Milestones: The Berlin Wall

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We’ve all seen the iconic photos of jubilant crowds bringing down the Berlin Wall. But Sven Regener’s novel Berlin Blues, which ends on the evening of 9 November 1989, captures quite the opposite reaction. When someone runs into a West Berlin bar to announce that the Wall’s coming down, the news is greeted unspectacularly: “Well, I’ll be…”

25 years later, it’s easy to look back on that night as a momentous occasion. But after nearly five decades of a tense, divided Berlin, life beyond the Wall seemed to many like an impossible abstract rather than a history-altering reality.

Berlin was the closest thing the Cold War had to a front line – and therefore became a microcosm of that standoff. Flattened by bombs during the Second World War and divided into Soviet, British, American, and French sectors, the city that survived the physical deconstructions of war remade itself along occupying forces’ terms.

When it went up on 13 August 1961, the Wall was a hostile, militaristic installation – first as threatening coils of barbed wire, then as an impossible, nearly 12-foot-high grey concrete barrier buffered by a ‘death strip’. Over 200 people would die attempting to cross this physical symbol of the East-West divide.

The Wall pervades how we speak and think about modern Europe and beyond. Putin’s reign has got some commentators muttering about a new Cold War; terms like ‘Iron Curtain’ conjure up literal images in discussions of East-West relations; walls like the Israel West Bank barrier and Northern Irish ‘peace lines’ will always carry loaded connotations.

Berlin may be a unified city again, but the socio-economic makeup of the German capital remains influenced by the former divide. Physical sites along the former Wall like the Brandenburg Gate are still international political platforms. For many, tearing down the Wall was a reclamation of German identity – but the Wall remains an unresolved historical presence in a city self-consciously reshaping itself as a European powerhouse.

This autumn’s 25th anniversary Berlin Wall commemorations won’t be as straightforward as last week’s D-Day anniversary. Jackhammers on graffitied concrete have come to symbolise the end of the Cold War. But the system that came down with the Berlin Wall has left more uncertainty than happy endings in its wake.

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