Friday, 6 November 2009

What the fall of the Berlin Wall means to me

A view of from the Potsdamerplatz along Stresemannstrasse in 1962, Please follow the link as the man who took this shot has a whole series of photos, in two sets 1959/60 and 1962, which can be viewed in photostream. Watch both series as slide presentations - they're very moving.

The division lasted only 40 years, and before that Germany had only been united under Bismarck. But the fall of the wall needs commemorating because of what it stands for.

Once it seemed that the Iron Curtain would never lift. It seemed almost impossible to imagine that the stranglehold of the Soviet Bloc would ever end. When Kurt Masur led the non-violent protest in Leipzig, many held their breath, expecting reprisals to follow. No one had forgotten 1956 or 1968. when tanks rolled in elsewhere. Yet the simple, brave Leipzig stand snowballed. Europe isn't divided in the same way now. Of course there are problems, but it's altogether less insane. The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolizes that things can change, no matter what the obstacles might be. And without violence.

The other day in the UK people commemorated the "Gunpowder Plot" of 1605, an inept attempt by Catholic plotters to blow up Parliament. Relative to that actual danger the plotters presented, it tapped into jingoism and uglier things. When people burn an effigy on Guy Fawkes night they're commemorating hate. So it does matter to remember the Fall of the Wall, because it commemorates another way of thinking and being. It may be fashionable to be cynical, but sneering is a symptom of cancer in the soul. There are still walls all over the world, physical or otherwise, so remembering Berlin - and Leipzig - is an act of faith that might doesn't always vanquish right.

A few weeks after Masur made his stand in Leipzig, the Gewandhaus Orchestra came to the Sheldonian in Oxford for a concert, scheduled months before, in very different circumstances. It was their first appearance outside since the situation had developed. The turmoil was still going on, even then no one dared hope for too much. When the musicians trooped in, the atmosphere was palpable, hundreds of people willing them to know they were supported. They looked overwhelmed, looking all round, at the building, the people. The programme was all-Beethoven, and they played their hearts out.

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