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Art Installation Commemorates 25 Years Since Berlin Wall Lost Its Power


This evening, 8,000 helium balloons lit up the root of what was the concrete and barbed wire barrier known as the Berlin Wall. The installation marks a quarter-century since the wall was breached and thousands of Berliners from the Communist East flooded into the Capitalist Western half of the city. NPR's Berlin correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has gone over to the balloon wall to view the anniversary celebrations. Hiya, Soraya.


SIEGEL: And describe for us what you're seeing there.

NELSON: Well, I'm at Bernauer Street, which of course is a famous part of where the wall was. There is a big mural here on the side of one building that shows an East German soldier who fled to the West as the wall was going up. And as you look down the street here you see this line of balloons, these helium balloons on flexible stands. There's already been one casualty, unfortunately - one less balloon. So maybe we should say 7,999. It's laying here on the side. I mean, it is pretty windy. It's sort of an interesting atmosphere. There's not a whole lot of people. But the ones who are here are taking selfies and looking forward to seeing these balloons released on Sunday.

SIEGEL: I gather to the accompaniment of Beethoven's "Ninth."

NELSON: That is correct - "Ode To Joy." Now, there are of course some questions about whether 8,000 people are going to release 8,000 balloons or exactly how this is going to work. But for this weekend, they'll get to look at this long line - about 10 miles long - of balloons.

SIEGEL: But beyond taking the selfies, Berliners are enjoying the celebration?

NELSON: They are, and they aren't. I mean, there's a lot of tension because of a nationwide rail strike that's affecting city transit, as well, so there aren't as many people here. And the ones who are here, who live here, feel that this is yet just another obstacle, having all these stages and balloons and lights out to commemorate the weekend.

SIEGEL: Now, there actually was controversy in Berlin over what to do with the remnants of the real Berlin Wall. That wasn't an easy question to answer. How did that play out?

NELSON: Well, absolutely. I mean, you were here for when - at the beginning, when there were a lot of people coming who were coming across and on both sides were taking hammers and shovels and whatnot to the wall to try and bring it down. Afterward, there was a lot of discussion about what happens with this thing. And you had developers really wanting property, and this wall was in the way. You had German politicians who really wanted to bury this. They just didn't want to be reminded of how their country was divided so uncomfortably for so many years. And then you had activists who felt the history should be preserved. You even had people coming from overseas like American actor David Hasselhoff, who's actually a popular singer here with a certain generation, and protesting against this. So yeah, it definitely was very controversial.

SIEGEL: Now I want you to talk about one of the most interesting visitors to the celebrations - former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the man to whom Ronald Reagan addressed that line, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.

NELSON: Yes, absolutely. He's here in Berlin this weekend. And he will be meeting with people. In fact, there are posters up around town that say come out and thank Gorby is what the slogan is. I think he will have a positive reception here, shall we say, or popular reception perhaps more so than in his homeland at the moment. But he's also probably going to be generating some controversy. He has indicated in some press conferences in Moscow that he will be defending President Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine, that he's blaming Washington for why there are problems now. So that should be interesting.

SIEGEL: So at this celebration marking not just the fall of the wall but the end of the Cold War, a little chill, a little echo of the Cold War from Mr. Gorbachev.

NELSON: Yeah, that certainly seems to be the case.

SIEGEL: Well, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin. Thank you very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.