Today 25 years ago the Berlin Wall was torn down, one of the most consequential events of the 20th Century, catalyst for the end of the Cold War and freedom for millions stuck behind the Iron Curtain yanked down on them by the USSR. I was a student just starting to get interested in the wider world. I grew jealous of a couple of friends who were able to be there…in Berlin…dancing on the wall with the Germans…a seminal moment, which I watched on TV like everyone else.
I got there as soon as I could, once finals were over. With a guy from my hostel who had a hammer, we warily approached a broad section of the Wall not really knowing what to expect. As we started to bang and chip away at the outer layer, a small old man came through a hole in the concrete; we both stepped back, and the three of us just stared at each other hardly moving. We were a little afraid, to be honest. I mean, we weren’t that savvy but we did know the history of this spot. After what seemed like a tense eternity, he finally managed to smile wanly. He approached us, but didn’t speak. Instead he reached up and pated my shoulder. Then he turned and scrambled right back through the hole in the Wall. I got a large enough chunk of the Wall that day that upon returning to Ann Arbor I was able to break it into 200 small pieces, which I mounted on little cards that I had printed an inspirational quote on. I handed them out to all the campers at a leadership camp in Colorado that I attended later that summer.
Fast forward, five years ago when I had not been working at the State Department even a full year, I was on business in Brussels and my boss let me head to Berlin to take part in the 20 year anniversary of the Wall coming down. My big boss Hillary patched into the ceremony by video, U2 played, Daniel Barenboim conducted (the Berlin Philharmonic), Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa spoke, and it seemed like everyone was having the time of their lives. Gorbachev pushed down the first of over a thousand 8-foot paper mache dominos standing where the Wall once had (painted by school children with giant peace signs on them). It was an unforgettable experience, fueled by copious quaffs of Weiss beer and a gazillion German sausages.
Until, all of a sudden later that night, I realized that I was celebrating with a bunch of foreigners: Danes, Brits, Poles, Australians, Greeks…but hardly any Germans. So the next day Zeljo, my host, explained to me that western Germans and eastern Germans still really didn’t relate well with one another, and everyone was aggravated that the German government was still taxing them to fund the reunification—a whole two decades later.
I was a little aggravated myself, for the Berlin developers had paved over a four block stretch of Friedrichstrasse, which in the heady days after the Wall came down was nothing short of the global epicenter of cool. I had returned two more times while in college and once during grad school. Massive apartment blocks had been turned into rave party complexes that people lived in, partied in, created art in, hosted lectures in, etc. It was a dizzying drug-infused kaleidoscope of people living free (and for free, as they were all squatters). And I thought it was around to stay, because during my last trip there I observed a host of new bars, restaurants, and cafes on the street level of these vast squatter palaces—that represented real investment, with even chic decors in certain places and overall something a little more permanent seeming than ramshackle clutter.
It was all gone. In its place were fancy kitchen shops, clothing stores, and real estate offices—I could not believe it. Of all places, for this to happen in Berlin was the height of irony. So Zeljo and his friends took it upon themselves to accept my challenge see if we could still find the elusive uber German cool in the eastern section of the city, where they suspected it had migrated to. We stayed up all night that night, but we found it—that irrepressible spirit of Berlin in a spate of utterly cool haunts. They weren’t all concentrated in one row of buildings like what I and so many had experienced years before just down the street from Checkpoint Charlie, but now were spread out over several areas.
Fast forward to today, you can find Berlin in full 1990s style swing again with cool kids flocking there from just about everywhere…for the cheap rents, vibrant art scene, tech startups, and of course the trademark Berlin spirit of full on freedom that has little regard for glitz and glam but revels in a kind of gritty socially conscious hipness marked by tolerance and freedom of expression.