line.
An irony happened right before I came here to the cafe, however. A man came up to me near the Angel of the Revolution monument and asked if I spoke English. He had the accent I know in Hispanics from the US who were in the military. It reminded me of west Texas and New Mexico. Sure enough. he told me he was deported from the US, despite serving in the military and is bared from returning for five years, even though his family, his wife and kids are there. He spoke strongly against the wall that is being built on the US Mexican border and ho it separates families. He said he hasn’t been in Mexico since he was a teenager. he no longer knows the country and its language, though he does speak Spanish. His English is impeccable. But now, because of a minor infraction in the US he has to figure out how to survive here, where he is not finding a job, until he can return home. He is dependent on the money his wife and kids send him, though he cries at the expense they have to pay to wire money.
My mind was on Berlin, but I am in Mexico and somehow the two worlds came together. No, Borges is Argentine. I can just hope for a Wende in this hemisphere too.