Nostalgia still there as Germany celebrates Berlin Wall’s fall

Germany is marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. But many Germans say they have mixed feelings about it, and some remember the past with nostalgia.

A great backdrop for a photo – “I've been to Berlin! I stood against the wall” – but how many of today’s tourists know what’s really behind the edgy mural of the famous Brezhnev-Honecker “kiss”?

And while some tourists may not know the answer, Germans have been trying to forget the names of Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union and Erich Honecker, leader of East Germany who was in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall.

But some are becoming keen to remember the past. Daniel Helbig was an East German, or so-called “Ossi”. He was born and grew up in East Berlin.

He has taken up the challenge of reminding Germans of all the good things that the Soviet Union brought to his country.

Daniel has opened a hotel which is like a time machine for all those who get “ostalgic” – a German term meaning being nostalgic for life in the former East Germany.

“Everything you see is authentic – furniture, radios… They work,” Helbig says. “I wanted to show with this hotel that life in the GDR was much brighter than it is depicted now. It wasn't all gloom. You can see it in the 35 rooms of this hotel.”

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Daniel promotes the colorful past in the streets of Berlin too. When he drives his “Trabant”, it always turns heads. For him, this plastic-made miniscule car is a sweet reminder of East Germany.

“I had a happy childhood and youth. I had no problems with the “Stasi” or police… I was happy because I felt unity with my friends. We shared the same goals and values. This is what I really miss these days,” Daniel says.

Every weekend hundreds of people rent trabants for a journey down memory lane – and only half of them are tourists.

For some the Trabant became more than just a car. It was a ticket to freedom. People managed to tuck their relatives and friends in compartments hidden in the tiny vehicle and escape to the West. The most eccentric escape was with a home-made balloon, built, incidentally, with a Trabant engine.

Officially there were 125 people killed whilst trying to flee from East to West Berlin. But unofficial figures suggest there were more than a thousand.

Publicist and film director Konrad Weiss never tried to cross the border, but many of his friends were imprisoned for doing so. Like them, he was a member of an underground movement for a Berlin without the wall. Now, 20 years after it fell, he doesn't get “ostalgic” at all.

“I remember the day when it fell. Together with my wife and daughter we crossed the border. That night I wrote an article which I called “The first night of freedom after the war”. The war was over in 1945, but Germans were not free until November 1989,” Konrad Weiss says.

Konrad says the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall should be treated as a holiday not only in Germany, but in Russia too.

“I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I realize that it was the Soviet Army which liberated Germany from the Nazis. On the other hand it brought Stalinism to the GDR,” Konrad Weiss says. “This part of Germany was under dictatorship for several decades. I'm happy it's over now. Germany has become democratic and Russia too.”

Konrad will stand at the Brandenburg Gates on Monday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev come together to shake hands.

He believes this shake will be stronger than the kiss between Honecker and Brezhnev.

Symbol of fear becomes a pop-art object

Photographer Craig Robinson has carefully followed the daily routines of more than one hundred artists who agreed to restore the East Side Gallery. A kilometer-long remnant of the Berlin wall was, by that time, covered by graffiti and torn apart by souvenir-hungry tourists.

“People have to know what it was like for people to knock the wall down, come through and then start painting on it. This wasn’t an organized project by the European Union, because it didn’t exist in that form. People were just doing it spontaneously and that just cannot be repeated,” Robinson said.

Robinson managed to take pictures of every tiny bit of the wall before it was covered with new paint. He says it's good that, unlike in Eastern Europe where he lived for many years, Berlin doesn't knock down socialist architecture and doesn't fight with uncomfortable art.

“I do admire that Germany is not afraid to face its past. They keep the concentration camps open, they have tourists, they have free educational tours. They ask for donations, but they don’t charge. They don’t make money off of the dead, which I appreciate. Not so much so in Prague. If there’s a Jewish museum, it’s €20 to get in. And then you have to buy a small paper cap, so it’s all a money-making machine,” Robinson added.

Russian artist Irina Dubrovskaya agreed to repaint her piece, but only out of solidarity with her other colleagues.

“The wall should go. It fences in a wonderful waterfront scenery. It's a commercial project, a Disneyland which has been turned from a symbol of death into a souvenir shop. I’d say it is as if one put images of Procrustes’ bed on tea cups,” she said.

“My picture is not like a sandwich. I just can’t make it the same way twice” – said Russian artist Dmitry Vrubel when asked what it was like painting the legendary kiss between Honecker and Brezhnev again.

Virtual reality artist Tamiko Thiel spent more than a year building a digital wall. Now one can take a journey around the Berlin of the ‘70s with the wall in place. She says her art work not only dwells on the past – it also looks to the future. Her next destination is Tijuana.

There, Tamiko plans to give a lesson to the US and Mexico, who are currently building a wall between each other.

“When did the wall come down? It came down when Gorbachev started these policies of Glasnost' and Perestroika. This is the message that the Berlin Wall can convey to other countries – there's always reasons for building the walls, but the only way the wall falls is when at least one side says – let's start talking with each other, let's start dealing with each other like human beings,” Tamiko says

To erect a wall is easier than it might seem; back in 1961 it took just one night. It was taking the wall down that really took a while – almost three decades.

On Monday, the wall between East and West Berlin fell again. A thousand giant dominos laid to the ground, in full view of the world's top leaders.

Watch the dominos fall


For half a year, children from all over the world have been expressing themselves on a giant canvas, which will later be sent to various museums across the globe as a reminder of the mistakes of the past.

Read also: Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the EU is a reincarnation of the former Soviet Union