As we stood at the solemn Church of Reconciliation in Bernauer Strasse for a morning service, persistent drizzle already forming into troublesome puddles, a middle-aged man turned to me and offered his summary of the speaker.
“Jeez, he goes on a bit.”
The assessment was spot on, but there was a twinge of guilt in the shared feeling — the meandering speaker was a survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp, plus some years in exile and another 70 besides.
Twenty years since the Wall was inadvertently opened between East and West Germany and roughly 19 years since the two countries were united, rain soaked into the occasion, a day already heavy with the weight of its own significance. Even with the eccentricities of our dotty professor’s speech — which traced some tedious numerological readings of the date — the banal lines of his oration were to foreshadow the many speeches to come in Berlin on the 9th of November, 2009.
First at the Church of Reconciliation, which stands in the former death strip of the Wall and commemorates a church destroyed in the same spot by the GDR in 1985, then over at the former Bornholmer Strasse border crossing and finally at the Brandenburg Gate, world leaders became history teachers. Dates, times, places.
Cause. Effect. Consensus!
In the early afternoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel strolled along Bornholmer Strasse with Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, the former leader of the Polish Solidarity movement. Again and again, we heard that these were the three enablers of 1989 and the end of the cold war: the fumbled East German border opening, the reforms brought about by Gorbachev and the leading light of Walesa’s anti-communist and Catholic labour movement.
On the walk and in her subsequent speech, Merkel appeared to be carefree, closer to the image of everyday woman she is now attempting to convey — rather than the dour bureaucratic, technocratic persona she once presented. So we heard snippets of Merkel’s former life in the GDR and a few hints of her feeling genuinely moved by today’s commemoration.
Uttered by anyone else, these remembrances of the past might be shouted down as nostalgia. But this was Merkel, beacon of common sense in a party system that flanges out to the far-right and anti-capitalist left. She is seen to steer a steady course. An Ossi come good. The perfect person to be at the helm during a potentially fraught celebration like this. As with the choreographed, Olympic-opening-ceremony theatrics of the Brandenburg Gate events, the ideological and historical messages were all tightly stage managed by politicians, policy advisers and bureaucrats. Probably some focus groups.
The ideological evacuation started months earlier, when the entire weekend’s events began being trumpeted as a celebration of the “Freedom Revolution”. On Saturday, a protest by some twenty left-leaning groups — from anti-fascist organisations to anarchists to communists — claimed the “freedom” celebrated in this “German year of nationalism” was a “false” one. Angela Merkel riffed on the varieties of freedom in her Brandenburg Gate speech, at least intimating that “freedom” is an expansive idea, attached to political projects of every stripe.
Yet on this anniversary of ’89, the umbrella abstraction of “freedom” also serves to sidestep the tricky fact that many GDR political groups were actively seeking democratic socialism rather than liberal capitalism, egalitarianism rather than the Deutschmark.
Nevertheless, Gordon Brown, Hilary Clinton, Sarkozy and Medvedev — each at the helm of a country that fifty years ago had a large say in Berlin’s future — stepped in front of the Brandenburg Gate to pompously tell the assembled, wet, shivering masses that they were proud of ’89, that lessons had been learned, that it set an example, that walls shouldn’t be built, that freedom is important etc.
Cynicism on stilts, of course, given that Britain and France both reared at the idea of a united, powerful Germany returning to the centre of Europe; that the US still talks about building a wall along its border with Mexico and does little of substance to halt the borderline tyrannies in the Middle East; that passengers are now biometrically recorded, racially profiled or x-rayed at airports in some of these countries. (Just, y’know, for example.)
By the time the day’s speeches were done, the city felt sodden with rain.
In the crowd, there was umbrella carnage above heads as thousands of people attempted to manoeuvre from place to place, jostling to gain a vantage point, somewhere above — or below — all the other umbrellas. The feeling of jubilation — summoned as an expectation rather than stirred by events — seemed to simply drain away.
Where should we get dinner? Will my bus stop be shut down by traffic police? So which is the best U-Bahn connection to get me home? Will my bike be stolen if I leave it here?
It was the rain, mostly. An inconvenience that soaked bags, jackets, shoes — enough to put any Burgher in a bad mood. But it was also the affective gap of attending an event that was a televisual spectacle. The assembled people were not brought there to celebrate the anniversary together, but to be faces in the crowd of a broadcast. A quiz show audience. But not even a compliant one: the countdown to the tumbling of the kid-painted dominoes was weak.
Even Obama’s videoed speech barely raised a flutter — this in a city where more than a hundred thousand people gathered to hear him speak last year. (He was in the flesh then.)
Such sour reflections are redoubled when we recall the joy of 1989. Anyone who has seen recent collections of photos from the time — or even remembers it from their own experience — will know the look of exhilaration and hope as people travelled towards and beyond the Wall. This happiness is undeniable. The overzealous, over-event-managed celebration of 2009 — with circuitous, one-way routes, logjam entries and cops with machine guns — was a strange ossification of the spontaneity of 1989.
It may have just been the rain, but Berlin 2009 didn’t quite feel like it should. The night’s concluding fireworks glowed and burned in soft focus out the window as the bus pulled into my stop. I’m sure the whole thing looked great on the telly.