3Qs: The fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years later


Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the barrier that separated the German capital for almost three decades and epitomized the divisions of the Cold War. Starting Wednesday, Northeastern will hold a series of events commemorating the anniversary, including a multimedia exhibit (the Virtual Wall) and an interdisciplinary roundtable discussion. Natalie Bormann, an associate academic specialist in the Department of Political Science and an expert in German history and politics, played a key role in organizing these events. Here, she discusses what the fall of the Berlin Wall has meant for Europe and the world as well as why visitors should attend the events on campus this week.

Tell us more about the exhibit Northeastern is hosting this week to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the other events planned.

Nov. 9 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To commemorate this anniversary, Northeastern will host a series of exciting events—at the core of which is a multimedia exhibit, the Virtual Wall. This is an interactive 3-D multimedia installation that lets visitors experience life along the wall. The exhibit, located in 90 Snell Library, is open until Friday. There is also an opening reception on Wednesday with talks by the exhibit artists as well as Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and the German Consul General Rolf Schuette. On Thursday, Northeastern will host a roundtable with Northeastern faculty to discuss questions that explore what led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, what changed since, what issues still need to be addressed, and how to understand the significance of this event in a European and international context.

Your research has examined other major events in German history such as the Holocaust. How does the fall of the Berlin Wall fit into the history of that region? What has changed since the fall, and what hasn’t?

There are two important layers to this anniversary. Celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall—the celebration of freedom and a reunited Germany—also means commemorating the victims of the wall. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded the thousands that celebrated in Berlin on Nov. 9 that this was not only a day to remember those who died trying to escape from East to West, but also those who suffered under the communist regime in East Germany. This past summer I visited the headquarters of the former East German secret police—the Stasi—in the former Eastern part of Berlin with my Dialogue of Civilizations group. The headquarters are now a museum that chronicles life behind the wall and the total surveillance and control tactics of the former East German regime. In fact, citizens of former East Germany still visit the Stasi museum’s archives to find out if they had been under surveillance during the division, and by whom exactly: Many of the informants and agents were family members, neighbors, and friends. In this sense, one can clearly see how, a quarter century after the fall of the wall, many questions have yet to be answered about the extent to which life behind the wall affected East and West Germans.

Furthermore, Nov. 9 is also the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish Kristallnacht pogroms (the “night of broken glass”) that marked the start of the Holocaust. Needless to say, this date is thus often seen as a very emotional anniversary—one of joy and happiness, but also of shame and disgrace.

Over the past 25 years, what affect has the wall coming down had on society and politics at an international level? What lessons did it teach us?

The Berlin Wall has become a symbol of oppressive state control and abuse; its fall is thus often celebrated as the symbol of hope and possibility of overcoming such oppressive regimes. The fall of the wall marked the end of the Cold War and ideologically driven divisions. As such, one could say that it holds relevance for conflict-torn countries today, including, for instance, Ukraine. The “tearing down” of a wall is a triumph of will, freedom, and human spirit over the reign of violence, dictatorship, and totalitarian ideologies. As Merkel herself remarked, the fall of the wall showed that “we can change things for the better.”