Wende and Wetter

Old Berliners in the media complained that twenty years ago even the Wetter was better. In 1989, the stars apparently shone down on revelers dancing on the Brandenburger Tor as they tore the wall to pieces. And the next day, when the East Berliners chugged onto the Kurfürstendamm—then the main drag in West Berlin—in their gas-guzzling Trabbies, the sky was blue.

Of course, when I flip through photos from the famous day, the newly reunited Berlin of twenty years ago looks as grey as grey can be. Helmut Kohl (the then Chancellor) and Willy Brandt (the Social Democratic Party hero who partially reconciled East and West through his Ostpolitik) stood on a balcony above the Schöneberger Rathaus, in the midst of mist and rain, in front of thousands of people.

Yesterday, the sky was perhaps even more unrelenting. Rain fell on a hundred thousand people as they elbowed each other for a view of the big screens that relayed images of the Tor (next to which a puffy Bon Jovi bawled out something about freedom). Although the ceremony seemed designed to rev Germans up, all around me I could hear a burble of other languages. While a kitschy German boy band performed a song about freedom, Spanish students enthusiastically noted how German the whole thing seemed. Americans ordered pizzas to go at a stand nearby; clumps of French tourists debated where to party after the ceremony.

Meanwhile, a woman who (as a 20-year-old in 1989) spent nearly a year in jail for dissenting against the East German regime told twenty-year-olds in the crowd to “dream, and do everything to turn your dreams into reality.” That rebellious girl, Katrin Hattenhauer, is now a decidedly unprovocative artist in Berlin. She paints work that reminds one of Cezanne. In retrospect, the 1980s seem appealing as a time of political clarity: on both sides of the wall, countercultures challenged state authority. Meanwhile, without a clear adversary—the social after-effects of fascism in the west, party bureaucrats in the east—post-Wall Berlin has grown ever more complacent. In the left-libertarian Berlin weekly Jungle World, Christoph Villinger recalled the over two hundred houses occupied in winter 1980 by West Berliners. The Berlin police back then presaged the occupations by declaring that they would not prevent them.

On the other side of the Wall, the civil rights movement was closely linked to a counterculture in East Berlin that was every bit as vibrant as its Western counterpart. Sven Marquardt’s photos (exhibited over the summer at the Akademie der Künste) show that the gloomy gothic sensibility of Wim Wender’s Der Himmel über Berlin was also to be found in the communist East. Today, almost every formerly occupied house in Kreuzberg has a contract with the City or a landlord. Meanwhile, Marquardt (the rebel photographer from Prenzlauerberg) is now the door-lackey at Berghain, a largely gay club that costs nearly twenty dollars entry. And Venissagen (art openings) in Berlin galleries have apparently taken on the political significance that demonstrations once had as gathering points for social groups. A demonstration against the hype surrounding the commemorations attracted a scant few hundred people in black hoodies.

What last night’s anniversary really seemed to commemorate was an era in which the people (for better or for worse) wrought effects upon politics through action in the streets. There are many reasons to be discouraged and even angry about the course Germany has taken since the Mauerfall—persistent unemployment resulting from the privatization of East German industries; the end to Germany’s post-war status as a haven for political dissidents and refugees; resurgent neo-nazi violence—but the culture of mass direct engagement vanished with the Wall. A professor at the Humboldt University who was living in East Berlin when the Wall fell told a class yesterday that the twentieth anniversary celebrations obscured the significance of the Mauerfall. “During those days, the slogan that we chanted at the demonstrations was ‘We are the people,'” he told us. “When they reunified Germany, they told us, ‘You are one people.'” With melancholy in his voice, he recalled the tenth anniversary of the Mauerfall. “A banner hung over Alexanderplatz [once the main square in East Berlin]. It read: ‘You were the people.'”

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