I was just a month past 8 years old when the Berlin Wall came down 25 years ago today—November 9, 1989. I remember it but vaguely, and what I do remember probably has to do with the fact that my father was and remains in the world-affairs business, so to speak. Little did I know at the time that I would go on to major in German, intern for the German Marshall Fund in Washington, spend my senior college year studying in Freiberg, and end up living in Berlin with my wife and 2-year old son for the foreseeable future.Berlin is an exceptional city these days, as it was reputed to have been in the past. I cannot put my finger on exactly why this is, but I suspect that it has something to do with the contrast between the dynamism of Berliners and a certain temperamental quality many of them share, one that seems to extend beyond all class and ethnic barriers, that one might call geschlossen (closed). Perhaps this has something to do with the weather here on the Prussian plain, where the autumn already presages a winter of cold winds and iron dome skies. Perhaps it hurts one’s chilled face too much to talk beyond absolute necessity, or even smile.Of course, the silver-anniversary itself is being celebrated with no lack of pomp and grandiosity on the part of the city government, with art installations, commemorative concerts, and speeches, even amid a sense of ongoing economic sluggishness and political drama in the wake of the retirement of the city’s longtime mayor—Klaus Wowereit. While government here, municipal and national, is endlessly interesting, so are people. I have therefore been determined to get Berliners to talk about the wall that divided their city for 28 years. I asked a range of Berliners, and some others, both in person and via the internet (Reddit and Facebook mostly), three questions in an effort to get a sense of the range of sentiment living below the official celebrations. I crafted the questions with some deliberate ambiguity so as to allow people to pour whatever they wished to express into them: (1) How do you feel about the coming anniversary?; (2) Have your expectations for Germany and Berlin in the wake of the Wall’s fall been fulfilled? Or are you dissatisfied in some way?; and (3) What do you expect from the next 25 years in the city and the country?I expected a certain amount of difficulty, since Berliners are not only “closed” but also not particularly political. My sense is that most Germans long to escape the political, seeing politics mainly as a source of trouble and frustration. I also expected wide variation in the tone of responses among different age cohorts, especially between those, like me, who were not adults in November 1989, and those who were. Some of my expectations panned out; the younger set was decidedly more sedate about the fall of the wall; indeed, a few seemed not even to really know what I was asking about. But even many older Berliners held their emotions firmly in check, despite (or maybe because) their knowing that I, despite my practically accentless German, was not really one of them. But surprises lurked here and there in the responses, as well. So listen in, please, to what I found.(1) “Was denken Sie/ wie fühlen Sie anlässich des 25ten-Jahrestags des Mauerfalls?”
[What do you think/how do you feel on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall?]The characteristic response I got from the younger set went something like this: “Normale Weise denke ich nicht darüber nach.” (“Normally I don’t think very much about it.”) While admitting that they “get the feeling” that their parents were excited at the time by the way they still talk about it, they simply don’t get it. A few younger Berliners claimed that “the old borders (are) still visible in statistics but not in the streets”, by which they mean in part that some eastern parts of the city are still a bit more run-down and so cheaper to live in, not to mention the socio-economic and socio-cultural divides that keep some communities distant. One 24-year old via Reddit.com/r/Deutschland did offer that she “sometimes tears up a bit because of all the injustice that happened there [in the GDR]. So I’m glad that it’s gone now.”A charming young father, approximately 30 years of age, who is raising his son in the same Berlin neighborhood (Schöneberg) he was raised in, admitted rather curtly (as Germans tend to do) that he, too, “ist nicht so aufgeregt über das kommende Jubiläum” (“not so excited about the coming anniversary”). He admitted candidly that, at the time, the only thing that grabbed his attention were the Russian tanks driving through the city on their way out. Because his only real memories came from what his teachers said in the weeks that followed, this anniversary seemed less significant to him than it might be for those who were really “of an age to be aware of it at the time.” He speculated further that in a few years, when the wall will have been gone as long as it stood, “vielleicht dann wäre etwas” (“maybe that would be something”).A 34-year old fellow from Oberpfalz in Bavaria, who I ran into downtown one day, dredged up an automotive memory. “I found it funny to see all the little Trabants and Wartburgs driving through our village . . . that needed oil/gasoline mixture like lawnmowers.” Finally getting around to answering the question, this Bavarian millennial said of the wall’s fall that “it was a good thing, but I have no passionate feelings about it, no tears of joy coming to my eyes when I think about it.”The only person I spoke with from the former East who had anything of special interest to say was too young—just 31 years old—to have been fully a part of the excitement in 1989. But unlike the rest of the demographic, he admitted being taken aback by the anniversary: “Has it really been that long?” Upon