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Berlin Revisited

Berlin has stood at the vortex of world history several times in the past century, from the rise and fall of Nazism to the post-war division of Europe into East and West, to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism.

November 9, 1989 would become one of the most important dates in the city's history almost by accident. Following weeks of demonstrations in East Berlin, Leipzig and other cities, the East German politburo issued a decree on that date that East Berliners 'with proper permission' could start to visit the West for the first time since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. When this news was reported on state television, tens of thousands of East Berliners decided not to wait for further clarification or a possible change of mind by the government, and immediately rushed to the various checkpoints in the Berlin Wall. Having no forewarning of the announcement the vastly outnumbered and mostly young border guards at the wall frantically phoned their superiors for instructions on what to do. To turn the crowds back would have required using their weapons. But, perhaps sensing the tide of history turning, nobody higher up would take responsibility for issuing the order to open fire, and it is not certain if the guards would have followed such orders. Faced with ever growing crowds at the wall, the border guards decided to stand aside and let them through, a moment that changed the course of the 20th century and signalled the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

With the opening of the border and the subsequent wave of 'Ossies' (East Germans) heading West, large areas of East Berlin became derelict. Following re-unification a year later, many East German factories that could not compete with Western production also became derelict. Into this void came artists attracted by cheap living and studio space.

In 2009, twenty years after the fall of the wall, the abandoned buildings and darkened districts in East Berlin have become not only artists' studios, but also performance spaces, galleries, restaurants and nightclubs. The German techno scene is particularly well suited to the former industrial spaces. Meanwhile new high profile architectural projects have been developed in the former 'death-strip' along the eastern side of where the Berlin Wall stood. And, in a particularly German desire to confront its past, memorials to some of the darkest chapters in the country's history are proliferating. Compared to its period of extreme intolerance in the 1930s and 40s, and its Cold War isolation until 1989, Berlin today is one of the most open and liberal cities in the world, re-establishing the reputation it held in the 1920s as a centre for artistic and creative freedom. But some tensions remain, evident in the clashes between squatters and police in formerly cheap areas of East Berlin where property developers have followed in the wake of the artists, and also in the so-called 'Wall in the Mind' that still exists among older East Germans who have found the transition to capitalism difficult.

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