Willkommen, bienvenu, welcome. Fremde, étranger, stranger. Glücklich zu sehen, je suis enchanté, happy to see you.  Bleibe, restez, stay …


Are you singing along yet to the opening song of Cabaret – the film I first saw when I was 15 and which I think sparked my lifelong fascination with all things Germanic.  Anyway on the 2oth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, let’s travel virtually to Berlin with Citylit Berlin and I’ve been reminded of the film because the opening section in the book is entitled “Come to the cabaret …”  However, I think we’ll move swiftly on from tales of Weimar excess to something more relevant to today – the section “And the Wall Came Tumbling Down”.

Do you remember that day, 20 years ago?  I remember my disbelief.  OK, there were chinks in the Iron Curtain when I’d left Germany 6 months previously, but the events of 9.11.1998 were simply incredible.  The extract from John Simpson’s Strange Places, Questionable People tells of its almost casual beginning.

Transcript of press conference by Günther Schabowski, East Berlin, 9.11.89.

This will be interesting for you.  Today the descision was taken to make it possible for all citizens to leave the country though the official border crossing points.  All citizens of the GDR can now be issued with visas for the purposes of travel or visiting relatives in the East.

This order is to take effect at once.

Well, I don’t remember all those thousands standing in an orderly queue for visas when the wall was breached.  And it certainly didn’t happen as per Thomas Brussig’s fantasy.  (Not telling – you’ll have to get the book!)  For some their first steps in the West were anti-climactic, while others such as the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich were inspired to make highly-symbolic gestures.

While most were celebrating their newly found freedom, there was panic in the Stasi headquarters because this was the collapse of  “the perfect spy state”. (It has been estimated that one in 6 were informers.)

They shredded the files until the shredders collapsed.  Among other shortages in the east, there was a shredder shortage, so they had to send agents out under cover to West Berlin to buy more. (Anna Funder, Stasiland)

Berlin was chosen to receive the Citylit treatment because it’s a city based not on stability but on change. From the early 19th century:

Thousands of little houses in a chaotic spawl, a settlement overflowing its banks in the swampiest spot in Europe. The first splendid buildings were beginning to go up: a cathedral, some palaces,a museum to house the finds from Humboldt’s great expedition.
In a few years, said Eugen, this would be a metropolis like Rome, Paris or St. Petersburg.
Never, said Gauss. Horrible place! (
Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World)

to the Weltstadt it is today. Robert Harris even describes the Weltstadt it might have become had Hitler triumphed.

The change continues. Who would have thought that Ostalgie would transform the humble Trabi into the vehicle of choice for a city safari or that the Berlin wall would be sold piecemeal as souvenirs.

In the last 20 years Germany has been coming to terms with its second 20th-century dictatorship and individuals with their own actions. In her 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction winning Stasiland, Anna Funder explores how both former resisters and Stasi-informers have reconciled themselves (or not) with their pasts. Tim Garton-Ash’s The File describes what happened when he read the dossier the Stasi had compiled on him and confronted his informers. If this subject is of interest to you, I have a copy of each to giveaway. Open worldwide. Just leave a comment (preferably in German!) stating which book/books you’d like to receive and the draw will take place next Monday.

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