Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Last domino fails to fall at Berlin Wall

Monday's cellebrations in Berlin to mark the fall of the fall of the Berlin Wall were climaxed with a fireworks display. To set off the display 1,000 large dominoes had been set up each painted by schools across the country with various designs and unveiled on 7th November by Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit. They were placed along the original route of the former Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate to the Potsdamer Platz. But not quite everything went according to plan as the 2.5 metre high dominoes were toppled. Thousands of spectators braved the rain and watched as the first domino was sent crashing into the second. The cascade of collapsing obelisques continued along the 1.5 km route to cheers of the crowd. But when the nine hundred and ninety ninth plinth fell it failed to move the last which stood firmly in place. The symbolism was all the more ironic given the last domino had been adorned with Chinese characters! 

China of course is one country which maintains a high security wall around its people in the form of an electronic net which censors access to certain websites which the government deems unsuitable. For those in the China frustrated by the Internet blocks the failure of this last domino to come crashing down was particularly pointed. News surrounding the events in Germany is particularly muted. Xinhua has not been able to ignore the anniversary altogether, but there are none of the controversial statements about the advances for freedom or the mentions of the collapse of communism. 

Several leaders spoke before the domino toppling. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised the ordinary people saying, "This wall was torn down not by the demands of political leaders, not by dictat from on high, not by the force of military might but by the greatest force of all - the unbreakable spirit of the men and women of Berlin. You dared to dream in the darkness. You knew that while force has the temporary power to dominate, it can never ultimately dictate." He said that the power of people should inspire future generations. "You proved that there is nothing that cannot be achieved by people inspired by the power of common purpose. Let me thank you, the people of Berlin for showing that in a troubled world with an Africa in poverty, and a Darfur in agony, a Zimbabwe in tears and a Burma in chains, individuals even when in pain need not suffer forever without hope...What has happened here in Berlin tells the world that the tides of history may ebb and flow, but that across the ages history is moving towards our best hopes, not our worst fears; towards light not darkness; and towards the fulfilment of our humanity, not its denial."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also spoke of the example set by ordinary people twenty years ago. "Those of us gathered here tonight, leaders and citizens alike, we must pledge ourselves to work together to advance freedoms beyond its current frontiers so that people everywhere are afforded the opportunities to pursue their dreams and live up to their God given potential," Clinton said.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of how she felt at the time the wall fell. "For me, it was one of the happiest moments of my life," Merkel said. Speaking not only about the fall of the wall but also the events of the second world war, she said, "Freedom must be fought for. Freedom must be defended time and again. Freedom is the most valuable commodity in our political and social system."

Speaking earlier had she lawded Gorbachev saying, "You made this possible, you courageously let things happen, and that was much more than we could expect." While there was much mention of freedom, few countries were particularly singled out. Brown had mentioned Zimbabwe, Burma and Darfur but there was no mention of the walls dividing Palestine and Israel or the electronic wall known as the Great Firewall of China that censors its citizens.

Recently the Berlin Twitter Wall was set up by the Kultur Projekte Berlin, a non-profit organisation in Germany that promotes art and culture. Twitter users were encouraged to share their memories of the tumultuous times surrounding the fall of wall 20 years ago. However, organisers also asked tweeters to write about, "which walls still have to come down to make our world a better place." The global response was sudden and overwhelming. The site was soon flooded by thousands of comments from China complaining about the Great Firewall often referred to by the hashtag #GFW. Chinese Internet users and expats living in China, circumventing the government's blocking of Twitter by using proxy servers or Twitter apps that have yet failed to be blocked, posted messages to the site. Suddenly the site had become an online protest against 21st century forms of censorship.

Messages ranged from "Fuck the GFW" to "Mr Hu (Jintao) Tear down this Firewall!" a reference to the infamous line uttered by President Ronald Reagan when he said "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" The site itself soon became blocked by Chinese censors. But the damage had already been done. More than half the posts on the site were anti-GFW comments, many of them in Chinese. While access to the site is difficult, those with access to Twitter using various apps not yet blocked can still post to the site by adding the hash tag #fotw.

While the messages remain in cyberspace, the large physical dominoes used in Monday's celebrations are becoming much sought after. On Tuesday German authorities reported strong demand for some of the 1,000 dominoes. "In just one morning we have had 30 or 40 enquiries from firms, individuals, schools and local parishes," Dorett Auerswald, a spokeswoman for the organisers told Agence France Presse. "Some of them want to buy them, others want to know if it is possible to have them for an exhibition. It's really very touching," she said. "People tell us they saw them on television and that they were moved." For the moment, however, all the dominoes are the property of the schools and organisations around Germany that painted them, which have until Wednesday to claim them back. "If any dominoes are not taken we will keep them. They have a lot of value and we will see what we can do with them," Auerswald said. Two of the dominoes are already on their way to a museum in the western German city of Bonn, capital of West Germany before the real Wall was pulled down.

As for the last domino, it is unknown what the Chinese characters on it mean or if there was any specific meaning behind its design or its placing. Its failure to fall did create some laughter in the crowd, though the fireworks began despite the hiccup. If this domino is put up for auction, it may well attract more than a little attention, though as yet the irony has not been picked up by the media. It has been noted by many Twitter users in China however, many of which have posted their observations on the site.[BBC video]

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