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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Night had fallen by the time I returned to the party at the Brandenburg Gate. People had drunk copious quantities of beer since morning but had grown no merrier. Berliners had lived with the wall for three generations and could not be expected to forget it as easily as one shakes off a nightmare. During the cold war, doctors had identified a range of anxieties and phobias they called Mauerkrankheit (“wall sickness”) on both sides of the divide, and suicide in West Berlin was twice as frequent as in other West German cities. How deeply in the minds of most Berliners do the wall’s foundations still lie?

The crowd fell silent as a Chinese woman in a white silk gown raised a cleaver and slammed it down on the dark brown hand resting on the table before her, severing the index finger. With fierce chops she amputated the other digits and put them on a plate, which she passed among the applauding onlookers. I took the beautifully shaped thumb and bit off a chunk. The dark chocolate was delicious.

This is DNA, one of the many galleries on the Auguststrasse, heart of Berlin’s flourishing contemporary art scene, where most facades have just been restored, but World War II bullet holes and bombed-out lots still lend a certain edginess. DNA’s art is vintage Berlin: quirky, theatrical and as dark as the edible hand-sculptures by Ping Qiu.

Some 1,500 cultural events take place each day in Berlin, thanks to artists like Ping Qiu and her DNA colleagues, who live and make art in the uninhabited buildings in the former eastern sector that are inconceivably large, cheap and central by the standards of any other European capital. They have studios in disused hat factories and industrial bakeries, and hold exhibitions in the numerous air-raid bunkers that still dot the Berlin subsoil. In fact, by splitting the city into two independent halves that actively financed their own venues, the wall fostered Berlin’s culture long before it fell.

The post-wall construction boom has also brought many of the world’s leading architects to Berlin. The city’s residents are deeply involved in this reconstruction process. “You could spend 300 days a year in public discussion about urban planning,” says Michael S. Cullen, a building historian and the world’s leading authority on the Reichstag, who has lived in Berlin since 1964. The attention to art and architecture is what many residents love best about their city. “Berlin is one of the few places I know where ideas can make a concrete difference in daily life,” says philosopher Susan Neiman, head of a think tank, the Einstein Forum.

The wall has also molded Berlin’s populace. The wall caused a sudden labor shortage in both halves of the city when it was erected in 1961, and invited substitute workers poured in. (West Berlin drew from Turkey and other Mediterranean countries; East Berlin from North Vietnam, Cuba and other Communist nations.) People from more than 180 nations live in Berlin. And since the wall fell, tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants—drawn by Berlin’s security, cosmopolitanism, low rents and the incentives the reunited city has extended to all Jews and their descendants displaced by the Holocaust—have streamed to Berlin, most from the former Soviet Union. Yiddish theaters and kosher restaurants thrive in the city, and the mournful sounds of klezmer music can be heard again in the streets after a silence of 70 years.

Today many of Berlin’s Jews live in Russian-speaking enclaves cut off from mainstream society. Periodic acts of anti-Semitism by small but vociferous groups of right-wing extremists have further emphasized the isolation, as have the resulting 24-hour police guards at Jewish community centers and synagogues with their imposing security walls. Many members of Berlin’s 150,000-strong Turkish community live in ethnic ghettos with hardly a word of German. The insularity of Berlin’s Muslims has been highlighted of late by a string of six so-called “honor killings” of Muslim women by relatives who believed the victims’ Western lifestyles had stained their families’ honor. Sarmad Hussain, a German-born Muslim who is a parliamentary adviser in Berlin, says the city’s version of multiculturalism is less melting pot than a relatively benign form of apartheid. “We in Berlin,” he says, “should benefit from all this diversity.” But with most ethnic groups sticking to themselves, he adds: “We don’t.”

Back in 1981, when the wall seemed eternal, Berlin novelist Peter Schneider observed how fundamentally the two opposing social systems of East and West had shaped their citizens, and mused on the enormous difficulties that any attempt at reunification would meet. “It will take us longer to tear down the Mauer im Kopf (‘Wall in the head’),” he wrote, “than any wrecking company will need to remove the Wall we can see.” Schneider’s words proved prophetic. Berlin’s greatest challenge lies within: to unite those two radically different races of Berliners who, on the night of November 9, 1989, were magically converted—at least on paper—from bitter enemies to compatriots.

Like the traces of the wall itself, the differences between Ossi (East Berliners) and Wessi (West Berliners) have faded. “At first you could recognize the Ossis easily from their marble-washed jeans straight from Siberia or China,” says Michael Cullen. “But even today I can usually recognize them by their clothes, comportment, posture and their slightly downtrodden air.” Also, the two groups shop at different stores, smoke different brands of cigarettes, vote for different political parties and read different newspapers—Ossis, their beloved Berliner Zeitung, Wessis, the Tagespiegel and Berliner Morgenpost. By and large they have remained in their original neighborhoods. Ossis are frequently paid less and required to work more hours in the same job, and are more likely to be unemployed.

All the strains of cold war Europe and of divided Germany were concentrated in one city, along the fault line of the wall, where rival geopolitical systems ground together with tectonic force. On both sides, the reaction was negation. West Germany never recognized East Germany as a nation, nor the wall as a legal border. Eastern maps of Berlin depicted the city beyond the wall as a featureless void, without streets or buildings. Each side built a city in its own image: East Berlin erected towering statues to Marxist heroes and raised signature socialist buildings such as the Palast der Republik, the parliament headquarters. (Demolition was begun earlier this year to make way for a replica of a castle that stood on the spot until 1950.) West Berlin built temples to capitalism on the glittering Kurfürstendamm, such as the Europa Center office tower crowned by a revolving Mercedes emblem.

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