Back to the Berlin Wall

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Jan-Peter Boening / Zenit / Laif

East was east Daily life in the D.D.R. as shown by a Trabant at Berlin's D.D.R. museum

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall being commemorated on Nov. 9, Germany is in a celebratory mood. The once divided city of Berlin and the former East German cities of Leipzig and Dresden, among others, are staging events to mark their key roles in the peaceful revolution that swept away the old Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or D.D.R.

Celebrations begin a month early in Leipzig, where Oct. 9 is the resonant date. On that night 20 years ago, in the culmination of several weeks of Monday-night demonstrations, 70,000 people gathered on the city streets in a courageous demand for reform. That protest will be marked by the Festival of Light,, which will take place along the route of the original march and encompass illuminations, and video and audio installations on the themes of freedom, democracy and civic commitment.

In Dresden, a sweeping exhibition running until January 2010 at the Stadtmuseum,, forms the centerpiece of anniversary commemorations. Entitled "No Violence! Revolution in Dresden," it tells of the city's crucial role as the first locality in which people's representatives — the so-called Group of 20 — were able to initiate reform talks with the ruling Socialist Unity Party, in the person of then mayor Wolfgang Berghofer. And in Berlin itself, the highlight of numerous events and displays comes on Nov. 9 with a Festival of Freedom at the Brandenburg Gate,, which will include the symbolic collapse of a 1.2-mile (2 km) wall of giant dominoes.

It's worth speculating how the well-documented phenomenon of Ostalgie — nostalgia for the former communist state — will fare in these cities during what will be a reflective few weeks. As memories of the old regime fade, there has naturally been an attempt to re-evaluate the D.D.R.'s legacy. In recent years, films like 2003's Good Bye Lenin!, a wry telling of reunification's effects on an East German family, have captured the imaginations of fashionable urbanites. Others have professed an occasionally ironic love for old East German aesthetics — communist-era branding, old Wartburg and Trabant cars, and vintage Praktika cameras. Rather less flippantly, the current recession has prompted mostly elderly diehards to recall the days of secure employment and income equality with fondness. Richard Stratenschulte of Dresden's Stadtmuseum says that some of the older generation occasionally look to the past because "they don't want their lives to be underestimated. It's hard to reconcile the past with the present."

The emotional impact that many Germans feel when visiting the excellent and imaginatively laid-out D.D.R. Museum in Berlin,, and its equivalent in Dresden, www., doubtless goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of these vast repositories of recent history. Visitors in Germany for the 20th-anniversary party would do well to put either institution on the itinerary. "The D.D.R. was more than an artificial product of ideology and power — for millions of people it was their life," states the Berlin museum's comprehensive guidebook, introducing displays of everything from electronic goods to intricately reconstructed shop and household interiors.

But East-bloc kitsch and Trabant jokes are one thing; the reality of the D.D.R. was quite another. For this reason, even those with a highly developed sense of Ostalgie will probably, in the end, spend November in a forward-looking frame of mind. Visit, too, the Gedenkstätte in Dresden,, the still forbidding former city headquarters of the Stasi, the D.D.R.'s pervasive ministry of state security. Or take a look at Leipzig's Museum Runde Ecke, www., another Stasi base that is now an authentically preserved museum filled with examples of how East German society was controlled. They are enough to cure any misplaced notion of the D.D.R. as a place where life was badly dressed but somehow simpler and more virtuous. "I sympathize with the idea of Ostalgie," says Irmtraut Hollitzer of the citizens' committee that established the Museum Runde Ecke. "But the Stasi museum is meant to help people remember the queues, the decay, the waiving of freedom to travel, the Wall. It gives an insight into what happens when democracy and freedom are missing."