Cameron Abadi: An Anniversary, For Sure. But For Whom?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Cameron Abadi is a Berlin-based writer with a focus on contemporary Europe and the Middle East.In addition to his work for Germany's two largest weeklies, Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, he has contributed to Foreign Policy, Financial Times magazine and the New Republic. He's also worked for the Berlin bureau of Associated Press.]

Many Berliners feel that the true cause for celebration has been overlooked.

The official proceedings of Monday’s day of remembrance for the fall of the Berlin Wall will begin when Angela Merkel, international dignitaries and heads of state in tow, comes to the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse. This quiet, far-off corner of Germany’s capital offers little indication of having once been at the crossroads of history.

Only a small plaque, marred by graffiti, and a gray stretch of the city’s eponymous wall together make quiet claim that this is where East and West Germany first met on the fateful night of Nov. 9, 1989. Tourists don't visit Bornholmer Strasse and the locals who use the bridge don’t pay the place much mind, so no one much notices that the unlit plaque is impossible to read after dusk. It may not be an idyllic or ideal backdrop, but it will have to do for Monday’s events...

... Indeed, many Germans feel that the pomp and circumstance of the anniversary celebration — from U2’s rock concert in front of the Brandenburg Gate last Wednesday, to the symbolically restaged fall of the wall that will conclude Monday’s events — have been for the sake of people living elsewhere.

Maik Henning, a carpenter who grew up in East Berlin and now lives near the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, was incensed by a press conference that had been held the previous week in Berlin that had George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, Germany’s former chancellor, together on stage to reminisce about the anniversary.

"For 20 years, we’ve been hearing about Kohl! But, what does he have to do with 1989?" Henning asked indignantly. "1989 was a revolution that happened in the East. But, the only easterner the media knows is Angela Merkel. And she also had nothing to do with the revolution!"

Whereas Merkel was an apolitical physicist in East Berlin who later rose quickly through the ranks of West Germany’s Christian Democrat party, the actual revolutionaries of East Germany — the founders of groups like New Forum and Democracy Now, and the clergy at churches like Leipzig’s Nikolai Church and Berlin’s Zion Church — have largely been forgotten in today’s Germany. The activists, organizers and progressive churchgoers who organized the protests that brought tens of thousands onto the streets and, ultimately, forced the communist government to flinch, succeeded in producing the most successful democratic movement in German history. But their names have not entered the common history books with equal prominence to notable West Germans.

Partly, that’s because the movement quickly started pursuing goals that the original organizers hadn’t had in mind. Where New Forum and Democracy Now had envisioned an independent East German state that would slowly move toward unification with the West, as soon as East Germans were given a chance to vote, they elected for the fastest possible union with the West. The leading activists were pushed to the background in favor of professional politicians sponsored by the West who promised quick economic fixes...

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