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December 28, 2016

UMass marks anniversary of fall of Berlin Wall

On Tuesday, November 10, the University of Massachusetts hosted a celebration of the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the second floor of the Herter Hall Annex. The festivities included a well-catered reception, the official opening of an art exhibit in tribute of the historic anniversary and a screening of the documentary, “Leipzig in the Fall,” which chronicles the demonstrations that helped topple the Wall from the perspective of the citizens involved.

The event, organized by the UMass German and Scandinavian Studies Department, with help from the History Department was part of an international effort of the German government to celebrate this historically and culturally significant date. Chancellor Robert C. Holub, also a professor of German and Scandinavian studies spoke briefly in honor of the event.

German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth extended an invitation to UMass to submit a proposal for participating in the Freedom Without Walls program, where campuses around the country receive funding to host events in memory of this critical turning point in modern history.

UMass professors Barton Byg and Skyler Arndt-Briggs of German and Scandinavian Studies, along with History professor Jon Olsen created the proposal that was approved by the German Embassy. UMass is one of 30 colleges and universities holding Freedom Without Walls events.

Replica Berlin Walls were erected in the second floor annex of Herter Hall. Buckets of markers sat beside the walls, inviting passersby to apply graffiti. The walls will remain in the Herter Annex for an unspecified amount of time.

The coordinating staff said they endeavored to capture the ground-level citizen’s perspective in the civil rights movements and political climate of East Germany in the late 1980s.

Text and image displays about the history of the Berlin War, from its political beginnings to its cultural influences, were fixed temporarily to the annex’s bulletin board. A display titled, “We Remember 89-09” featured written testimonies from a number of figures, involved in fields from filmmaking to academia, about memories associated with the Berlin Wall. These testimonies ranged from personal recollections of places and people, to retrospective analyses of the many changes caused by the Wall’s destruction, covering in depth a range of perspectives.

“Leipzig in the Fall” is a documentary directed by German filmmakers Gerd Kroske and Andreas Voigt documenting the robust civilian protests in Leipzig. The film documents the demonstrations and political climate in East Germany in the words and experiences of the people involved.

Protestors in Leipzig met in public squares on Mondays, beginning in the fall of 1989, to demand rights from the stifling control of the Soviet run government. Citizens across East Germany adopted Leipzig’s model, holding large demonstrations on Mondays. The mass unification of the largely peaceful Monday demonstrations played a vital role in the opening of Berlin Wall.

Skyler Arndt-Briggs, adjunct professor in German and Scandinavian studies, and Associate Director of the DEFA Film Library, an extensive collection of East German films, said she felt mainstream historical discourse on the fall of the Berlin Wall tends to underemphasize the importance of the East German citizens’ political activism and focus on state and political actors.

“The fall of the Berlin Wall is often attributed to Reagan’s speech, or Gorbachev’s speech, or that capitalism simply won, but the fact is, without these protests, without the voice of the people, it never would have happened,” said Arndt-Briggs.

Barton Byg, a central coordinator of the event responsible for facilitating, said that the unified Germany is emerging a leader in a more interconnected Europe.

“Right now, Germany is in the center of what may come to be the United States of Europe, and I think the most important reason for promoting these events is to show they are committed to a peaceful united Europe, without the kind of conflict and division we saw during the Cold War,” said Byg. “The opening of the Berlin Wall, and in effect, the end of the Cold War, is a legacy of bloodless revolution that Germany can be proud of,” he added.

Scharioth said in an interview conducted November 9, the day of the anniversary, “The fall of the wall has shown that freedom ultimately prevails. For the system of liberal democracy and the rule of law can best meet the needs of the people. That gives us reason to be optimistic also about the future. Things can always turn out well. And if we work hard together, there is a good chance that they will.”

Michael Toomey can be reached at

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