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Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The fall of the Berlin Wall was touted as a triumph — but 29 years on, not everyone agrees

1987 black-and-white image of four East German women standing in front of sandstone building.

In Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall is like Kennedy's assassination, or 9/11 — everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.

For most citizens on both sides of the wall, its fall came suddenly and unexpectedly on November 9, 1989.
The traditional historical narrative is that the fall heralded a new, bright era for socialist and communist states desperate for a capitalist system.
It was hailed as a triumph of democracy over a regime that included the Stasi, the East German security police who spied on and persecuted citizens.
But this view is not entirely accurate for everyone.

Collapse and reunification

It took nearly two decades after the end of World War II to start building the wall — separating the western part of Berlin, belonging to West Germany, from East Berlin.
The rest of the border between East and West Germany was delineated with fencing, mines, watchtowers and barbed wire.
But the collapse of the wall meant the erasure of the entire border, not just in Berlin, and led to the reunification of Germany one year later.

A country 'disappeared overnight'

This reunification is largely seen by the West as a positive thing, but for some East Germans, their homeland, identity and political system virtually disappeared overnight — and there wasn't much that was reunifying about it.
East and West Germany were brought together under West Germany's flag, West Germany's anthem and West Germany's currency.
To a great deal of East Germans, it was an annexation; the East and its values immediately invalidated.
There was a sense that the West was moving in to 'fix' everything that West Germans considered 'wrong' in East Germany, despite East Germany having been the most successful economy of the Eastern Bloc.
And there was a uniqueness to East German society that didn't exist in the West.
"There was something we had which I can only describe as solidarity," says Christian Wolter, a carpenter who grew up in East Berlin.
"The policeman and the plumber were having to deal with the same problems as you, and there was a certain kind of binding factor there. You helped each other."

Transition or imposition?

During reunification of East and West, there wasn't much of a transition period.
Around 8,000 East German state-run enterprises were sold off and replaced by privatised West German ones.
Many East Germans lost their jobs or houses.
And when their government's subsidies on rent and food disappeared, the cost of living rose dramatically.
Within five years it had risen to Western levels, more than five times what it had been before reunification.
In Berlin, the change was particularly pronounced.
Christian left Germany in 1991, but when he returned to Berlin briefly in 1993 to take care of some paperwork, he found himself lost in his own city.
Berlin was in the throes of development and barely recognisable.
A great many of the street names had changed, as had the tram and bus routes he'd known, and no-one could help him.
He had to buy a map to figure out where he needed to go.
"In two years things had changed so enormously that I was standing at the main train station and I just looked around and said 'Guys, I have no idea where things are'," Christian says.
"These days I have to actually ask my way. I don't mind, but when I speak German I have a fairly clear Berlin accent, and people recognise it immediately. So when I ask the question, people look at me very funny. They always think 'are you playing a joke on me?'"

History, written by the victors?

There are many misconceptions about the transition from two German states into one.
For Christian, the most egregious is that East Germans desperately wanted a capitalist system.
In the lead-up to the wall falling, there were increasing numbers of peaceful protests in East Germany — but they weren't about switching to a free market.
While there was dissatisfaction with the accountability of their socialist government, most East German citizens were in favour of fixing the existing system, and making it better.
"The wall falling down put an end to that," Christian says.
"It crushed the idea of a liveable society; it broke the whole spell of the better society."
Susann Rittermann, an artist who grew up near Thüringen and studied in Dresden, says "you could feel capitalism starting to come in".
"Overnight, huge advertisements for things like Marlborough and Coca Cola appeared on buildings without any respect for their beauty or history," she says.
"No-one really liked that — it really felt like a sudden takeover by another system.
"West German investors came in and took over all the empty houses, to get them on the market and to make profit out of them. You could feel there was no place for us, you could feel the money coming in and that there was no going back."
To a large number of East Germans, or Ossis, the West was disappointing.
It was too individualistic: it offered too much of everything, and there was no common goal except growth — for some.
To them, East Germany's society had been kinder and friendlier, and it made much more sense to them than the capitalist society that they were suddenly part of.
In East Germany, in theory at least, "there was no difference in payment or in stature between a teacher or the director of the biggest factory — they had the same social stature", Christian says.
"Doctors were valued but the cleaners were just as valued," he says.
"Everybody — the director of the company, the cleaner — got a house, they all got their health insurance, they all bought the same bread and the same butter. It was available for everyone."
For many young East Germans, who hadn't yet had experiences with the darker sides of their government, or any other political system, the change seemed unnecessary.
"I had the happiest childhood that you could wish for," says Christian.
"I never had any trouble, there was no war. There was always enough food, we had plenty of friends and places to go and no worries of any kind that were threatening. I never really felt oppressed."
And despite what Westerners thought of East Germany and its lack of commercial goods, "you could buy a Sony Walkman", Christian says.
"It cost you three months' salary. But if you wanted one, sure you could have it," he says.
"If you wanted to have a colour TV, no problem. It cost you a whole year of your income.
"Everybody thinks it's weird — why would a television be so expensive? The question should be: how can a television be so cheap?"

How do former East Germans feel now?

For Christian, staying in the newly reunified Germany was never an option.
"I felt that I had to change so much that it wasn't where I came from," he says.
He found his new home in a collective in Amsterdam, where he still lives today.
The ideals of East German society still linger in its former citizens.
"Maybe the culture disappeared overnight, but not the mentality," says Stefan Schröder, an artist who now lives in Oslo.
"It takes more time than to destroy that within a few months. You know, you're carrying a culture around."
"You never felt lonely," says Susann, who ultimately left the reunified Germany to study art in Amsterdam.
She also lives in a collective, though a different one than Christian's. She felt more welcome in The Netherlands, and had the sense of being in a group again which, for her, had disappeared after reunification.
"You never had the experience of fear for other people," she says.
"You just left your baby carriage outside the store and you entered the store and someone else took care of it. You didn't even have to ask, people just did it."

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