BERLIN WALL

Explore SA talks Berlin Wall, tourism and freedom with Christian Taenzler of visitBerlin

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South Africans are no strangers to separation and divisions. Apartheid ripped the country apart, pitting one against the other.

Even today, while celebrating our 20th year of democracy, some issues still remain. No one, though, could deny that we have come a long way from the day Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president in 1994.

Germany suffered a similar fate to that of South Africa when the Berlin Wall was built on August 13, 1961. While it wasn’t racial segregation, people were also socially and economically separated—and in many cases, families were divided.

But, like South Africa, Germany beat the system and 28 years after the first brick was laid, the Wall came down on November 9, 1989. Since this momentous event, Berlin has thrived as a city, with very little animosity still remaining.

From 7 to 9 November this year, Berlin will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the breakdown of the infamous Wall. Explore SA sat down with Christian Taenzler, International Spokesman for visitBerlin.de, to find out more about the Wall, the upcoming celebrations and how Berlin has changed over the last 25 years.

One night of change

Taenzler says there was already a border built between East and West Germany in 1952, but it was still easy for people to cross the border and carry on with their normal lives. All that changed in “one night”, according to him, as the border was closed off with fencing before the Wall was built. “This led to many people losing their jobs and families because they couldn’t migrate across the border any longer”, says Taenzler. Daily life changed for many people and East Germany went backward for there—not only in terms of economics but also politics.

Much like with South Africa in the apartheid years, international pressure played its part, but also “protests and demonstrations became bigger and more frequent in East Germany,” says Taenzler. Eventually, the government of East Germany made concessions and announced it would liberalise
travel conditions.

Sadly, as with apartheid, people lost their lives in search of a better life. According to Taenzler, the official number of deaths of people trying to cross the border lies at 187, but he also says that “unofficially, they don’t really know. Many people weren’t registered and thus we cannot give an exact amount.”

However, he goes on to state that there is a “compensation fund from the government” for the families who lost loved ones.

“We have memorials for those who passed away so tragically and there are white crosses for those who tried to escape through our main river, the Spree, which is situated near our parliament in Berlin.”
However, while there were unfortunate deaths in Berlin, Taenzler is very proud of the fact that the country managed to reunify without “a single shot fired” and in a “peaceful” way.

Freedom

Despite the tragic events, there was a silver lining for Berlin. On the weekend of 7 to 9 November 2014, Berlin will celebrate 25 years of freedom.

Taenzler says that “there will be a light installation of the Wall strip with more than 8 000 illuminated balloons, and on the final day these ecofriendly balloons, filled with helium, will be released as a symbol
of freedom.”

There is a message in that for the foreign visitors, too. Taenzler continues, “The message to foreigners should be to tear down the ‘walls’ in society that separate and
divide people.”

“In a world of violence, a world of war, this is a very strong symbol.”

There were apparent plans from the East German government to tear down the protests, “but if it weren’t for Russia, we were unlikely to reach peaceful resolution.”

Tourism

From a city separated by a massive wall, Berlin has—over the last 25 years—become one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

It is seen as a ‘trendy’ city, known for its music and is very popular among young people, “especially if you consider the big nightlife the city has.”

“Berlin is also a very green (ecofriendly) city, with many open spaces, parks, woods, rivers and lakes—44% of our surface is woods,” says Taenzler.

The city is rich in history and culture, he continues, saying this makes it a very popular destination. He adds, “In recent times, Berlin has become a popular for its food as well.”

Berlin, and indeed Germany, isn’t perfect, but much can be learnt from them on how they have risen since the Wall came down 25 years ago. Many lessons can be taken from how they have rebuilt the country.

9 November 2014 will be the celebration of these last 25 years—and while it will be an “emotional day for many Germans”, it is an opportunity for the world to celebrate the freedom and success of one of its brothers.

Ralph Staniforth

 

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