Sunday, November 8, 2009

Celebrating the Day the Wall Came Down

I was surprised to see a prominent feature on the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down on the homepage of the NY for a while on Saturday. Besides the fact that the tragedy at Fort Hood and the House debate on health care are two important stories for the prime space, world events that don’t directly affect Americans aren’t often seen as front and center pieces.

The wall coming down was of course an event of world proportions, but the commemorations seem to be for “them,” for Europeans. It’s good to see the NY Times try to bring us into “their” stories and celebrations. On Monday, 2o years after the wall was opened, in part due to a bureaucratic error, Berlin will celebrate with a wall of 800 oversized dominoes between the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz that will be symbolically knocked down as Bon Jovi perform their current single “We Weren’t Born To Follow.” The festivities, held at the Brandenburg Gate, will include Germany’s Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Berlin-based superstar DJ Paul Van Dyk’s freedom anthem will be played when the final domino topples, while fireworks light up Berlin.

What Toppled the Wall: Would You Believe, Knight Rider?

I have a dear East German friend. Born in 1971 in East Berlin, he lived under the Communist rule and witnessed November 9 in the city. He said that beginning with Regan’s “tear this wall down” speech in June 1987 they knew “the West was coming.” That’s how it felt to him and his high school friends. Not that they were breaking out of the East, but that the West was crashing in.

Three years ago he sent a childhood friend of his to see me at the Paley Center. We were browsing through the collection, Russian roulette style, just punching numbers into the video system and seeing what program came up. We stopped on a show that I recognized as Knight Rider, before the opening credits. The scene was a huge flat valley. A car is going a hundred miles or so. Carson says to me, “ the floor is going to open up, and the car is going to go underground.” And that’s exactly what happened!

I was stunned. He grew up in East Berlin, how did he see an obscure Knight Rider episode? He said that in the eighties a lot of Western shows started seeping in. The East couldn’t afford to create a full slate of programming, and things were already laxing and they were buying cheap shows. The scene is visually striking and he remembered it.

So it’s official. David Hasselhoff gets some credit for making the wall fall. Because once you’ve seen Kit, you’re just not going to accept total government oppression.

And, in a full-circle thing, it turned out that Hasselhoff performed “Looking for Freedom” on the wall in 1990.

Germany: A Country Like no Other

Germany has a unique place in the American psyche. For the generations of the 20th century they represented, in broad strokes, a harsh, dominating people who were at the center of two world wars and were Nazis then Communists. Sure there was Beethoven et al, but the beauty of music was pretty abstract when compared to the SS Storm Troopers. Germany turned on its own people, first the Jews to the obscene degree in the Holocaust, then the people of the GDR, the East Germans, held captive behind a wall for 28 years. The Germans seemed completely antithetical to the American spirit of freedom.

The idea of the 96-mile Wall is still shocking; the idea of the Iron Curtain still chilling. My Cold War childhood was after the days of “ducking and covering” under the school desk, but the idea that “they” were trying to take over “us” was still in the air, and it was frightening. People were shot and killed whenever they tried to escape those Eastern Bloc countries---it’s a child’s nightmare come to life.

That oppression has been over for 20 years now. A generation of Germans has been born in a unified country, with no East or West classification. For the postwar generations, they could not imagine that in their lifetime the Wall would ever be gone.

And So a Gigantic Idea
Berlin is an artful city, a seat of European sophistication and avant-garde aesthetics. To celebrate the gigantic idea of unifying the city and the country they turned to the French marionette street theater company Royal de Luxe to create a 3-day street theater on October 3, the official national day of celebrating Germany’s unification. Many felt that November 9, the fall of the Wall, would be the more appropriate day for the annual national day, moreso than the bureaucratic Oct. 3 (1990). But November 9 is also the date of the Kristallnacht pogram (1938) against the Jews. There are 365 days in a year, and fate gives Germany 2 wildly different and important historic events on the same date, but the former does not allow for celebration of the latter on that day. Germany's struggles with its past is far from over.

And so on Oct. 3, the Big Giant, with the help of his French Lilliputians, rose out of the river and searched for his niece the Little Giantess so they could be reunited. The Boston Globe has stupendous pictures of the theater by John MacDougal.


Tim Footman said...

Well, if the Wall hadn't fallen, the US wouldn't have become the world's sole hyperpower. And if that hadn't happened, neither would 9/11, probably. And so, no Berlin Wall, no Fort Hood.

Great pics from Boston. They did a similar thing in London a few years back:

M.A.Peel said...

Hard to say how the connect-the-dots of history really happen. That's for some ph.d candidate to posit 100 years from now.