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Lives ripped apart: Germany remembers the tyranny of the wall

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It was drizzling over Berlin on Saturday morning: grey clouds, chilly and forbidding. Weather to match the mood as Angela Merkel drove up to the Berlin Wall.

The German chancellor joined leaders from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia at a service to mark 30 years since the wall fell.

But this was no celebration, no forum for daring stories, but rather a sober reflection of how lives were ripped apart.

When Ms Merkel spoke, she did so in the Chapel of Reconciliation, itself a remarkable example of the wrecking ball of East German politics.

The chapel was built to replace a church that was destroyed by the communist government in 1985.

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Image: Chancellor Merkel lit a candle in remembrance
The fall of the Berlin wall memorial still
Image: People also placed flowers in the wall

For the previous 24 years, it had stood in the death strip next to the wall, inaccessible to worshippers and an annoyance to East Germany.

Eventually, as the East Berlin authorities, once again, expanded the border security, they simply blew it up.

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Four years later, after the wall had fallen, the land was returned to the parish. A decade later, the chapel was dedicated.

Ms Merkel is well aware of the intricacies of all this. She was born in West Germany, but her family moved to the East when she was an infant.

Most senior jobs across Germany are held by those educated in the West; Merkel is an extraordinary exception.

And when she stood up in the chapel, she pulled few punches.

A cellist performs at the Berlin Wall memorial in Bernauer Strasse
Image: A cellist performs at the Berlin Wall memorial in Bernauer Strasse

With a nod to those who died while trying to cross the wall, she said: "We will not forget them. I remember the people who were killed here at this wall because they were looking for freedom.

"I also remember the 75,000 people who were imprisoned because they tried to flee the country.

"I remember the people who suffered from repression because their families fled. I remember the people who were spied on and denounced."

East German citizens climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg gate after the opening of the East German border was announced, November 10, 1989.
Image: East German citizens climb the wall at the Brandenburg gate on 10 November 1989

She led a process of laying flowers at the wall, and lighting candles. It was a morning of remembrance. Of looking back.

But the afternoon felt like it belonged to the future.

A concert at the Brandenburg Gate, attended by Ms Merkel but sprinkled with pop music, dance, theatre and film.

This was Germany showing an optimistic, forward-looking face to the world, respectful of its past – portrayed during an extraordinary, emotional blend of film and classical music – but also united in heading onwards.

By the end, after Ms Merkel had left, the Brandenburg Gate was thumping to techno music. And at the heart of it, a Syrian refugee, heralded as a symbol of Berlin's inclusive culture.

A photograph from 9 November 1989
Image: A visitor looks at a photograph of when the wall came down

This anniversary felt important to Germany, not least because the wall has now been down longer than it was up.

Reunification has been a difficult process, and few would argue that East and West have entirely embraced each other.

There are still major issues and chronic challenges. But perhaps now Germany is beginning to embrace the idea of looking forward, not back. Its 20th century was complex, divisive and often violent.

Its aim now is to strive for a future that is based on a unity of purpose.

In the long run, that won't be easy if its politics continues to tumble towards a tussle between centrists, greens and extreme right-wingers.

But that pursuit of a calmer, more peaceful future is important. Because what happens in Germany affects the whole of Europe.

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