Beyond the Wall: Berlin

Nearly 17 years after the wall came down, Berliners are still trying to escape its shadow

Since Berliners toppled the wall, construction has reshaped the city. (Scott S. Warren)
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When the East finally imploded, Wessis filled the vacuum with a speed and thoroughness that, to many easterners, smacked of colonization, even conquest. In Berlin, this process was particularly graphic. Westerners took over top posts in East Berlin’s hospitals and universities, imposed western taxes and laws and introduced western textbooks in schools. Streets and squares once named for Marxist heroes were rebaptized, socialist statues were toppled and iconic buildings of East Berlin were condemned and demolished. Along the wall, the monuments to fallen border guards were swiftly removed. But West Berlin’s buildings and monuments still stand. So do the memorials along the wall to the 150 East Germans killed while trying to escape to the other side. Easterners these days have little choice but to acknowledge the existence of the West. Westerners still appear bent on denying that East Berlin ever was.

Yet the Ossis are still here. As the architectural symbols of East Berlin have fallen to the wrecking ball, the Ossis have protested, sometimes with a force that betrays the tensions in this schizophrenic city. And Ossis of radically different backgrounds frequently express mistrust of the values of modern-day Berlin, a city whose future they feel powerless to shape. “Unfortunately, East Germany failed utterly to live up to its ideals,” said Markus Wolf, the 82-year-old former head of the dreaded Stasi, East Germany’s secret state police. “But for all the shadowy sides, we had a vision of a more just society, an aim of solidarity, trustworthiness, loyalty and friendship. These public ideals are absent today.” For me, his words had the ring of apparatchik rhetoric until I heard them again from Wolf’s polar opposite. “It’s good to encourage a competitive spirit, but not at the expense of the common good,” said 43-year-old novelist Ingo Schulze, one of Germany’s foremost writers, whose books are steeped in the sorrow and disorientation that the Stasi and other organs of state repression helped to create. “Obviously, I’m happy that the wall is gone, but that doesn’t mean we’re living in the best of all possible worlds.” Christian Awe, one of the artists I met at DNA, was 11 when the wall fell, so his memories of East Berlin are less political and more personal. “Back then the aim was to excel for your community, your school, your group, not purely for individual achievement. Today you must be the best, first, greatest, get the best job, have as many lovers as you can.”

These are the voices of a lost Berlin, citizens of a city that vanished the night the wall fell, who are still searching for a homeland. They speak of great gains but also of a loss that is central to life in Berlin, where on the surface the past can be swept away in a handful of years, but whose foundations lie as deep and immovable as a bunker.

As the last fragments of the wall are torn down or weather away, a few leading Berliners have proposed erecting a new memorial on Bernauerstrasse, in north-central Berlin. Perhaps the time has come for such a thing. “We want to make an attempt, within the limits of the possible, to reconstruct a couple hundred meters of the wall,” Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit told me, “so that one can get a little bit of an idea of it.”

Few of Wowereit’s fellow citizens support his plan, however. Most Ossis and Wessis, for all their differences, were overjoyed at the wall’s obliteration and still feel that it deserves no commemoration. Yet oddly, the explanations they usually give for opposing a memorial are mistaken. Most say the wall could never have been preserved, because it was swept away by the jubilant, hammer-wielding hordes shortly after November 9, 1989. In fact, the bulk of the demolition was done later, by 300 East German border police and 600 West German soldiers, working with bulldozers, backhoes and cranes; it was not a spontaneous act of self-liberation, therefore, but a joint project of two states. With a similar slip of memory, many Berliners say the wall is unworthy of remembrance because it was imposed on them by the Russians. Actually, East German leaders lobbied Khrushchev for years to let them build the wall, and it was Germans who manned the guard towers, Germans who shot to kill. If Berliners don’t want a wall memorial, perhaps they still can’t see the wall for what it truly was.

When the few proponents of a memorial describe what it would mean, they reveal the most pernicious misconception of all. “The central aim will be to commemorate the victims of the wall and the division of Berlin,” Mayor Wowereit said, “particularly those people who died during attempts to escape, and fell victim to the repressive structure of the dictatorship.” Yet surely a wall memorial would also commemorate the millions who never approached the barrier, and went about their cramped lives amid the soft-coal fogs and swirling suspicions of East Germany. It would remind Berliners not to deny but to accept their former divisions, perhaps even celebrate the diversity that the wall, paradoxically, has wrought. And it would warn against the longing for a monolithic unity that many Germans now feel, a longing that in the past has led to some of the darkest moments in their history. When Berliners can build such a memorial to their wall—without victors or vanquished, without scapegoats—they may also be able to see the present with a stranger’s eyes, recognizing not only the hardships of the past tumultuous 15 years but also the remarkable new city they are building.


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