In a wondrous celebration intended to greet the onset of winter, the Berlin Festival of Lights is currently illuminating buildings across the German capital. It’s a special year, as the city marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many projections follow a theme of peace and unity against the odds. The history of the divided city, the Cold War and reunification, are played out on the Brandenburg Gate and the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic, amongst others.
It makes for a fascinating series of light projections of iconic moments from the period when the city was ideologically and physically divided. There are scenes of the wall being built, watchtowers searching for East Germans trying to escape to the West, the Berlin Blockade, and Allied air lift that was a lifeline for West Berliners. JFK delivers his famous speech, Willy Brandt and Ronald Reagan make an appearance. It’s another sign of how Germany has owned its history.
The message is clear, together we are better. That is doubly emphasised by the ever present flag of the European Union accompanied by a simple message: Europe United. The British Embassy is taking part in the Festival of Lights this year (it was noticeable by its absence last year). As I left the euphoria of Germany in 1989 at the Brandenburg Gate behind and turned the corner towards my own embassy, I hoped for an equally compelling message of hope.
Actually, 10 metre high letters spelling out the words “We’re Sorry” would have been enough for me. What I wasn’t expecting was a chilling insight into the current state of British society and politics. There, high above me, was a montage of British landscapes, including a sheep and a headless seagull. Intentional or not, is there currently a more accurate metaphor for Brexit Britain? Whatever led to the British projecting a headless seagull next to a sheep onto their embassy, it definitely seemed political.
I had to stop myself from explaining this theory to two young Americans who walked past. American number one looked at the embassy building and said, “What it it?” To which American number two cautiously said, “I think it’s a seagull.” The response of American number one was both unerringly accurate and damning of the British body politic. “That’s rubbish,” she said. It’s not easy being British in Europe right now, but I wasn’t about to disagree with that withering assessment.
The Festival of Lights is one of the best moments in the city’s calendar, and hundreds of thousands of people make the effort to visit. It makes the main sights pretty crowded, but also gives Berlin a carnival atmosphere. It’s fun joining onlookers as they make the slow progression from one place to the next. This has been helped by unseasonably hot weather. I was wearing shorts and flip flops at ten o’clock at night. For an all-too brief moment you can pretend Berlin is on the Mediterranean.
The festival isn’t about politics – and I’m not even sure the British Embassy was trying to be controversial – but, in a year when Germans remember a divided past and look to a united future, it’s hard not to start dwelling on Britain’s attempts to isolate itself from Europe. I lost myself and my thoughts amongst the crowds along the Unter den Linden, as I headed towards Humboldt University and another grouping of light projections in Bebelplatz.