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Notes from the Berlin Wall 50th Anniversary Ceremony - 2011

Berlin Wall 50th Anniversary. Photo: Jennifer Martin

August 13, 2011.  Berlin -- The gravity of Berlin's tragic history belies the creative pulse of the modern culture factory new place. It's possible to visit Berlin and completely immerse oneself in galleries, cabarets, and discos and miss the scars completely. It's possible to live here and ignore the sacrifices and triumphs of your neighbors. Yesterday's commemoration of the Berlin Wall's 50th anniversary was a reminder that many of the most desirable aspects of Berlin's capital: the low rents, the diversity, the air of possibility, come from living in a city that has been rebuilding since it's complete destruction 65 years ago and that the price for those things was paid in the not too distant past.

Berlin Wall 50th Anniversary. Photo Credit: Jennifer Martin

Unfortunately, the spectacle of the event contradicted the solemn tone of the event's participants. Germany's President Wolf spoke of families divided and the triumph of unification accompanied by a chorus of camera shutters capturing crowd reactions to each syllable. With TV cameras pointed directly at the crowd standing behind seated dignitaries, the audience became participants in the event. Viewers at home had no idea that the meta-event began to overshadow the event itself. I myself began to question whether I appeared sufficiently moved to be standing so close to the front row. Maybe my spot should be reserved for emoting worthy of national and worldwide broadcast. It's hard to believe the man next to me holding a sign promoting a religious website would have been there if he knew his exposure would be limited to the Berliners who came together to commemorate a devastatingly sad chapter in the city's history.

The speeches were moving though. After the biographies of all the Wall's 136 victims were read starting at midnight the night before and going on until dawn, it wasn't hard to elicit tears from an audience who appeared to remember vividly that were were standing in what was a no-man's-land until just recently. But they were also uplifting. Unlike any other country which felt the devastating blow of Soviet tyranny, Germany's story is a success story. West Germans have shared in the sacrifice to bring up their brothers and sisters from the East and there is still a palpable sense of responsibility to undo the damages of communist East. If only we could have heard everything the speakers had to say. Again the meta-event distracted from what attendees experienced.

The speeches were punctuated by cries of "Lauter!" (Louder!) from the audience. The sound system was completely inadequate. Following the speeches required complete silence and was still not possible even from the front rows. The organizer appologized, but that didn't do much to ameliorate the feeling that the crowd is just there to fill out the background for the television broadcast. Germany dissolved into the modern state, with a celebration that is the closest thing they have to an independence day. In a country that is perpetually seeking atonement, it's a rare opportunity for Germans to show patriotism; it's a day of pride and accomplishment. The peaceful unification is without precedent and the speed at which West Germans lifted up their brothers and modernized the East is testament to the fortitude and self-sacrifice of the German people.

Berlin Wall 50th Anniversary. Photo Credit: Jennifer Martin

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