Thoughts On The Berliner Mauerfall

These were meant to be posted on Monday in honour of the Berliner Mauerfall commemoration. Celebration doesn’t seem like quite the right word, particularly since even now, 20 years on, not all Berliners are convinced that this modern day Jericho moment was really for the best.

Miss Mussel was in the city in September to visit the Yellow Lounge and while there wasn’t a lot of time to poke around, the basics were covered. Walking from the snazzy new Hauptbahnhoff (five floors of trains!) to Potsdamerplatz, it was impossible to avoid thinking of the Wall. Outside the station, there was an enormous exhibit with photographs and loads of text highlighting the events of 9th November and the days that followed. Postcards containing pieces of the wall were available literally everywhere and busloads of tourists roamed the enormous square framed by the Reichstag, the Swiss Embassy and the Bundeskanzleramt [Hi Angie!],

Tourism helps keep the memory alive but it also makes the Mauerfall a commodity. Particularly convenient for peddlers of tat is the fact that this happening, as it were, has a tangible element at its core. A wall literally fell down. It’s much more difficult to attach pieces of shrapnel or a mini-landmine to a postcard. Out of all the commemorative products on offer – tea towels, books, mugs, magnets, posters etc – the postcards, with their tiny, grafittied piece of cement, trivialized the event the most.

Being the sort of person who is rarely offended, Miss Mussel was quite curious about her reaction to this very normal occurrence. After all, in 1989 she was just 10 years old and not in possession of enough geo-political awareness to really understand what the falling wall represented. There was, therefore, no existing personal connection or a sense of having her generation’s Kennedy moment. The Challenger disaster three years earlier made much more of an impression.

Relatives stationed at the army base in Lahr, gave Frere Mussel a certified piece of the wall for Christmas that year. It came in a special packaging with a certificate of authenticity rather like commemorative plates or a Cabbage Patch. That made it cool for a little while but it wasn’t long before the envelope was stuffed into the back of a drawer with broken toys and old cards.

A trip to a friend’s wedding in Poznan, Poland five years ago was Miss Mussel’s first in-person encounter with the legacy of communism. The town looked as if a time machine had thrown up. 18th-century municipal buildings were restored in the centre to attract tourists but all around, it was concrete apartment blocks and municipal buildings that were cutting edge 50 years ago. It felt very strange to discover that the images Miss Mussel had seen on TV weren’t just figments of a newscaster’s imagination. These places, and the hardship they represented, did exist in real life.

There were some similar apartment blocks behind the Ostbahnhoff in Berlin but for the most part, in places away from the tourist-clogged Hauptbahnhoff/Potsdamerplatz corridor, the architecture made it easy to forget the whole thing ever happened. A few pieces of the original wall remain but even those have turned into the yearbook flyleaves for the scores of young tourists on school trips.

Nevertheless, there are little markers for those that care to look. A double row of square cobblestones marks where the wall used to run. It has, in Miss Mussel’s limited experience, a habit of showing up in the most random places as it snakes through the city. Visible to those who take the time to look down but flush enough to the pavement not to be felt by busy feet, the cobbles are an ideal way to remember the past without infringing on the future.

The postcards still niggle but the why is proving to be rather elusive. By its very nature, the ephemera of tourism is cheap and fleeting; a circumstance that, most of the time, amuses and amazes. Eiffel Tower pencil sharpeners and Big Ben thermoses are delightfully silly but bits of graffitied cement allegedly from the wall is somehow undignified. In storerooms of tat factories everywhere, there must be a bag labeled Berliner Mauer ordered from a supply catalogue. Is that really the best we can do?

[Click to enlarge and/or start a slide show]

Further Reading: Anne Midgette’s first person account of the Mauerfall | Wikipedia | Photographs of 9th November, 1989 from the Spiegel archives | Interview with Harald Jager, the first border guard to let East Germans across | Roundup on Arts & Letters Daily [left colum beginning with Schabowski shrugged |

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