This story first appeared on Alternet.org
It was immediately obvious wandering through Berlin last weekend that the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall were in trouble.
In Alexanderplatz subway station, the main eastern transport hub, wall-sized billboards advertising the Fest der Freiheit — Festival of Freedom — were side by side with huge Burger King ads for a new grilled cheese snack. The tag line: “The Cheese Revolution.”
Sure, it’s easy to celebrate the events of November 9, 1989, in the abstract. After all, what’s not to like about casting off the shackles of a dictatorial system in which people couldn’t freely express their opinion and were shot for trying to leave, in which tens of thousands of citizens spied in each other, and in which you might be denied a place at university or a job if your parents weren’t party members — But when it comes to putting on an actual celebration, as the city of Berlin learned, it gets trickier.
The weekend kicked off with U2 playing a free concert Thursday night at the Brandenburg Gate as part of the MTV European Music Awards. The band distributed 10,000 free tickets for the pen where the show would take place. But in a move that, as it turned out, set the tone for the entire anniversary, U2 played behind an opaque wall, making it impossible for those without tickets to see the free show intended to mark — lest we forgot the full extent of idiocy here — the fall of the wall.
As for Monday night’s Festival of Freedom, huge numbers of Berliners have been for one reason or another sufficiently disgruntled at the chain of events subsequent to the fall of the wall, that they can no longer celebrate the fall as a discrete accomplishment — and as a result cannot celebrate its fall at all. Much of the crowd, then, consisted of foreigners along with Germans not old enough to remember the actual events.
For those who did go out to the festival, doused by icy rain showers, it only got worse. The fall of the wall was such a symbolically important event that the you assume festival organizers would have been hyper-conscious of symbolism in the anniversary events. Not so.
The main events were centered around the Brandenburg Gate, which sits directly on the old fault line between East and West Berlin. All the staged aspects of the night — various musical performances, the main television host, the VIP seating — are on the west side of the Gate and in the case of the performances, they are all facing west, with their asses to the East.
To make matters worse, on the night of the Freedom Fest it was impossible to approach the Gate from the East. Unter den Linden — the main boulevard stretching from Alexanderplatz past museum island, the opera, and Humboldt University — was entirely closed by the time the festival kicked into gear. Instead of just reserving a lane for emergency vehicles, the full width of the boulevard as well as the broad, tree-lined median strip was blockaded by police vehicles and temporary barriers.
The scene was dishearteningly reminiscent of concerts at the Brandenburg Gate during the 1980s. Back then, acts including David Bowie, Genesis and the Eurythmics played open-air shows to West Berlin audiences right at the Gate; Eastern music fans would try to congregate on the GDR side to hear the music wafting over the wall only to be blocked and end up clashing with police.
When Bon Jovi and Paul Van Dyk sang their songs, they had their backs to the East. Berlin-based Van Dyk, popular elsewhere in the world for his pop-cheese take on techno, can’t get arrested in Berlin, where some of the most revered electronic music clubs in the world take their tunes far more seriously. Bon Jovi sang a song — called “We Weren’t Born to Follow” — that in the context sounded unforgivably patronizing. Then the band got a plug for their upcoming tour. The crowd jeered.
Given America’s seemingly grandiose ideas of its role in the fall of the wall, it’s interesting to note that this, together with David Hasselhoff’s apparently drunken cameo at the MTV European Music Awards a few nights before — slurring through a few lines of his 1989 hit “Looking for Freedom” and saying no, he hadn’t brought down the wall, Berliners had (um, thanks for the clarification) — was the lone nod to the US during the anniversary weekend. And mercifully, there is no mention of Ronald Reagan’s made-for-American-TV address featuring the oft-quoted (here in the US) tear down this wall line. So much for that legend.
Using the enthusiasm of the audience’s cheering, it’s clear then-Hungarian head of state Miklos Nemeth is regarded as the single most important figure in the fall of the wall. He opened the border between Hungary and Austria in the summer of 1989. When tens of thousands of East Germans began to flee — illegally, as far as East Germany was concerned — to the West that way, it created incredible pressure on the GDR leadership to open their own borders to stem the tide and keep the place from emptying out altogether.
The next loudest cheers came for Lech Walesa, the Polish labor leader whose efforts with Solidarity forced free elections in Poland.
Third biggest crowd response was reserved for former Soviet ruler Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies of restraint upon his ascent to general secretary of the communist party in 1985 had allowed the radical changes in Hungary and Poland to occur, and who leaned on East German hardliners to avoid bloodshed as the wall fell.
At the close of the event, after the long rows of ten-foot-high dominoes had been toppled and the fireworks went off, the symbolic screw-ups continued: even after the anniversary wall had fallen, visitors were not allowed to cross it. Instead the blocks — some, upon closer inspection, emblazoned with advertising from among others, easyJet, the local utility companies, and Scandlines — were cordoned off behind metal fencing and guarded.
In the end, the Cheese Revolution, with its horrid music, montages of whistling children, and real-life angels atop the buildings, left would-be revelers divided by a fake Berlin Wall shuffling along in the rain looking for a way out of a festival of freedom.
Tim Mohr spent most of the 1990s as a club DJ in Berlin and much of the next decade as a staff editor at Playboy magazine.
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