A Cry for Freedom

The collapse of the Berlin Wall was the ultimate display of "people power", but did German reunification work?

William Horsley

It was not about bananas — which were unavailable in East Germany — or Western cars or shopping trips to Frankfurt. It was about freedom. To gain their freedom, East Germans took great personal risks and rose up in 1989 against their communist police state. And they liberated themselves, which is more than can be claimed by Germans who survived the Third Reich and lived in the free and prosperous West through the Cold War.

That assessment, in a new book entitled Endspiel (Endgame), by the East German-born historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, reflects a more positive re-evaluation in Germany about the “people power” revolution of 20 years ago, compared to the negative stereotypes that some West Germans have clung to of their Eastern cousins as scroungers, moaners or prisoners of their stale old Marxist ideology. 

This new perspective is not a whitewash of the Stasi state, whose vicious methods of repression are on show in two different museums in Berlin. It is, though, a recognition that the 40 years of the GDR’s existence are part of Germany’s shared and jagged history. And it reflects the inescapable fact that the two Germanys are now one, so the failures as well as the success of efforts to integrate the East into the Federal Republic are the joint responsibility of both societies, not the fault of some uniquely stubborn “wall in the mind” among people of the former GDR.

So did German reunification work? Has it even happened yet? It began disastrously, with economic collapse, mass unemployment, and what easterners felt was a humiliating form of political colonisation. Helmut Kohl’s promise of “blossoming landscapes” soon came to sound like an insult: when he first returned to the Eastern cathedral city of Erfurt as the Chancellor of Unification in April 1991, he was pelted by angry locals with eggs and tomatoes. 

Today, though, Berlin is a showcase for the success of unification. The cosmopolitan cafés of Gendarmenmarkt, the shift of the capital’s centre of gravity eastwards to Alexanderplatz, and the reelection of Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor from the East, as the leader of united Germany — all seem to point to that happy conclusion. World leaders will come to Berlin to join the 20-year celebrations.

But the party mood is not shared by all. An opinion poll in Der Spiegel two years ago found that if the Berlin Wall were rebuilt, more than a third of Germans born in the East would still choose to live there. And West German politicians will recall, if they are honest, that before the Wall came down, they had no thought at all of unification. When the Wall was breached, Helmut Kohl quickly offered the D-mark and unification on his own terms, to stem the flood of people threatening to come west.

Attitudes today are largely a matter of generations. But it is striking that nearly all those who lived in the failed “workers’ paradise” of East Germany speak of feeling some common bond with others who shared the experience. They liked the health care, stability and job security. And most of those who took part in the church protests, and the mass Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and Berlin, did not do so to become an adjunct to West Germany. Their goal was to reform their own socialist system from the bottom up.

Jens Reich, the eminent scientist and thinker who was thrown into the limelight as the voice of the civil rights movement New Forum, recently returned to the Zionskirche, the East Berlin church which was a centre of the grassroots protest under siege for many days by the Stasi and riot police. There he recalled the outburst of spontaneous protests by people all over the GDR over many months. They demanded an end to deadly environmental pollution, official lies and abuses of power, and finally they stood up against the threat of a Tiananmen Square-style massacre of the regime’s opponents, which luckily never happened. “The opening of the Wall was a great event,” Jens Reich said “At last, we could break free from our cage. But afterwards we expected something better.” 

The clear winners of unification are young people in the East — like 19-year-old Matthias Busch and his friends from the fashionable Prenzlauer Berg district of East Berlin, who see themselves as equal in every way to their friends from the West. Matthias says he is “thankful to live in a democracy”. He abhors the fact that people in the GDR were jailed for their opinions and he was shocked, on a school visit to a former Stasi prison, to see the evidence of torture there. “I don’t understand,” he says, “how people who lived near that place could claim they knew nothing about what took place there.” Matthias has lived for a year in the US. He wants to join the German army and study medicine there. Life in the new Germany has equipped him well for the wider world. 

But in many provincial parts of the East there has been little work since the early 1990s when most state-owned factories were closed down. Wages are still lower than in the West. Many young people have left and social alienation is rife, leading many disenchanted and ready to vote for parties of the far Right, or else for the Left Party, Die Linke, the heirs to the communists who put up the Wall. In September’s general election, Die Linke became the largest party in East Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenberg, ensuring that the East’s separate identity will again be asserted loudly in the nation as a whole.

Jutta Kramm, the Western-born deputy editor of the Berliner Zeitung, was among the crowds who danced on the Wall on that night 20 years ago when it became a relic of history. The paper was then still the official voice of the Party of Socialist Unity, the East German communist party, but it now serves readers across Berlin. To her, German unification is a work in progress. Many West Germans are still prejudiced and look down on “Ossies”. But the young East German journalists who come to work there now are flexible, well-trained and very ambitious.

 ”How long do you think it will take for them to come to terms with the legacy of the communist past?” I asked. “Sometimes I think that process has not really begun,” Jutta replied. “In West Germany, it was the 1968 student generation which first questioned the silence of their parents about Nazi times, more than 20 years after the war. Maybe it will take that long for people in the East to ask those searching questions, too.”

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