Wall of Light
Since 11 September 2001, as a German, I have always felt irritated by the date ‘9/11’. Growing up in Germany, 9/11 signifies something different from the attacks on the New York skyline. Of course, and this is a no brainer, ‘9/11’ for us Europeans means 9 November, not 11 September. So, for me, ‘9/11’ denotes something completely different. Especially since 9 November has been such a fateful date in German history, connected to at least five important events: the execution of Robert Blum in 1848 (a leftist-liberal democratic leader whose death foreshadowed the failure of the German March Revolution); the end of the Prussian Monarchy in 1918 (and the all-too-bizarre, nearly simultaneous, declaration of both the Weimar Republic and the Free Socialist Republic in Berlin); the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich which saw the early emergence (and temporary downfall) of the early Nazi Party; the 1938 Reichskristallnacht (which saw the burning of Jewish property and synagogues); and the 1989 opening of the Berlin Wall.
Needless to say, I was only (and thankfully – in most of these cases) alive to experience one of these historic events. But maybe ‘experience’ is the wrong term here. I was thirteen in 1989, and growing up in Bad Krozingen in southwestern Germany, my family – unlike many others – had no relatives or friends in the GDR. There was no personal connection through which as a child I could have understood what was meant by ‘two Germanies’, ‘the Cold War’, the ‘Red Army’, let alone the images of cheerful citizens of the GDR crossing the border across the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse in Berlin on that fateful 9th November 1989. What I remember vividly though was that I was watching the news live on TV with my parents and sister and I recall seeing my parents cry. I remember that I did not understand why they were crying – and how strange it felt seeing them cry out of happiness. But I clearly sensed that something important was happening at the time.
25 years later, the Wall has disappeared for good. In fact, so keen on tearing down the Wall in its entirety (which – as I learned yesterday – was once over 155 kilometres long), any visitor to today’s Berlin will be hard pressed to still encounter the Wall anywhere. In fact, there are only two places left where the Wall still stands. But everywhere else, it is hard to spot, let alone imagine, where the Wall used to be. Some people say this is a good thing, but as times goes by, there are others who believe that it is a shame that this previous division has disappeared out of sight (and out of mind) altogether. I always belonged to that second group, though that’s perhaps an easy position to hold for someone who never had to live with or in proximity to the Wall.
Currently I am spending half a year at the Humboldt University in Berlin and I am renting a small apartment in the former Eastern part of the city, some three streets away from that famous bridge border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse. It was here where on 9 November 1989 the first border crossing opened and some 20,000 people poured into West Berlin within the first hour alone (including, amongst those first ones, a certain Angela Merkel). It was the beginning of the end of the GDR, it lead to German reunification, the end of Communism and the Cold War. It marked a local event which had global implications. And it is one that came about by non-violent means (something unique in German history). That is the reason, by the way, why 9 November 1989 was considered as the official public holiday; but because of the legacy of the Nazi Putsch and the Reichskristallnacht it was considered as inappropriate and therefore 3 October (marking the big peaceful ‘Monday Demonstration’ in Leipzig in 1989) became the official holiday of German unification.
25 years after the Wall came down, the city has become divided again – temporarily, from 7-9 November 2014: From Bornholmer Strasse to Mauerpark and the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse, past the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie to the East Side Gallery, a light installation featuring 8,000 luminous white balloons commemorated the division of Berlin.
The re-imagining of the Wall through this Wall of Lights (developed from an idea by Christopher Bauder and Marc Bauder) was accompanied by numerous exhibitions, events, and guided tours. And at 7pm on 9 November, thousands of patrons – schoolchildren, choir singers, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, witnesses – took their places beside their balloons along the 15-km-long stretch of the light installation, and affixed their personal message to the helium-filled balloon. As the climax of the event, they released the balloons into the air along the entire length of the installation – at the Brandenburg Gate, the Mauerpark, the East Side Gallery, and other locations. At the same time, the ‘Staatskapelle Berlin’, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, played the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the ‘Ode an die Freude’ (Ode of Joy) at the Brandenburg Gate.
Alongside hundreds of thousands, I spent significant time walking and cycling along this Wall of Light, at night and during the day. My aims were manyfold: Yes, I wanted to get a sense of where exactly the Wall had been. But I also wanted to see what visual and emotional reactions this would provoke in me – and in the people around me. And I wanted to try and capture this event visually, through film and photography. What struck me was the installation’s visual power to evoke the dimensions and brutality of the Wall. Built on 13 August 1961, the Wall went through the entire city, but not in a straight line. It literally meandered through Berlin with lots of twists and turns, alongside streets, through parks, between houses, over rivers, across railtracks and bridges. The course seemed erratic and chaotic and oftentimes cemented the division of the city, of Germany, of the global political system in ways that made me wonder. Why did the course of the Wall proceed along these exact lines? Why this one street and not the next? Why did it turn left here and not right? Why did it not go around this park instead of cutting across it? I don’t know the answers to this.
Alongside the Wall of Light, little info boxes told stories about eyewitnesses, about escape tunnels, about people being shot while trying to flee. They bring to life what normally cannot be seen and what has been grown or built over. But then there are other parts where you can clearly see that the Wall impacted on where entire rows of houses were built in the past, and where others had been torn down to make way for the Wall – here the invisible (and temporarily illuminated border) explains some of the city’s past and current geography.
But while visually evoking the brutality of the Wall, the 8,000 lights with their helium-filled balloons are stunningly beautiful. I marvelled in the aesthetics of them floating in one endless line of balloons, especially at night. They illuminate dark parks, go under and across bridges, up and down, left and right, and they generate a strange warm feeling inside me during these cold November nights. Oftentimes, they seem to criss-cross each other – and they make me walk or cycle along parts of the city I had never seen before. What must it have felt like living in one of these apartments looking from say (former Eastern suburb) Prenzlauerberg cross the Wall into (former Western suburb) Wedding with the Wall just two meters away from your balcony? And what must it have felt like living inside West Berlin – caged inside the Wall and playing football on one of those pitches right next to the Wall? And what must it have felt like to – as out of nothing – see this division disappear overnight?
I overhear a lot of conversations, older couples talking about their experiences; I hear a tour guide explaining to an English group of tourists what it was like back then. But most of all, I hear nothing. There is a wonderful quietness to this experience with people just walking at night and trying to take in the experience whilst having the occasional desire to try and articulate what they feel. It’s a nice thing to observe – and I guess it speaks to the power of this artistic project that it inspires in ways I find hard to describe.
For me, I have to also think beyond the immediate aesthetics and history of the Wall. How Berlin was one of many (but perhaps the most important) physical manifestations of the old Cold War world. It was here that the Soviet blockade of the city for several months in 1948/1949 lead to the American airlift; where the Cold War nearly turned hot when American and Soviet tanks faced each other at Checkpoint Charlie; where the Wall was built by a regime afraid of its own people leaving. Maybe it is because I was brought up with the knowledge that walls are brutal and therefore need to be brought down that I feel so irritated by seeing other countries building walls themselves – after 1989. And yes, I am thinking of the Israeli government, but I am also thinking of Cyprus, North Korea and the European Union. Along the Berlin Wall, those who helped citizens of the GDR escape are today celebrated as heroes whilst at the same time we look at those involved in helping refugees enter the EU as criminals. Can we compare these or are these entirely different issues?
But what ultimately hit me was the sense of wonder and amazement: that the fact that I can walk here and allow myself to be puzzles about all of this, to be inspired by these thousands of illuminated balloons, was brought about peacefully. It’s such a remarkable thing to accomplish and it drives home the power of non-violence – something that so often seems counter-intuitive to us humans. But it can work, and this illuminated Wall is proof of it. It shows, as Gene Sharp (one of the key contemporary thinkers on non-violence) has said: ‘The dictators are never as strong as they tell you they are. They have their weaknesses. And the people are never as weak as they think they are… they have great power because all governments are based on the cooperation and subordination of the citizens they rule.’ Governments are in power because people consent to their power. In the course of 1989, the citizens of the GDR withdrew their consent peacefully and the result was the collapse of the regime and of the bipolar division of the world. The real 11/9 stands for this message – and it’s a nice and important message for us humans at a time when the world seems to have taken an ever more violent turn.
Video edited by Sebastian Kaempf
Footage taken from https://fallofthewall25.com/