Mixed feelings on anniversary of the Berlin Wall

A mural of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing former East German leader Erich Honecker on an original section of the Berlin Wall. Picture: Getty
A mural of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing former East German leader Erich Honecker on an original section of the Berlin Wall. Picture: Getty
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As Germans mark 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell, Dani Garavelli finds mixed feelings amid the euphoria

PHILIPPA Zorn was just five years old when the Berlin Wall came down, yet the significance of that moment – 25 years ago today – when it became clear the city she lived in was no longer ­divided was not lost on her even then. Today, she recalls her father’s euphoria and the wild celebrations which ­followed with the same breathless excitement she felt at the time.

“We were watching the eight o’clock news and my dad started screaming like crazy – he just lost it,” she says. “That night friends from east Berlin drove over to visit our house for the first time. Everyone was ecstatic. People said it was like watching black-and-white television and suddenly you see all colours of the rainbow.”

A few days later, as people continued to stream through, she was allowed to take a little hammer to chip off a bit of the wall for posterity, a souvenir of the structure that had cast such a shadow over her parents’ lives.

Her father, Peter, was brought up in East Germany. When he was 19, he was jailed for two years after trying to escape the east through a forest on an expired West German passport and, even after he was released, he was in constant conflict with the authorities. For a while, he had a spy assigned to him: his letters were being read; his phone conversations bugged.

In the 1980s, however, while running a bar in east Berlin’s Alexanderplatz he fell for a Swedish woman – Zorn’s mother Agneta – whom he met when she was visiting a teacher friend in the city. Though the authorities were suspicious about their relationship, they allowed them to move to Sweden just before Zorn’s birth. A year later, the family moved again to west Berlin. Despite fears Peter might be detained, they continued to travel to the east to see friends and family.

“I have so many memories of crossing Checkpoint Charlie in the middle of the night: the neon lights and soldiers with machine guns telling me to get out of the car, though I was half-asleep, and then, all of a sudden, it was all all gone,” she says. “When we went to the wall with our hammers, we walked across the border just because we could.”

In a 20-storey block of flats on the other side, three-year-old Suren Magic – whose parents were Mongolian diplomats – was also soaking up the atmosphere. She remembers people pouring into the streets. “I could feel there was a different vibe, but it was strange for us,” she says. “We didn’t suffer any travel restrictions, so I didn’t really understand why people were so frustrated.

“What I remember most was people throwing things away – their furniture and toys. They were so excited; they were going to get everything new, ­because now they would have money, they would have capitalism. They didn’t want anything to do with the east.”

Today, though Magic spent her later childhood in Munich, both women live and work in Berlin, a reunified city which is a magnet for arty and techy types from across the world. Although traces of the wall are everywhere – in the many museums and in the remaining stretches complete with death strip on Bernauer Strasse – they don’t often stop to think about it.

Last week, however, they were forced to reflect again on the physical reality of the 96-mile structure which appeared almost overnight in August 1961. To mark the 25th anniversary of its fall, an 11ft wall of illuminated balloons has been erected along ten miles of the original route. Beginning at Bornholmer Street, the point at which crowds first crossed from the east on 9 November 1989, it winds its way through the city to the Oberbaum Bridge, blocking roads just as the wall did for almost three decades.

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“It’s interesting because I cross it twice a day now,” says Kat Young, a Scot, who works in music events. “It’s hard to imagine that you couldn’t cycle down this long road [to her office] – that halfway, there would have been a wall you couldn’t cross.”

Tonight, Young will watch as the 8,000 balloons are released into the sky. The poignant gesture is a reminder that so much of what makes modern Berlin vibrant depended on the wall’s destruction. The symbolism is powerful; and yet some would say, a quarter of a century later, there are divisions between east and west that cannot be so easily – or so poetically – dispensed with.

The immediate impact of reunification on the east was the collapse of businesses, job losses and mass migration – and the disparity in affluence this created persists. Though parts of the east – Leipzig, for example – are flourishing, unemployment is still much higher in the five federal states that made up the former German Democratic Republic than it is in the west (9.7 per cent compared with 6 per cent) and household income is around a third higher.

But for West Germans there are resentments too; since reunification, trillions of euros have been spent on rebuilding the east and everyone pays a 5.5 per cent “solidarity tax” aimed at bridging the economic gap. There are some positives: productivity levels have risen in the east (from a quarter of the west’s in 1989 to three-quarters today) and east--west migration which, in 2000, stood at 60,000 a year has dwindled to about 2,000 a year. But some believe it could be another generation before the legacy of separation disappears.

The roots of many of the problems which arose can be found in the speed with which the process was completed; from the moment regime spokesman Gunter Schabowski inadvertently declared the wall open to the signing of the Reunification Treaty took less than ten months.

