November in German Culture and History

November: The Mourning Month and Its Fateful Dates

The first two days of November are significant in the Christian religious calendar. November 1 is All Saints Day (Allerheiligen). November 2 is All Souls Day (Allerseelen). In Germany, most of Europe, and all over the world where the western Christian church is dominant, these two days are devoted to remembering and praying for the “faithful departed.” Indeed, the Latin (Roman Catholic) name for this day is In Commemoratione Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (“commemoration of all the faithful departed”).

Two Catrina figures

Two Catrina figures. The Mexican Calavera Catrina (“dapper skeleton” or “elegant skull”) began as social satire in 1910. Today the Catrina figure is associated with the Day of the Dead observance. PHOTO © Tomas Castelazo, (Wikimedia Commons)

Although Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), a national holiday, is perhaps better known and a bit more colorful, if you visit some German cemeteries on the same dates, you’re likey to see a similar observance, complete with candles. The main difference is that in Germany there is no all-night vigil in which family members gather near the grave(s) of their “faithful departed,” as in many parts of Mexico. Germans also tend not to celebrate in quite as colorful a manner as in Mexico. You may not see Catrina skeletons, sugar skulls, or decorative masks in Germany, but you will see lighted candles. (See photo below.)

As history (and two world wars) would have it, November in the western world has become a month for commemorating the dead — whether fallen in war or otherwise. Since the 14th century, the Roman Catholic church has dedicated the month of November to the dead, and in the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, a time to remember and honor those who fought and died, originally in the Great War ended by the armistice that took effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, on November 11, 1918. (In fact, the date was known as Armistice Day prior to World War II.) This day, known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day in some other Allied nations, is also a holiday in France and Belgium. Continue reading

Nude bathing and traffic signs: 10 things that didn’t fall with the Wall

Lichtgrenze - East Side Gallery, Berlin

Temporary Lichtgrenze in Berlin to celebrate 25 years since the fall of the Wall
PHOTO: Andrea Goldmann

Last Sunday (9th November) Berliners celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A momentous occasion movingly marked by temporarily dividing the city again with a 9-mile “Lichtgrenze” made up of illuminated white balloons along the old division, which were then let off into the misty night sky at the same time the first people crossed the border all those years ago. Though the few remaining stretches of the Wall in Berlin are only there for the sake of history and tourism, not all aspects of GDR-life have been so thoroughly dismantled. From politics to bathing habits, what has survived these past 25 years? 

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Das Bombing: Graffiti in Germany and Europe

Graffiti and tagging are a phenomenon seen all over the world, but how they are regarded and dealt with varies widely, depending on the location. A stroll through the streets of Berlin quickly reveals why it is sometimes referred to as “the graffiti capital of Europe.” The very graphic graffiti term “bombing” (das Bombing in German) takes on a whole new meaning in the German capital, which suffered actual massive Allied bombing during World War II, but today seems to be under attack yet again by aggressive taggers and so-called “street artists.”

Oberschule graffiti

This graffiti “gallery” is on the grounds of a Berlin high school (Oberschule). PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

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The East Side Gallery and Berlin’s Benign Neglect

Berlin is often its own worst enemy. And this time we’re not even talking about the long-delayed opening of the BER airport. Now the controversy is over creating new gaps in the historic East Side Gallery, one of the last vestiges of the Berlin Wall. There is also an online petition to block further damage to the Gallery. All, typically for Berlin, too little too late.

As February became March 2013, suddenly Berlin – and the world – were paying close attention to the East Side Gallery, a little over 23 years after most of the Wall disappeared. Running along the banks of the Spree River, this 0.8-mile stretch of Hintermauer (“inside, ‘hinterland’ Wall”) blocks the river view from Mühlenstraße, the street that parallels the East Side Gallery. At least it did block the view until Berlin began punching holes in it. This piecemeal destruction of the Gallery took place despite so-called landmark protection granted in 1991.

