30 years on: why the anniversary of the Berlin Wall matters

As a woman, a European and a journalist, Dionne Kennedy has learned to be grateful now more than ever, for the fall of a wall she never witnessed. 

A transparent globe sat in front of Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor on November 9, 2019. 

Plastered with video projections of a historic moment I know so well, despite being born four years too late to bear witness, the globe was the centrepiece and culmination of a week-long celebration marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

I didn’t feel much like joining in the MauerFall celebrations last week. Why should I? I wasn’t alive to remember such a historic moment.

The moment is marked across the city. On Strasse des Juni, 17 (its name another reference to a time of protest in Berlin), 30,000 messages of hope are written on colourful ribbons floating above the pavement below. At Alexanderplatz footage of the fall and interviews are projected onto a C&A department store. At the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining section of the wall, yet more images of a tyranny of fairly recent past light up its length. 

I didn’t feel much like joining in the MauerFall celebrations last week. Why should I? I wasn’t alive to remember such a historic moment. I’m not even German. It wasn’t my revolution to celebrate, and the events felt subdued and hollow in the preceding days.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

Yet as fireworks exploded behind the Brandenburg Gate, marking the beginning of another decade of freedom, over 100,000 people cheered and danced. And I was one of them.

I adopted the breezy Berliner approach to excessive beer consumption, a penchant for techno, and even a touch of Berliner Schnauze

I moved to Berlin just nine months ago. Armed with a city guide, a pocket phrase book, and a dog-eared copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland, I attempted to make the city my home. 

I adopted the breezy Berliner approach to excessive beer consumption, a penchant for techno, and even a touch of Berliner Schnauze (the curt, brusque manner of speaking prevalent in the city). But it still didn’t feel like home. 

Berlin lacks the friendliness of my hometown. 

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue is a multi award-winning magazine, edited by the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) current Editor of the Year.

Its transport system has more than two lines, and to my initial horror, the supermarkets are closed on Sundays. All of these you eventually learn to take in your stride, but despite all best intentions, as you bumble your way around apartment viewings, doctor’s appointments and accountant phone calls with your mediocre German language skills and friends you’ve not really chosen but instead been flung together with, it can still feel incredibly isolating. 

You don’t really belong here, do you?  

History permeates every corner of Berlin. They don’t hide from it. It lines your commute to work. You stumble across brass markers of where Jews once lived, and even street names stand as a constant reminder of what once happened here. You can pore over every book on Berlin (of which there are many); you can visit every museum and monument (of which there are plenty); you can hunt down dyed-in-the-wool Berliners (of which there are few), but an extensive knowledge of the city and the wall that once stood tall does not a Berliner make. It just makes you an uncomfortably foreign swot. 

Convinced that I’d regret not attending the celebrations I headed to the city

An unassuming section of the wall remains behind my apartment building. Platz des 9. November 1989 sits on Bösebrücke, a bridge marking one of 12 checkpoints crossing the border of a divided Berlin, and the first to open on that night that saw thousands of East Germans pour into the west. Convinced that I’d regret not attending the celebrations I headed to the city, passing the checkpoint, something I do almost daily without acknowledgement.

Berliners toasted with champagne and Gluhwein at the Platz. Among them, Americans, Brits, Italians, and many others. A German man held aloft for the gatherers a Berliner Zeitung paper from November 10. ‘Berlin ist wieder Berlin’ the front page read. Berlin is Berlin again. 

Enough to bring a lump to your throat, for some. But it was only when Syrian aid worker Sarah Mardini took to the globe-filled stage at Brandenburger Tor, where I and 100,000 people flocked that evening, that my eyes began to sting. Mardini spoke the only words I’d really properly understood all evening. 

“Because of the union of the people, the faith to fight for freedom, myself and refugees like me have a chance to call a new place home,” She said.

The freedom Mardini speaks of is one I had taken for granted.

“Because of your fight for freedom, your faith for freedom, I have freedom again.”

The freedom Mardini speaks of is one I had taken for granted. It’s a freedom that had been forgotten, until it stared me down in the streets I walked every day. An uncomfortable freedom, that makes itself known with every corner turned and with every laborious, stumbling pidgin German conversation. A freedom that I felt I hadn’t earned, and a freedom that, by not embracing it, was holding me back from feeling at home. 

DID YOU KNOW…

Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.

The 104-mile long wall has now been gone longer than it stood, but its stifling, suffocating hold was so strong that today even people like me, who have no memory of its physical presence, can still feel its shadow. 

As a spotlight shines on my freedoms – as a woman, as a European, as a journalist – I have learned to be grateful now more than ever, for the fall of a wall that I never witnessed. 

Maybe it’s time to finally embrace my freedoms.