The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

25 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Last weekend marked 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which is remembered today as one of the iconic moments of the East European revolutions of 1989. Of course, the fall of the wall and the capitulation of the communist regime in East Germany did not represent the beginning of the changes that swept the communist bloc during that tumultous year – by 9th November 1989 Solidarity had already achieved electoral success in Poland, and the Hungarian communist party had announced sweeping reforms, proposed democratic elections and opened up their borders with the West – a move that also directly contributed to the final destabilisation of the communist regime in East Germany. Neither did the fall of the wall signal the end of the East European revolutions: the following day Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov announced his resignation after 18 years in power, later in November the Velvet Revolution led to the end of communist rule in Czecholovakia and in December the Romanian Revolution resulted in the Christmas Day execution of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. However, between its construction in August 1961 and its destruction in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came to symbolise the ‘Iron Curtain’ that separated Western Europe from the communist Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, so when the Wall finally crumbled and live images showing thousands of Germans celebrating by hacking at the hated structure with hammers and pick-axes were transmitted around the world, it created one of the most iconic moments of the revolutions of 1989, the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. As Soviet foreign policy advisor Anatoly Chernayev recorded in his diary on 10th November 1989: “The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over … This is the end of Yalta … the Stalinist legacy and “the defeat of Hitlerite Germany”.

Twenty five years on, the fall of the Berlin Wall is remembered as an iconic moment during the the revolutionary year of 1989.

Twenty five years on, the fall of the Berlin Wall is remembered as an iconic moment during the the revolutionary year of 1989.

Although I was still only a child, I do remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. I remember sitting transfixed in front of the TV, watching ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ on CBBC, as footage of the collapse of the wall and the first emotional meetings between Germans from East and West was shown. While I wasn’t old enough to really understand what was going on, I do remember the vivid sense that something *really* important was happening – the first sense I ever had of ‘living through history’. That feeling stayed with me over the years, and I have often wondered whether that was the reason why I became so interested in Central and East European history, eventually making a career out of it!

Five years ago, in November 2009, I was also lucky enough to be able to visit Berlin for the 20th anniversary ‘Mauerfall’ celebrations, as giant dominoes were set up following the former route of the Wall, before being symbolically toppled on the evening of 9th November:

Viewed from the Reichstag, giant dominoes snaking through the centre of Berlin - part of the 20th anniversary commemorations in Novembr 2009. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Viewed from the Reichstag, giant dominoes snaking through the centre of Berlin – part of the 20th anniversary commemorations in Novembr 2009. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Giant dominoes lined up along the former route of the Berlin Wall, November 2009. Photo ©  Kelly Hignett.

Giant dominoes lined up along the former route of the Berlin Wall, November 2009. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

fallen dominoes

The dominoes are toppled! Photo © Kelly Hignett.

This year, a different kind of installation – a ‘border of light’ or ‘Lichtgrenze‘ was created in Berlin, comprised of 8000 illuminated balloons that were then released, one by one, on the evening of 9th November 2014:

Visualisation of the Lichtgrenze. Photo © Kulturprojekte Berlin.

Visualisation of the Lichtgrenze. Photo © Kulturprojekte Berlin.

Although I wasn’t able to visit Berlin, the power of the internet meant I could still watch the release of the balloons and the dramatic firework finale from the comfort of my own sofa on Sunday evening via the official livestream. Granted, it wasn’t as good as actually being in Berlin, but alongside the proliferation of photos and videos posted on Twitter, it was a pretty good substitute!

Photo showing Lichtgrenze balloons being released by the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © AFP.

Photo showing Lichtgrenze balloons being released by the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © AFP.

Fireworks at the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © DPA.

Fireworks at the Brandenburg Gate. Photo © DPA.

However, although I wasn’t able to visit Berlin this year, I was able to organise an event to commemorate the 25th anniversary here at Leeds Beckett University, through our Centre for Culture and the Arts. Invited guest speaker Oliver Fritz, author of the critically acclaimed book The Iron Curtain Kid visited and spoke about his experiences of growing up ‘on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall’ in communist-controlled East Berlin, and about witnessing the fall of the Wall in November 1989. Oliver provided some fascinating – and often very humorous – insights into life in communist East Germany, attracting a lively audience comprised of staff, students and members of the public. Oliver’s talk was followed by a screening of the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others (2007), a critically acclaimed portrayal of a Stasi agent assigned to conduct surveillance on a writer suspected of dissident activities in East Berlin during the 1980s.

Oliver Fritz, author of 'The Iron Curtain Kid' talking about his experiences of growing up in East Berlin at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett

Oliver Fritz, author of ‘The Iron Curtain Kid’ talking about his experiences of growing up in East Berlin at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett

Oliver Fritz and Kelly Hignett demonstrating East German speech etiquette to an enthusiastic audience! Photo © Dr. Zoe Thompson.

Oliver Fritz and Kelly Hignett demonstrating East German speech etiquette to an enthusiastic audience! Photo © Dr. Zoe Thompson.

Oliver Fritz's book 'The Iron Curtain Kid'.

Oliver Fritz’s book ‘The Iron Curtain Kid’.

