Sam Loewenburg is a foreign correspondent based in Berlin. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic and Worldfocus.
With all of the celebrations commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 — from pop stars to DJs to massive performance art — it is easy to forget that what is being remembered is not only the end of tyranny, but also the sadness and terror that had existed in the decades before then.
The celebratory concert at the monumental, domed Berlin Cathedral had a special symbolism for the convergence of the formerly divided city. This was the first time that the Berlin’s Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir, which had been under the GDR, played together with German Symphony Orchestra and Choir, which had been established by the U.S. and even played a role in the Berlin Airlift.
Video courtesy of YouTube user Mr1971christian
The concert was wide-ranging, with pieces by Schubert and Mendelssohn, a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, an early Schoenberg choral piece, and even Wagner’s Die Meistersinger vom Nurnberg, which was used by Leni Reifenstall in the The Triumph of the Will. And indeed, the presenters noted that Nov. 9 was also the date of Kristallnacht, urging the audience not to forget the dark side of German history.
I had the fortune of spending yesterday evening with my father, Peter Loewenberg, who was there to see the Wall erected in 1961, as a student at the Free University. My father, who went on to be a professor of Modern European History at UCLA, remembered the fear he felt when the barrier went up that summer.
“I really thought this was going to be World War III,” he said.
After the concert, we wandered through the drizzly fog-shrouded night down to the Brandenburg Gate, where spectators were beginning to clear out. John Bon Jovi, DJ Paul van Dyk, and Daniel Barenboim had performed. A line of 1,000 giant foam dominoes painted by 15,000 young people had been pushed over by Lech Walesa, and now the last stragglers were hanging around picking fights with the police.
There was little real tension though, with the usual black-clad provocateurs massively outnumbered by the green-uniformed Berlin cops, who are well-used to the antics of angry Berliners. One of them was loudly complaining about what he saw as authoritarian tactics. A police officer responded by suggesting the man write a letter to the city government. “Try to make it funny,” he said. “It’ll attract more attention.”
“German unification is not complete,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on Monday. Despite all of last night’s celebrations, everybody in Germany knows that while the country has torn down its barriers, the East and the West are still highly unequal. Unemployment in the former Communist regions are double what they are in the West, and social services and infrastructure are poor.
– Sam Loewenberg