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Berlin 20 Years Later: Monumental Fall Gives Rise to Memory

The Berlin Wall — that cold, cement wound through the heart of a great city that for four decades became a harsh symbol of the Cold War — is back, rising austerely out of the ashes of memory.

In Washington and around the world, the emblematic Iron Curtain of the Cold War is being lifted again, so to speak, as millions look back on the big 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, a shockingly peaceful, delirious and portending historical event.

In fact, until the wall fell, the Cold War was an accepted reality of foreign policy. East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was also seen by many to be practically immune to some of the political palpitations that were affecting other Eastern bloc nations such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin disturbances called Perestroika and Glasnost. East Germans were probably the most doctrinaire, orthodox and politically stifled of citizens behind the Iron Curtain, and yet, the wall tumbled in front of an astonished world.

Back then, you could watch the occasion on television, where Tom Brokaw was one of the few Western journalists who was there to see it. Countless magazines and newspapers examined the event, which was the most vivid and dramatic domino effect of further events to come, nothing less than the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, and the end of the Cold War — events that existed only in fictional thrillers of the time.

Today, two places in Washington are offering a modest but highly creative window into the events of Nov. 9, 1989, and their aftermath. “Iconoclash! Political Imagery from the Berlin Wall to German Unification” at the Goethe-Institut looks at the physical remnants of the GDR, while a virtual reality exhibition at the American University’s Katzen Arts Center lets visitors experience the reality of life on either side of the wall.

The exhibition at the Goethe-Institut is kind of a treasure house of communist iconic junk, taken from the Wende Museum located in Culver City, Calif., near Hollywood. The exhibition features a smorgasbord of political and cultural artifacts ranging from discarded GDR flags, to busts of Lenin, to changed street signs and city locations, to old propaganda imagery that was so prevalent in the East right up until 1989, when almost all of it virtually disappeared overnight.

And if they didn’t disappear, these items were often vandalized, manipulated and reshaped — in the process shattering the permanence with which they were originally created, a reflection in a way of the overridingly permanent, static thinking at the time that nothing would ever change.

At the opening of the almost nostalgic exhibit, in fact, a lively panel discussion featuring Markus Meckel, GDR foreign affairs minister at the time of the fall, and Richard C. Barkley, the last U.S. ambassador to East Germany, confirmed just how much of a shock the wall’s demise was to many officials.

It would appear, for one thing, that GDR leader Erich Honecker and his compatriots refused to face the realities of what was happening around them, happily holding one of those massive Kremlin-style military parades celebrating the GDR’s anniversary. But in Leipzig, huge peaceful demonstrations were brewing, while in Hungary, the borders to Austria had opened, allowing thousands of East German visitors to flee.

At the Katzen exhibit, German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth pointed out that while these resisters and demonstrators showed great courage in taking to the streets, neither the GDR leaders nor Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev chose to use force, unlike in times past in Berlin, Prague and Hungary when “the tanks came out of the Soviet barracks.” This combination of government restraint and popular defiance resulted in a social explosion that reverberated throughout the world and would forever reunite Germans as the wall that had separated them finally came crashing down.

But what was life like before the big crash? The Katzen exhibition, titled “Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall,” cleverly uses virtual reality to revisit the actual reality back then, allowing visitors to become East or West Germans, or tourists for that matter. In what feels like but amounts to much more than a simple computer game, people use a joystick to get up close and personal to the wall — whether it’s the blank façade in the East, or the graffiti-stricken side on the West — as Stazi border guards, with their intense, robotic demeanor, hover over your shoulder.

The wall itself has long left Berlin, although pieces of it are traded on eBay or can be found in museums like the Newseum here. But this interactive, three-dimensional exhibition at the Katzen brings to life a graphic computerized version of a wall section, including a famous truck escape attempt.

Creators Tamiko Thiel and Teresa Reuter focused on the area between the West Berlin district of Kreuzberg and the East Berlin district of Mitte, researching the historical, sociological and urban conditions to understand how the wall’s presence and the constant possibility of escape attempts influenced everyday life. They also interviewed people who lived in the area during that time. One woman they spoke to recalled how up until the mid-1960s, the wall actually consisted of the walls of people’s houses, “with the windows and doors bricked up so you couldn’t escape,” she said. “In 1964, a family broke open the window of the corner house and climbed out the window with a rope. After that, they [the German Democratic Republic] torn down the buildings, but left the ground floor sides as part of the wall. Pretty wild!”

The display too is pretty wild, and “playing” it allows you to go back and forth in time and really feel what an artificial, disorienting and ultimately tragic creation the Berlin Wall was for the people it separated — from their countrymen, from themselves and from their own identities.

The wall remains a memory to those who experienced it, but like so much of history, it’s become part of a further-receding past for each new generation. Nevertheless, long after the physical structure has been torn down, its imprint clearly remains in one form or another.

“I asked my daughter what she remembered about the wall,” said Goethe-Institut Director Ulrich Braess. “She doesn’t remember that much, but she said, ‘All I remember is that was the first time I’ve seen you cry in front of the television.’”

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 2, 2014