reflection, however, he offered a rare political remark: “Germany has achieved much over the past quarter century. I love the fact that reunification has made us Europe’s powerhouse instead of a plaything between the United States and Russia.”Those of a more advance age naturally took a different attitude. One 56-year old Berliner’s remark was fairly typical: “To this day I still feel a deep satisfaction that (it) could be achieved by peaceful means. . . . It remains in my thinking a miracle that 28 years of separation were swiped out overnight without a single shot being fired.” Seemingly as exuberant as the day the wall fell, he gushed about how “a whole new horizon opened up when the Iron Curtain was lifted”, and how he took full advantage of it. While those from the East rushed West, he of the West went to East to see for himself what the Communist workers’ paradise looked like. It was like going from Technicolor into black-and-white, or really mostly gray.One past-65-year old woman on the subway with whom I spoke commented on how every anniversary of the wall’s fall reminds her of her “Oma” (grandmother). Oma lived in the Soviet section, while she and her parents lived in the British zone. She recounted 28 years of bi-monthly crossings, and the relief she felt when it was over and everyone could come and go as they pleased. She seemed to have a hard time, however, getting past the many injustices suffered by all parties, East and West. As to the 25th anniversary, she still felt an overwhelming joy on a personal level. But when she pondered the larger picture, her thoughts quickly turned to memories of the aftermath: the political violence, the uncertainties, the unemployment and the shattered hopes of many who could not adjust to the new opportunities.More than anything, I sensed in her an unease regarding whether the anniversary should be celebrated as planned, given that it would cost so much at a time when the city was in such dire financial straights. Berliners can be frugal-minded. Austerity seems to make them feel heroic, whether it makes macroeconomic sense or not.More typical was the remark of a 42-year old man I talked with near one of Berlin’s many beautiful parks and playgrounds. “Es berührt mich nicht wirklich. Schön für die Ostdeutschen das sie jetzt auch Bananen haben, aber abgesehen vom Solidaritätszuschlag hat die Wiedervereinigung keinen direkten Einfluss auf mein Leben.” (”It doesn’t really move me. Sure, it’s nice that the East Germans also have bananas now, but other than the Solidarity Surcharge [tax], the Reunification has had no direct impact on my life.”)Even more typical is the comment of a 50-year old female Berliner: “Ich kann nicht darüber nach denken, obwohl ich doch schockiert bin, dass es so lang gewesen ist…ich meine, ich muss bloss mein Leben noch weiterführen, oder?” (”I can’t dwell on it, even though I really am shocked that it has been so long. . . . I mean, I must keep on living, right?”) To make things even more perfectly Berliner, she finished her thought by remarking, almost nostalgically, “I guess that’s how we lived while the wall still stood, so it makes sense to just keep on living.”(2) “Inwiefern sind ihre Erwartungen nach der Öffnung der Mauer in den letzten 25 Jahren erfüllt oder enttäuscht worden?”
[Were your expectations after the opening of the Wall fulfilled or disappointed in the last 25 years?]Many of the millennials with whom I spoke were too young to have any political or social expectations after the opening of the wall. Most were upfront about never having had any such thoughts, although one did speculate—though he hadn’t been born—that, “people were too optimistic.” (How very German.) One 42-year old guy told me, again rather frankly, that he was more concerned with his genitals and didn’t really understand or care about the historical significance of the wall or of reunification.” But, then again, his Reddit.com handle was “FishInhaleTheirPee.”Most of the comments I mined about expectations had to do with prejudice, unemployment and the cost of opening the wall and reunifying the nation. That older women I spoke with on the subway was explicit about how people who had worked their whole lives in East Germany were fired unceremoniously in the weeks following the opening, even well before actual reunification. Many in the former East expected immediate changes for better work, a better standard of living, a new life, but when that didn’t really happen so fast, disappointment set it. The typical reaction, and the typical memory, was characterized by stoicism. “What could we do? There was no reason to sit around hoping for something to happen; we had to keep on living.”Of those old enough to remember the event and its aftermath, the problems seemed to trump the achievements. “There was a huge problem with prejudice”, said one middle-aged former Easterner. “Easterners were all seen as ‘lazy and dumb’ by Westerners, and Westerners were all seen as ‘greedy, antisocial and untrustworthy’ by Easterners.” He continued, unbidden I might add:
Both may have had a point in the early 1990s. Us ‘ossis’ [“oh-sees,” aka, Easterners] were pretty naive back then, and we mainly got screwed over by the new [capitalist] system multiple times. Not many needed to learn how to use their elbows in society, because it wasn’t necessary. Local politicians in the East blamed the greedy Westerners, but the problem was the same gang of bankers and high-profile businessmen who are bleeding us out right now, and probably in the future. Westerners were pissed because they now had to pay the “Soli” to rebuild the East, and realized that it was not as cheap as Helmut Kohl promised them. Not many Westerners, still today, know that everyone in Germany, including the Ossis, had to pay and still has to pay Soli.
