The fall of the wall — a view from Berlin

BERLIN – I hate to sound like the grouchy Grinch. Here in Berlin radio and TV are celebrating the Fall of the Wall 20 years ago so intensively there’s hardly a moment for the weather report, which, unfortunately for all the planned events, turned out nasty and rainy. From my window I just watched the fireworks’ brave attempts to spite the clouds and drizzle.

It is well-nigh impossible to be nasty about that strange event in 1989 when a seemingly random remark by an East German big shot opened the gates to a mass rush by East Berliners to West Berlin and, soon after, points further westward. There was general euphoria, bliss – the commonest word was “wahnsinn,” insane, crazy, unbelievable. Then and now it seemed petty to entertain even the tiniest critical idea.

Without a doubt, the great event permitted happy reunions of many families and opened the way for East Germans to visit, no longer only Prague, Warsaw or Moscow, but also Paris, Washington and Munich, as well as West Berlin. It was truly a blissful occasion. TV has shown the film footage a thousand times but the crossing, embraces, the dancing on the wall are still moving, even to tears.

But as a socialist American, one of a handful who lived on the eastern side of the Wall, who tries to analyze history, I find it impossible to banish certain heretic recollections and doubts. For moments of mass euphoria, wonderful as they are for those involved, do not always explain history. And for me, too many issues and questions remain unexplained or simply unasked.

Why does no one recall that it was Eastern Germany, the German Democratic Republic, which pushed for reunification during the postwar years while Chancellor Adenauer brusquely rejected all proposals, even general elections. Only then, and after West Germany set up its own state, formed an army, joined NATO and insisted on regaining huge hunks of what was now Poland, were such attempts finally abandoned.

Why is it never mentioned that the GDR, though certainly undergoing an economic crisis, was in less of a crisis than all of Germany today, and that until its very end it had no unemployment, no homelessness, free medical care, child care, education and a sufficiently stable standard of living?

Why is it forgotten that many of its travel restrictions had been considerably eased in the two previous years, so that not only pensioners, who were always able to visit West Germany, but 1 million to 2 million GDR citizens had been able to visit West Germany in 1987-1989. Young people wanted desperately to travel, it is true; but their chances of being able to were already improving.

Sadly, there was often a stuffy, intolerant atmosphere in the GDR, traceable to the limitations of its aged leadership, to bad traditions inherited (or in part imposed) by the USSR, but also to a kind of paranoia which was, however, not fully unrealistic in its fears of being swallowed by West Germany, which is just what finally happened. From the start geographically and historically Germany’s weaker third, the GDR was always under powerful, merciless attack. This created endless problems for GDR leaders, which they were never able to solve satisfactorily. Nevertheless, most participants in the demonstrations and rebellions in the fateful autumn of 1989 wanted an improved GDR, not a dead one. Only after Chancellor Kohl, Willy Brandt and other West German leaders promised them not only freedom but all the consumer goods they had gazed at so enviously in TV shows, summarized most succinctly with the words West marks (the western currency) and bananas – rarely available in the GDR – were they lured by the seductive songs of the Lorelei beauties from the Rhine.

Many have done very well thanks to their status as federal German citizens. Certainly all consumer goods and travel possibilities are available while the leaden speeches and dull media articles are gone and forgotten, though replaced by endless platitudes and deadening commercials.

And for freedoms won there have been freedoms lost. In the GDR, according to one bon mot, you were wise not to criticize Honecker and other government or party big shots. But you could say whatever you wanted against your foreman, the manager, the factory director. Today, it was found, this was reversed. People were fired for rejecting unpaid overtime, for asking what a colleague earned, for simply being suspected of eating a company-owned roll or forgetting to turn in a 13 cent coupon. Beggars, the homeless, patrons of free food outlets, people with untreated tooth gaps – all unknown in GDR days – are now taken for granted. So are towns with closed factories and a population of pensioners, with most young people off somewhere far away hunting jobs.

Another factor was important to historians: the GDR had been founded with certain basic principles. Above all, as a bulwark against fascism, led for many years almost exclusively by anti-Nazis, replete with books, films, theater, even the names of streets, schools and youth clubs anti-fascist in nature. This was in extreme contrast with a West German establishment whose military brass and diplomatic corps, academia, police and courts and up to the peak of the government were riddled with former Nazis, not a few of them serious criminals. In 1961 when the Wall was built they were still to a remarkable degree in leadership. When the Wall came down in 1989 most old Nazis were retired or dead, but the giant concerns, trusts and banks which built up Hitler and made billions from his war – and hundred thousands of slave laborers – were for the most part still powerful. When the Wall went down they swarmed back to East Germany, and beyond – the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania. Their army and navy, built by war criminals, still led by militarists, was no longer blocked by the GDR and was maneuvering or fighting in parts of Africa, the Near east, Afghanistan. Two wars were waged since the Wall went down. And while the GDR had aided Allende, Vietnam, Algeria, Nicaragua, the ANC and SWAPO of southern Africa, the Federal Republic was always on the other side.

Yes, the euphoria of the common people who always suffer from the deeds of the big shots was understandable. But today in all Germany wealthy men in towering skyscrapers coolly decide the fates of tens of thousands: fire 3,000 here, 10,000 there, move this factory a thousand miles eastward, close that one. It is as if they were playing some gigantic Monopoly game. Nokia, Opel-GM, Siemens, pharma firms, weapons makers: to a great extent they rule the roost, more than ever with the newest German government, despite its sweet smiles about Freedom and the Wall.

But isn’t there just a note of worry in their declamations? The latest crisis, by no means cured, is making some people think a bit more carefully. Some of them even spite the media and the pronouncements and vote for a party which calls for re-thinking, sometimes even for socialism. Not the same as in the GDR with its many weaknesses, but a state no longer ruled by the Monopoly men in their skyscrapers. Perhaps the ingenious domino ceremonies and slightly soggy fireworks in their insistence on “We are the greatest” reflect these very worries.

Photo: / CC BY-SA 2.0