What a beautiful concept: to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th with a temporary recreation of that wall, in the form of 8,000 lit helium balloons where it once stood. This “light border” went up last Friday, before the Sunday climax of the celebrations. All through the weekend, day and night, it drew Berliners and tourists. Many needed reminding where exactly the hated wall once stood, as it snaked improbably through streets, along the walls of buildings and over bridges. Now the balloons were like a promenade guiding young and old on a memory tour, aided in many places by video footage of the old wall’s horrors.
By Sunday evening, perhaps a million people had crowded into central Berlin to soak up the atmosphere. The throng was densest near the Brandenburg Gate, the symbolic centre of Berlin, Germany and the cold war. Many were moved to tears as Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli-Argentine conductor who staged a free celebratory concert with the Berlin Philharmonic in November 1989, led the Berlin State Orchestra through Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Then the balloons were unleashed, one by one, and the “wall” flew away into the misty night sky.
I placed myself in one of the narrower streets through which the wall once ran. There the atmosphere reminded the old-timers of that day 25 years ago. Squeezed together tightly, we moved slowly as one crowd through streets that once were checkpoints. Crowds can be fearsome, but this one was filled with peace and joy. People were nice to each other. Just as they were when they pressed through the barriers in 1989.
The day was also the anniversary of Kristallnacht—“crystal night” or the night of broken glass—in 1938, when the Nazis carried out a pogrom against Jews across Germany. To mark it, people had placed candles around many of the Stolpersteine on Berlin’s streets, the little brass plates that mark the addresses of Jews who died in the holocaust. Most moving to me was seeing a group of kids and their grandparents light the candles at one Stolperstein, right between two of the balloons. When the time came to let the balloons fly, one of them briefly got stuck. A bit of tugging ensued amid a cheer of goodwill from the crowd. Then the balloon came unstuck, and Germany’s past, the whole past, was for one moment both remembered and transcended.