November 1989. After uprisings had occurred in Leipzig earlier in 1989, anti-totalitarian fever spread to the rest of East Germany, and people started demanding human rights and freedom. The Berlin Wall was breached, and tons of East Berliners poured through to the west. They left quickly, grabbing the opportunity, and they did it courageously, not knowing if this was just another temporary reprieve from the totalitarian grip of East Germany or something much bigger.
Sitting in our velvet chairs of hindsight, it is hard to remember just how unfortunate life was for those living in the Soviet sphere. It is estimated that communism resulted in the deaths of 94 million in the 20th Century. And the freedoms that every human being strives for were severely limited by these totalitarian regimes. East Germany had one of the most oppressive regimes, with the Stasi and thousands of informants keeping all manner of information about normal citizens. The Stasi regularly arrested and tortured people simply because they wanted to meet and talk, use the press, or, heaven forbid, listen to decadent rock music from the West.
I was too young to witness the uprising in Czechoslovakia which was violently crushed by the Soviets. But the East German revolution in 1989 happened in the prime of my young adulthood. I remember watching it on TV, swept up in the joy of people demanding and getting freedom, amazed and stunned that it was actually happening, and jubilant that it was occurring peacefully. It remains a super cool memory for me and many others.
Thankfully, November 1989 was not temporary for those brave souls that met at the Wall and demanded it to fall. The Berlin Wall did come down. And it came down fast, just like it went up fast. Individuals went and chipped away at it, holes opened up, and soon, heavy equipment came in and smashed that symbol of repression and death. The two Germanys reunified in 1990. And now, when you go to Berlin, the best parts of that city are basically in the former Eastern side. How cool is that? Sehr cool.
Sections of the Wall still remain. They are there to remind us. And to be preserved as a memory of a tumultuous time when the Iron Curtain became something tangible and real, separating the West from the Soviet sphere. As most of us know, the western side of the wall became a huge art canvas for graffiti artists, dissidents, students, and anyone else with a can of paint and a message to convey. That spirit lives on in a long section of the Wall that remains in Berlin. Here are some really cool pictures from that section:
I never went to West Berlin when it was West Berlin, but it is remembered as a hugely decadent outpost of the West smack in the middle of the communist East. The bars never closed. West Germany pumped in huge amounts of money to keep people there as part of their own propaganda effort, and that led to musicians, artists, squatters and vagabonds of all types moving to the city. Berlin remains one dynamic city, as lively a place as I’ve seen in Europe.
I don’t know if the Berlin Wall resulted in an acceptance of graffiti that differs from other places, but Berlin has a TON of graffiti. [Europe in general has a ton of graffiti. Except for the big tourist attractions, it is ubiquitous. And most of it is ugly.] And Berlin has stickers on everything, too – lightposts, signs, you name it. I took pictures of some stickers that I thought were cool, and picked through the massive amount of graffiti blight to find some street art that was worthy of consideration. Want to see it? Of course you do, so here you go:
I guess the point of this tale is that freedom matters. It’s unusual to have walls constructed to keep people in rather than out. I’m not crazy about either, but I think what the West Berliners did on their side of it was creative, combative, courageous and cool. Be who you are and stand up for what is right.
OK, one last set of thoughts about Berlin and these are musical. There is a Ramones museum there. That both thrilled me and disgusted me, in equal parts. I love(d) the Ramones – their stripped down punk sound, absence of guitar solos, “one two three four”, gabba gabba hey – but are they really museum worthy? And is rock properly the subject of museums? I guess I must think so since I have gone to see stuff about rock in museums, and have visited specific rock-themed museums (Cleveland, Seattle). But, but, but…. Rock is revolution music and revolutions happen in the streets, not the museums. Sigh. I don’t know the answer. Do you? Here’s a Berlin-themed Ramones song to listen to while you ponder this great question of the day.
The Sex Pistols wrote a great song, Holidays In The Sun, that is about escaping the Berlin Wall, including going under it (many tunnels were dug, and lots of people escaped that way – can you imagine doing that in your own life? Remarkable!). Here you go:
As I explained one time recently, I sometimes do a musical themed-approach on jets with my destination in mind, and I played that Pistols song a lot. I also played David Bowie’s Heroes (he lived there in the 70s and wrote this classic while living there):
I also jammed to Iggy Pop. Iggy’s The Passenger was written while traveling on the S Bahn in Berlin. It’s a great song:
And there is a lot of music still in Berlin. It’s a cool place with a long and sometimes very very bad history. I didn’t even touch on the Nazis in this post. Suffice to say, the 20th Century happened there unlike anywhere else on the planet. Go see it.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.