Note: This is the first of two posts recounting Eye on the East’s recent visit to Berlin. Part two can be found here.
I hate to admit it, but until very recently, I still associated Berlin almost exclusively with the Berlin Wall. Even after 25 years since the wall crumbled to pieces, stories of successful and failed escapes from East to West Berlin, neighborhoods divided by a simple concrete structure and tales of how a Cold War of worldwide proportions was also played out in the alleys of a single city, have never failed to intrigue me. It is mostly due to this socio-political curiosity – and not my love of sausages – that finally led me to visit Berlin. The fact that the visit coincided with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall, made the sightseeing a bit more crowded, but surely not less emotive.
There are many ways to experience the wall and absorb its legacy while walking the wide and never-ending streets of Berlin. One of them is simply to look: at the actual parts of the wall still standing and read the stories from both sides of the divide exhibited throughout the city. By inspecting the relatively modest size and height of the wall and reflecting on the absurdity of how it stood in the way of an entire city. One can also listen to the stories: of those who believed it was useless to celebrate the 25th anniversary because nothing would come out of it and that life moves on, to those that recognized how their lives had changed for the better because of the fall of the wall (usually those from East Berlin), which was reason enough for the commemoration. Some Easterners recount tales of continued discrimination against them and a slight bitterness that everything they held dear in the East had been discredited by the West (such as the educational and welfare systems), but later partly adopted by the West itself. Of course, there is also research that shows that on many levels, Berlin remains a divided city.
While observing the remains of the wall, some of it intact and some of it transformed into colorful memorials, one cannot but reflect and remember: remember the Cold War in the name of which the wall was erected, and what has become of its underlying ideological, sociopolitical and geopolitical struggles today. Has the world really learned from the mistakes of past wars and is it willing to act upon these lessons? “The world is on a brink of a new Cold War,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said during the 25-year commemoration last week, “some are even saying that it’s already begun.”
At the same time, there also lingers a feeling of hope: though it is true that it took 28 years for the wall to fall, it eventually did fall. I couldn’t but picture the partly colorful but much taller walls I saw in Belfast, Northern Ireland (see Eye on the East’s post from October 2013), when I walked along the Berlin Wall remains at the East Side Gallery on Mühlenstrasse (see picture below) or Israel’s Apartheid Wall in the West Bank as I walked along the somber remains of the Berlin Wall on Niederkirchnerstrasse (see picture below). The circumstances of each of these walls is different, and times have certainly changed, yet the fall of the Berlin Wall provides if only a glimmer of hope that walls were never meant to last forever…
Meanwhile, all the vestiges of the wall couldn’t but make me think about Lebanon…about our omnipresent invisible barriers, many of which have been reinforced throughout the years. The psychological barriers that are as stubborn and solid as steel, because you don’t know where they exist but they do, and you are not sure if they still exist because you can’t see them. There is always hope that the real and invisible barriers will one day crumble and fall, the question is how long will they remain and whether the damage is reversible when they fall…
No wall was meant to last forever, just as no wall was meant to fall on its own, as East and West Berliners will tell you. While tearing the wall down is one thing and unifying is a totally different thing. But then again, Berlin isn’t only about the wall, as I finally got to discover, but that will need another post…stay tuned.