At first, everyone was imbued with optimism. People who had lived their lives under communism were strolling down Kurfurstendamm – west Berlin’s Champs Élysée – ­gazing at goods they had dreamed of and now believed they would own. However, it didn’t take long for disillusionment to set in.

The reunification was less a melding together of two countries than a subsuming of one by the other, leaving East Germany at an economic, social and political disadvantage. Gradually, people began to under­stand that capitalism did not mean limitless opportunities for all; that you could only ever buy what you could ­afford.

According to Dr Patricia Hogwood, a politics lecturer at the University of Westminster, what many West Germans saw in the fall of the wall was the chance to make a quick buck. Those West Germans who had lost property when the Soviets took power reclaimed it, ­regardless of current ownership, and “failing” factories were sold off to western investors who reduced the workforce and made a killing.

The economic challenges were heightened by the way in which monetary union was introduced. Each East German mark was exchanged for one deutschmark (though on the black market a deutschmark changed hands for 11 East German marks). The move, which extended to pensions, wages and up to 6,000 East German marks in savings, was politically expedient, but economically disastrous. With West German goods seen as more desirable and East German goods no longer cheap, many manufacturers lost their customers overnight.

“The western side boomed as new investment opportunities were realised,” says Hogwood, “but in the east, it had a devastating effect on some industries and particularly on women – the textile industry almost collapsed because now the country was open to imports from east Asia.”

The impact of heavy job losses was profound in a collective system where work was so closely tied to personal identity. “People were caught in a radical transition,” says Hogwood. “What with the collapse of their own perspectives on life, and having to confront the harsh realities and uncertainties of a more liberal society and economy, they found it very difficult. There was a sense of anomie and the birth rate plummeted.”

According to Hogwood, reunification was rushed through because West ­Germans believed there was a very small window of opportunity in which it could happen. “They could see Mikhail Gorbachev was a keen liberaliser, but they could also see his ­position in the Soviet Union was very shaky and that any minute hard-liners might topple him and there would be no negotiated settlement.”

Warranted or not, this fear allowed Chancellor Helmut Kohl to get his own way. What he wanted was a new Germany which would essentially be the same as the former West ­Germany and he succeeded in pushing through a new constitution which was almost ­identical to the old one.

“That created some political inequalities because it means the easterners are in a structural minority and if they do have differences it is not at all easy to represent them through the political system,” Hogwood says.

One of the ways in which the disappointment manifested itself was in the rise of right-wing extremism amongst the younger generation who rebelled against foreign workers and asylum seekers. “Suddenly, the friends of my older brothers were Nazis,” says Magic. “It was weird seeing them at our family home because we were Asian.” Today, much is done to tackle such ­attitudes, but attacks persist although – since racism has also risen in the west – it is increasingly difficult to draw a distinction between the two.

The disaffection with capitalism has also resulted in a nostalgia – or “ostalgia” – for the old system. Once-derided objects such as the Trabant car and the Ampelmännchen ­(pedestrian crossing symbols) have been fetishised and ­restaurants selling eastern fare have sprung up.

Such sentimentality – now on the wane – is mocked by West Germans, who can’t imagine pining for communism, but is a by-product of being forced to give up even those aspects of their old life they valued. “It was a kind of grieving for the collective spirit,” says Hogwood.

For Zorn and Magic and other members of the post-wall generation who have chosen to make a home in Berlin, life is good. Inken Bornholdt who runs The Wye, an art institution in what was east Berlin, says the city – once an artificial island subsidised by the rest of Germany – is now attracting high-fliers from across the world who see settling in the city as a great adventure.

“There’s a whole hype about Berlin being the new Silicon Valley,” she says. “Before, it was people who had just graduated. They would come to Berlin to party for a year and go back home. Now it’s people who mean business.”

In Berlin itself, she says there is little sense of division, but she agrees it is not representative of the whole country. “For my generation there is no hostility towards people from the east, but these things take a while – there’s a scar that comes from having a city and country divided,” she says.

There is evidence progress is being made. Hogwood says that in the regional government, the East German lander (states) are beginning to make their presence felt, ganging ­together on issues on which there is an east-west division. And the unemployment and income gaps are narrowing.

But those in the east still perceive themselves as economically disadvantaged. In one survey, people on both sides of the city were asked to compare their own standard of living with that of the “average German”. Forty-two per cent of those in the east judged their standard of living to be worse or much worse than the average German compared to 10 per cent of those in the west.

Despite the problems, however, Zorn – whose father says the day he left the east was the happiest in his life – believes there has been a net gain. “How you feel now depends on how you felt about your life before,” she says. “Some people lost their jobs and their security. There are so many aspects to this it’s hard to say if it has been positive for one person or another. But I think for the country as a whole it’s a good thing. All the families that were torn apart, so much misery, people being in prison for ridiculous reasons. The system was not magical in any way.”

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