Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city looks back in remembrance - and ahead to a prosperous future.
On the roof of a 20-story building overlooking the bright lights of Alexanderplatz, a DJ blasts technomusic as young, fashionably dressed Berliners drink, dance and socialize under the stars in the weeks preceding the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
From the rooftop club, called Week-End, the view over the entire city is exhilarating, filled with shimmering blue-glass skyscrapers, flashing neon signs and avenues ablaze with streaming lines of automobile lights. Just 20 years ago, however, the night view from this former East Berlin office building would have been drastically different, with the western half of the city pulsating with light, but the other half, East Berlin, resembling a large dark field with scattered streetlights and an occasional slow-moving vehicle.
While most Germans have by now become used to the reunification of East and West Berlin, many others are still startled by the rapid development of the former communist side of the city and get goose-bumps when they travel by car, train or bicycle across sections of the city once divided by the almost impenetrable, 93-mile concrete wall.
Between 1961 and 1989, 140 Berliners were killed trying to cross over or under the Berlin Wall, and thousands more were caught and imprisoned. The Wall not only divided a city but was the international symbol of the Cold War for almost 30 years. It came down in November 1989 - in bits and pieces at first as East Berliners apprehensively chipped off concrete slivers as they walked through newly opened gaps, and days later in large sections as bulldozers turned it into rubble and a rushing river of humanity pushed through. Immediately after reunification, however, Berlin's future as a revived European center of culture and politics was in doubt. Berlin was devastated during World War II, and its physical and social isolation for four decades following the war made it unclear if the city could ever successfully mend its broken bones and reclaim its status, temporarily given to Bonn, as Germany's capital city.
But within a few years following the dismantling of theWall and the subsequent restoration of the city's Reichstag (Germany's parliament building) by British architect Lord Norman Foster, Berlin not only became Germany's well-functioning capital but also a buzzing center of redevelopment. Construction cranes filled the skyline as new commercial, governmental and residential buildings - often in the most architecturally eclectic styles - rose throughout the city. Along with the country's politicians and staff who moved from Bonn, almost a million West German and European artists, musicians, writers and entrepreneurs also arrived in a reunited Berlin, taking advantage of inexpensive housing and a frenzied lust for color and creativity in the drab eastern neighborhoods. Although the city also lost about a million former East Berliners who left for the West, the influx of new residents and German reunification money resulted in trendy restaurants, hotels, museums and theater venues that quickly became more popular than the long-established businesses in the western side of Berlin.
Today, however, the ecstatic years following the fall of the Wall have been diminished somewhat; and Berlin's inherent economic flaws, after decades of German government subsidies, are all too visible. A 15 percent city unemployment rate (compared to about 8 percent in Germany), few corporate headquarters and little manufacturing output have taken the bluster out of Berlin's initial euphoria. Economic contraction in Germany's six eastern states, including Berlin, was the result of deindustrialization when East German factories shut down after 1989, and the current world economic recession hasn't helped. Small businesses carry the economy in Berlin (94 percent of the companies in Berlin have fewer than 200 employees); and although dozens of prestigious German and international firms like Siemens AG, Bayer Schering Pharma AG, Daimler AG, McDonald's Deutschland Inc. and Philip Morris GmbH maintain large workforces here, the corporate culture in Berlin is much less influential than in Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart or Frankfurt.
New financial, computer and scientific research firms, however, are making inroads in the city; and Berlin is still attracting young European professionals, architects and graphic artists who are behind the city's innovative museum and urban design projects. More than half of Berlin's working population is under age 40. German real estate firms continue to convert historic communist era bank buildings, warehouses and breweries into hotels, restaurants and upscale shops in the former East Berlin districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and Friedrichshain, helping Berlin to become the most popular tourist destination in Germany and increasing the service sector employment by 48 percent since 1989. Although the stork-like construction cranes no longer dominate Berlin's skyline, national economic stimulus programs are spurring a revival of large urban development projects, including construction of the new Berlin Brandenburg International Airport (BBI), scheduled to open in 2011, and a massive city project to develop the area surrounding the spectacular 3-year-old glass-and-steel railroad terminal, Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
Some of Germany's most important media outlets have expanded their presence in Berlin, including MTV/Germany, Deutsche Welle, Der Spiegel and Babelsberg Studios, which produces international films and hosts the popular Berlin Film Festival.
Visitors to Berlin are surprised at the city's size, almost 348 square miles, nine times larger than Paris. More than a third of Berlin is filled with forests and water, including lakes, rivers and canals; and its three large city parks - the Tiergarten, the Botanical Gardens and the Zoological Gardens - are ideal for walking or biking.
As Berlin celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, portions of the concrete barrier remain, and Berliners must eventually decide what is to become of these last reminders of the divided city. The longest stretch of the original wall, about amile long, is now known as the Eastside Gallery, and more than 100 artists from around the world have contributed murals to this unique open-air museum. Whether this section and other remaining Wall segments become UNESCO World Heritage sites or are eventually removed is a decision that all Berlin's residents, on both sides of the city, will have to make together.