Two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the German capital is no longer a city of two halves. With a raft of 20th anniversary celebrations planned to mark this historic event, there's no better time to get under the skin of this fascinating city break destination.
It was late in the evening of 9 November 1989 when Guenter Schabowski, a spokesman for the East German government was wrapping up a hastily-convened, televised press conference. The German Democratic Republic was in turmoil. Following mass public demonstrations, the future of the Communist state was in grave doubt.
Schabowski announced that visas would be freely granted to those wanting to travel outside or leave the country. Faced with a torrent of incredulous questions about the new visa timing, the spokesman mumbled: “As far as I know – as of now”.
Within minutes the news had flashed around Germany and the world. Thousands of East Germans thronged the streets up to the barrier, which had split the city in two since 1961. At checkpoints, confused military personnel, who were used to firing on sight anyone attempting to cross the tangle of concrete and barbed wire, were simply overwhelmed. By the early hours of the morning, they gave up trying to control the jubilant crowds and opened the gates into the West. The Berlin Wall had fallen and with it, the tottering edifice of Communism in Europe finally collapsed into the dust.
Today, little actually remains of the Wall, except for small, preserved stretches. However, visitors can trace its course via a continuous, cobbled indented marker, set in the city’s pavements and roads. Interactive guides, markers and billboards also dot the route.
In many ways, the sense of contrasts that dominated life under the Wall still prevail. Buildings in parts of the East resemble large, Soviet-style ‘wedding-cake’ blocks, interspersed with smaller cobbled streets and pre-war apartment buildings. Towards the West, roads and streets are far more conventionally European; leafy, architecturally diverse and of a far more eclectic vintage than their Eastern counterparts.
There are also plenty of noteworthy museums detailing life pre-1989. They include: the famous Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, Friedrichstrasse, Mitte, where a replica guardhouse offers an essential photo-opportunity; the tongue-in-cheek, quirky DDR Museum on the banks of the Spree and the fascinating Stasi Museum, housed in the former Ministry for State Security in Lichtenberg.
As Berlin celebrates the 20th anniversary of the ‘Peaceful Revolution’, Arsalan Mohammad gives a lowdown of some of the best events to watch out for this autumn.
The Festival of Freedom
On 9 November, the Festival of Freedom will take place at the iconic Brandenburg Gate. Beginning with an open-air concert at Pariser Platz, the highlight of the evening will be a spectacular ‘fall of the Wall’, in which 1,000, 2.5m-high (8ft) foam dominoes, decorated by Berlin youngsters, will be symbolically toppled over. Organisers are expecting a huge turnout for what’s set to be a rather special and memorable evening.
Exhibition, Peaceful Revolution 1989/90
Alexanderplatz, the rather grim central square in the heart of former East Berlin, will host a vast, open-air exhibition featuring bilingual information panels, photographs and memorabilia from activists, students and citizens who helped to change history in the divided city. Ends November 14.
STASI – The Exhibition
The sinister secret police who kept tabs on the East German population were always synonymous with the culture of oppression and totalitarian control. This exhibition at the Information and Documentation Centre BSTU, Wall Street 38, highlights some of the ways in which the Stasi ensured that dissent and rebellion were kept under check – at any cost. Ends December 31.
Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures
The Deutsches Historisches Museum, Unter den Linden, will feature a comprehensive snapshot of post-war German art viewed through a political, social, and historical lens. This exhaustive collection contrasts works made by artists on both sides of the political divide, ranging from Hans Haacke, Heinz Mack, Sigmar Polke, Raffael Rheinsberg, Gerhard Richter, and Dieter Roth, as well as a number of videos and performance-based works. Ends January 10.
Scenes and Signs of a Fall. The Berlin Wall focused by Photographers
A fascinating selection of photographs documenting the chaotic days immediately following the fall of the Wall opened this week at Max Liebermann Haus, Pariser Platz 7. Memorable highlights include images of bustling thoroughfares and squares captured as desolate strips of wasteland. Ends December 6.
BERLIN 89/09. Art between a Search for Clues and Utopia
The seismic changes that have rocked in Berlin over the past two decades provide inspiration for this multi-media exhibition at Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur, Alte Jakobstraße 124 – 128. Featuring paintings, photography and installations, it offers a detailed, fascinating account of the city’s transformation from political schizophrenia to a 21st century European capital. Ends January 31.