A special exhibition, produced by Leeds Beckett students studying for a BA in Graphic Arts and Design (working with GAD Senior Lecturer Justin Burns), in collaboration with some of our final year BA History undergraduates was also displayed to mark the event. The impressively detailed and striking exhibition functioned as a visual timeline, spanning the initial division of Germany after WWII until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989:

Oliver Fritz admiring part of the 25th Berlin Wall fall anniversary exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Oliver Fritz admiring part of the 25th Berlin Wall fall anniversary exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

The list of students who contributed to the collaborative exhibition. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

The list of students who contributed to the collaborative exhibition. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Exhibition Information. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Exhibition Information. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Division of a Nation'. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Division of a Nation’. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Mini Berlin Wall' - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Mini Berlin Wall’ – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Timeline style wall display – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Two perspectives: 1961 and 1989. Installation displayed as part of 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

Two perspectives: 1961 and 1989. Installation displayed as part of 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Bricks from the Berlin Wall' - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Bricks from the Berlin Wall’ – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Berlin Wall Bricks' [print] - student artwork displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Berlin Wall Bricks’ [print] – student artwork displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'25 years since Mauerfall' [print] - student art work displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

’25 years since Mauerfall’ [print] – student art work displayed at 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Hammering down the Wall' [print] - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Hammering down the Wall’ [print] – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

'Two Berlins' [print] - 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

‘Two Berlins’ [print] – 25th Anniversary Berlin Wall Fall exhibition, produced by students from Graphic Arts and Design and History, displayed at Leeds Beckett University. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

You can read more about the event here.

Finally, the 25th anniversary commemorations have recived a lot of media attention and online coverage. Here is a short collection of some of my favourite features from the past week:

Pavement markers showing the route of the former division still run through Berlin today. Photo  © Kelly Hignett.

# Pavement markers showing the route of the former division still run through Berlin today. Photo © Kelly Hignett.

November 13, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Czech Artist Courts Controversy.

Czech artist David Černý (recently dubbed the ‘enfant terrible’ of the Czech art world by the BBC’s Rob Cameron) has courted fresh controversy with his most recent exhibit entitled ‘Entropa’, a play on ‘Evropa’ (the Czech word for ‘Europe’) and ‘Entropy’ meaning ‘disorder’.  Installed in the EU Council headquarters in Brussels, and unveiled on 12 January to celebrate the Czech Republic’s assumption of the EU Presidency from 1st January 2009, it wasn’t long before the 16 metre square, seven tonne framework raised not only eyebrows, but also indignation and anger.

Why? While the Czech government thought they had spent $ 500,000 USD commissioning a collaborative effort between artists drawn from all 27 countries depicted in the piece to celebrate and promote modern Europe, the end product transpired to be the work of Černý and a couple of Czech compatriots, who chose to ‘celebrate’ Europe by drawing on a number of popular cliches and crude prejudices to represent EU member states. As a result, France was depicted as ‘Greve!’ (a country ‘on strike’), Italy as a giant football field, Romania as a Dracula theme park and the UK found itself excluded from the European ‘map’ altogether, in a clear reference to its perceived Euroscepticism:

Czech it out! Cerny's contraversial art installation 'Entropa'

In a statement released shortly after the true nature of Entropa  was revealed, Černý said the following:

“Grotesque exaggeration and mystification are signs of Czech culture and the creation of false identities is one of the strategies of current arts … The work thus parodies socially committed art that balances on the brink of would-be controversial attacks on national characters and an innocent decoration of official spaces.We knew that the truth will be uncovered. Still before we wanted to find out whether Europe is capable of laughing at itself”

Some EU countries however, have failed to see the funny side. Bulgaria (depicted as a Turkish squat toilet) certainly don’t appear to be laughing. After expressing ‘profound indignation’ about their unflattering depiction,  the Bulgarian Government formally requested the immediate removal of their ‘country’ from the piece, resulting in ‘Bulgaria’ being covered over with a black shroud and somberly concealed from view from 20th January:

The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

Toilet Humour? The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

The Czechs aren’t laughing that much either.  Leading government  ministers claim to be outraged,  having been ‘misled’ about the nature of the piece and it’s origins. Czech President Vaclav Klaus initially pledged his support for the installation, but following the controversy generated after its unveiling, he moved quickly to distance himself from the scandal, claiming that Entropa was ‘neither funny nor good’ and offering a public apology to Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.

Elsewhere however, the response to the scandal has been more muted. While some EU diplomats half-heartedly called for the removal of the Entropa exhibition, the  official launch went ahead on 15 January, and two weeks on from the initial furore it remains on view in the EC headquarters (minus Bulgaria). No other country have filed an official protest about their image, despite some depictions having the potential to prove equally controversial and detrimental. Germany, for example, is illustrated as a series of autobahns described as ‘resembling a swastika’:

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

So why aren’t the German government also clamouring in outrage? After all, if we’re dealing in national stereotypes, the Germans are all too frequently accused of humourlessness. It is interesting that those most offended by Entropa are among the newest members of the ‘European club’. Most of the former East European states who have joined the EU in recent years saw their accession to membership as a real turning point, a ‘return to Europe’ after the decades of communist rule. Perhaps this is an indication that these countries are still afraid they aren’t being taken seriously as ‘Europeans’, still having to prove their worth, and not yet secure enough in their post-communist identity to be able to shrug off such negative stereotypes. Bulgaria, who only joined the EU in January 2007, are still smarting after the recent European Commission decision to suspend almost EUR 500 million of their EU funding in July 2008, due to their failure to combat organised crime and corruption in line with EU accession requirements, while the Czech Republic are obviously anxious to be seen to be taking their first stint in the EU Presidency seriously.

Whenever art and politics combine there will be controversy, and the Entropa exhibition also raised another issue: that of censorship and freedom of speech.  Alexandr Vonda, Czech Deputy Prime Minister, while publically apologising for any offence caused by the exhibition, also defended the piece by claiming that ‘art is freedom of expression’ and that this demonstrates that ‘twenty years after the iron curtain, there is no place for censorship in the EU’.

You can see a video clip of Cerny explaining the inspiration behing Entropa courtesy of the BBC website here:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7829453.stm

And Wikipedia have a full listing of the images used to represent each of the 27 countries, and their symbolism here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropa


January 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments