It was a moment that shocked the world and marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War - culminating in the toppling of the East German communist dictatorship, the reunification of Germany in 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
On a cold morning in November 1989, I was in the midst of ordering breakfast in London when I opened the newspaper and was left dumbfounded. “Do you feel alright?” asked my implacable British waiter. “You look pale”, he added.
“The Berlin Wall has fallen.“ I could barely get the words out of my mouth before I fell silent again, unable to believe what I was reading. My passport bore the visa stamp from the British consulate in Berlin: November 2, 1989. I had been in Berlin on the eve of an event that would change modern history.
Alas, destiny took me to London in November 1989 instead of allowing me stay in Berlin and witness history. But I remember perfectly the day I walked for hours in West Berlin along the seemingly never-ending wall. And the day when, armed with a one-day visa, I crossed over to East Berlin. At Alexanderplatz, solitary souls talked to themselves in cafes, and the restaurants were empty though all the tables had “reserved “ signs on them. I learned later that the restaurants belonged to the state, and that to discourage diners, disinterested wait staff simply “reserved” all the tables to keep from working.
At the end of the afternoon in East Berlin I attended a performance of Richard Strauss’ play “Salome “ at the Opera Theater making sure to leave in time to catch the final subway back to West Berlin, then an island of freedom in the territory of the DDR. From that trip of mine in 1989 only the image of a jogger at the wall remains, all the others are now only memories to be reconstructed by my imagination and nostalgia.
For this and many other reasons I returned to Berlin in 2019 after 30 years.
I arrive again at the famous to Alexanderplatz to find it surrounded now by gigantic shops and malls, and the bars are no longer populated by those solitary souls of long ago but by young people now voluntarily isolated in their smart phone bubbles.
The day goes by fast, but this time it is not necessary to run and catch the last subway to freedom. Instead I can call a taxi to get back to the hotel. On the way I explain to my young Lebanese driver that the streets with the beautiful modern shops and Parisian-style bars did not exist back when the city was divided. He reacts indifferently. Berlin for him is and always has been just one city.
On August 12th I visited the legendary “Checkpoint Charlie“ and felt like I had entered a time warp back to 1989 when I saw lying on the street -- with the “white line “ of the border boundary crossing his body -- Carl Wolfgang Holzapel (photo below), marking the anniversary of his heroic gesture on August 13th 1989.
Carl Wolfgang Holzapel was the greatest activist against the Berlin Wall from its creation in 1961 until its fall, staging hunger strikes and suffering in prison for his views. He is now 75 years old with white hair, but he still feels the deep calling 30 years later to commemorate and recreate his gesture for freedom.
I let out a little sigh of relief, for my trip now makes perfect sense to me. The presence before me of this giant of freedom and unity has more than justified my return, and in some way compensates for my youthful mistake of leaving Berlin in 1989 on the eve of the fall.
I put my hands on the street where Carl is now reenacting the story, and I can almost feel the blows of the hammers tearing down the wall.
Patience and determination paid off for Willy Brandt, Carl W. Holzapel and the many others who fought and triumphed for freedom. As Willy Brandt had hoped, the Berlin Wall became useless and transparent, an obsolete relic.
But remembering the city in two parts, East and West, is a good thing, for it pays deep respect to the people who made it as it is today.
Pablo Munini , Milan November 2020
English version of the article by Meredith Brunel