The only reason this rare remaining stretch of the Wall is still standing at all is the artwork that first appeared on it back in 1990 – before the Berlin city fathers and mothers had time to tear down most of the Berlin Wall. Continue reading

Book Review: The Berlin Wall Today

The Berlin Wall Today: Remnants, Ruins, Remembrances
by Eva C. Schweitzer (photographer), Michael Cramer (foreword)
Publisher: Berlinica

Book cover

It’s amazing how quickly the massive, 100-mile-long Berlin Wall disappeared after it was first breached on the night of November 9, 1989. By the time of official German reunification in 1990, most of the Wall that had stood for 28 years had simply vanished! A little over two decades later, even less of the Wall remains. If you want to find its traces, you need a guide like The Berlin Wall Today.

But this book is much more than a mere guide for would-be Wall explorers. It is also a history book of the best kind: short and to the point. Through words and pictures it gives the reader a better understanding of the Wall – past, present and future. (The future includes plans to expand the marking of significant Wall landmarks.)

Michael Cramer’s introduction offers a good summary of the Berlin Wall’s past and the struggle to preserve even a few bits and pieces for future generations. Continue reading

No time for nostalgia: The Berlin Wall’s 50th birthday

Fifty years ago today (August 13) the Berlin Wall rose its ugly head (in 1961). While the collapse of the Wall may be fresher in our minds, the construction of the Berlin Wall was one of the world’s most glaring crimes against humanity – even though many people still fail to realize that.

Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, had to remind people of that today. He chastised those Germans and others who somehow have some nostalgic view of the Wall (Berlin mayor criticizes nostalgia for Berlin Wall). There is nothing nostalgic about a concrete barrier set up to divide families and imprison a country’s entire population – and that led to many deaths. Continue reading

The Wall turns 48 – What was the Berlin Wall really like?

Yesterday marked the 48th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. (I actually wanted to post this on the 13th, but…) During the night of 12-13 August 1961, East German soldiers and other workers began stringing a barbed wire barrier along the intra-German border (innerdeutsche Grenze) in Berlin. As time went by, the barbed wire fences were replaced by concrete: the Berlin Wall (die Berliner Mauer). It was East Germany’s desperate attempt to stop a serious brain drain and what was known as “voting with your feet” (i.e., escaping to the West). Berlin was the most serious “leak” — one that had to be plugged if the East German dictatorship was to survive.

Berlin Checkpoint Charlie 1969

The Berlin Wall: Checkpoint Charlie in 1969. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

I first experienced die Mauer personally in 1969, when it was still a crude, slapped-together, eight-year-old youngster, not the smoother, slicker version after 1975. By chance, I also experienced the last days of the notorious barrier in the summer of 1989, only a few months before the Berlin Wall fell. Both times I was traveling with American high school students, so I was also seeing the Wall through their eyes. Continue reading

2009: The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

photoThe original red Info-Box in 1998.
Larger view
Photo: H. Flippo

Today’s Berliner Zeitung has a story about the return of the red Info-Box to Potsdamer Platz for the 2009 anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. (Has it really been almost two full decades since that historic event?) The original Info-Box (also spelled “Infobox”) was visited by millions of tourists (including me) and Berliners from October 1995 until it closed on the last day of the year 2000.

Intended only as a temporary structure to help inform visitors about the new Potsdamer Platz complex, no one anticipated how popular the first big red cube would become. The Frankfurt architectural firm of Schneider + Schumacher designed a three-story container-like box on stilts — with panoramic views of the vast Potsdamer Platz construction site. Inside the pavilion there were films on video monitors, along with pictures and models of the project. In the end, the cube built on the former East German “death strip” became a huge tourist attraction. At least 25 couples chose to get married there.

The new info-cube is also red, but smaller than the original, and has a slightly different purpose: to tell how Berlin has changed over the past 20 years. Like the original, the new red cube has audio-visual presentations and interactive media. Of course, the really big “Grenzöffnung” (border opening) celebration will take place around the Brandenburg Gate on November 7-9, 2009. A huge “Fest der Freiheit” (Freedom Festival) will include a symbolic fall of the Wall represented by a display of falling dominoes on November 9. Before that, various other commemorative events will take place all across Berlin between January and November. The new Info-Box will stand on Potsdamer Platz until Easter. Two smaller “touring” Info-Boxes will be set up at various locations in the German capital. See the special site for more.