The complaints and bitterness did not stop there. One 31-year old argued that most of the money collected in the name of reunification in the early 1990s was used to finance the logistical support, managed by the Bundeswehr, for the first Gulf War. He told me, “I just had to explain that to a workmate from Hannover a few weeks ago.” I wanted to tell him that this was simply untrue, but interviewers are supposed to keep their own views to themselves, and so I did.Another fellow recalled how irritated a lot of people became when several Western companies closed their doors in what had been West Germany to take advantage of cheaper labor costs in the former East. But at least some people passed a certain age formed a smile on their faces when they heard this question. “My expectations were fulfilled in many ways”, said one middle-aged man.
The many problems the Eastern federal states [Landeren] underwent positive development despite all the obstacles. Many things remain to be tackled or continued, but comparing pictures of 25 years ago and today shows what has been achieved. Personally, my home city became a normal city again, with a countryside that can be visited any time without hassle. For a former West Berliner like me, who felt 28 years of being fenced in with the GDR all around me, this was a true psychological liberation. Of course, we lived a good life in West Berlin with the Western Allies, but it was for a long time far from normality. Every time I cross the city limits, to this very day, I remember that there was a time when the world ended here with four meters of concrete.
I wanted to buy this guy a beer.(3) Was wird Ihrer Meinung Nach die Entwicklung der nächsten 25 Jahre bringen oder sollte sie bringen?
[What, in your opinion, will—or should—the next 25 years of development include?]Almost all of those surveyed answered this question by noting that unification was an ongoing process. Most people mentioned the Solidarity tax and the continuing inequality of wages, pensions, and so forth. The tone was resolutely bitter, almost as if the situation before the wall fell was somehow better than the situation since; maybe it was misplaced nostalgia, but that might just be a Berliner thing.Remarkably enough, FishInhaleTheirPee offered up perhaps the most thoughtful remark, despite a conspiratorial flourish at the end of his comment:
The “Wall in the Head” has to go. The Wall was built in ‘61, and was torn down in ’89—that’s 28 years. Think about it: Three years from now the wall will be gone longer then it was there, but people still tend to separate into “them-versus-us” categories, and our government helps to perpetuate the distinction. We still have different salaries in East and West; we still have different statistics for East and West; we still have different child support levels in East and West; we still have different retirement accounts. Why is an East German pensioner or an East German child born after 1989 worth less then a child born in the West? As long as this separation is written into our laws, people will think in these categories. Maybe this is the actual government plan, to really get a grip on people though divide et empera.
Others also mentioned the psychological hangover of the Cold War era in their hopes for the next 25 years. One 42-year old said: “Weiterer abbau der mauer in den köpfen, abschaffung des soli und vollständige lohnangleichung.” (“Further destruction of the walls in peoples’ heads, abolition of the solidarity tax and complete wage-equality [between the former East and West].”) A 34-year old was more curt: “Dunno dude. Hopefully the East gets stronger economically, that’s all.” A 60-something-year old Berliner hoped for “more equality between people and better education.”As one can gather from these comments, most Berliners had rather little to say. This is not like striking up a conversation with people in Brazil, India or Israel—three other places I have also lived—where your problem is usually getting people to slow down or shut up. Withal, a few folks did hold forth for more than a sentence fragment. “My hope”, said the fellow to whom I offered a beer, “is that the differences (mainly economic) between the old and the new Federal States will continue to fade, that the GDR will be remembered as a result of World War II and the ensuing Cold War as a wound self-inflicted by Germany on Germany, but that was an acute burden to only a part of the German population. I also hope that tendencies to fall into a weird kind of nostalgia concerning the GDR will disappear. I hated that state to the bone and I am very happy that it has become a footnote of history.”Of the more extended comments, most were more personal than political, as may be expected. Indeed, in all my conversations no one dwelled on abstract ideological issues. No one mentioned Nikita Khrushchev or even called Russia the Soviet Union. A few people connected the 28-year period of the Wall with the outcome of World War II, but no one mentioned the Nazis. Far more typical is what one man told me:
I am 58 now, so I was therefore 5 years old when the wall went up in 1961. One of my earliest memories is of a stroll through Brandenburg Gate with my father when it was still open. It was a great feeling 28 years later, just before Christmas 1989, when the crossing at Pariser Platz was opened and we could repeat that walk. It felt like a miracle.
Another man, named Peter, offered a condensed time capsule and extended an invitation:
I was born and raised, and I am a convinced Citizen of Berlin. Actually, I feel myself more a Berliner than a German. Let me tell you where I was on November 9, 1989. I was right there on the bridge at Bornholmer Straße, around 10.00 pm, watching a flood of East Berliners flocking across at the first opened crossing. We picked up some Easterners that night and had a great night on Kurfürstendamm. If you are interested, join me this year on November 9th same time, same place, because I certainly will be there.
I may just do that.