2 Germanys struggle under 1 flag; Iron Curtain still shadows east, west after decade

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A1

BERLIN — It is the first question any tourist here asks: Where was The Wall?

Driving through the Mitte district of Berlin, taxi driver Ranier Quambusch points to a thin line of cobblestones snaking through a city street, about two feet from the curb. “There it is,” he said. “That was the big bad Berlin Wall.”

When the wall came down in 1989, Berlin officials had to find a way to deal with suddenly open spaces that cut a gash through the middle of the city. In some places, buildings went up; in others, parks were opened.

On this particular stretch, the wall’s location was integrated into a street, with the cobblestones added as a reminder of what once stood there. On either side are sleek new office buildings and construction crews working on putting up more.

Now, on the line that once divided two global empires, a line of tiny two-door cars sits.

“They’re the real winners of the Cold War,” Mr. Quambusch said. “They got a parking space.”

Tuesday is the 10th anniversary of the wall’s fall. For nearly three decades, the wall was the most visible reminder of the planet’s ideological divide, the metaphorical “Iron Curtain” made real.

When, in a rush of rejoicing, the wall came down, Germans both East and West looked forward to a dynamic future, a united powerhouse confidently pushing ahead in the world. And while Germany is the largest economy in Europe and has become a significant global player, it still is dealing with the pains of reunification.

For every newly vibrant stretch of the former East Berlin – flush with coffee-shop urbanism and cosmopolitan apartment life – plenty of places still have the dull, depressing gloom of old socialism. Growing groups of neo-Nazi skinheads threaten immigrants and minorities there.

The East and West often feel estranged from one another, and the optimism of 1989 has been replaced with the realities of assembling one nation from two. Like much of the rest of the former Warsaw Pact countries, the former East Germany has realized that the end of the Cold War didn’t end all its problems.

“There’s still a lot of differences between West and East,” said Curt Heissig, who left a rundown part of East Berlin and now makes drinks at an upscale bar in the West. “It’s like people speak a different language sometimes. It will take a lot to adjust.”

Berlin’s division dates back to the aftermath of its lowest moment, the dictatorship of Hitler and the Nazis. When the Allies finally reached Berlin, the city was divided into four sectors, one each controlled by France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. With the start of the Cold War, it became a perfect staging ground for the superpowers to antagonize one another.

First, in 1948, the Soviet Union cut off all land transportation links from West Berlin through communist East Germany, isolating the city from the West and forcing an 11-month airlift of fuel and food. Then, in 1961, came the most dramatic move: the wall.

Fernand Auberjonois, who was then The Blade’s European correspondent based in London, was in Berlin on the morning the wall went up, Aug. 13, 1961.

“I was there to do another story when it went up,” Mr. Auberjonois, 89, remembered. “At first, it was just a barbed-wire fence. Anything could have rolled right over it. I thought it might just be symbolic, as propaganda.”

But within a week, it was clear the fence was becoming a wall. “I remember one of the other reporters coming to get us early in the morning and saying, ‘Something is going on at the fence,'” Mr. Auberjonois said. “We went down to the border, and there were cranes mounted on trucks putting up slabs of concrete.”

Over the years, the wall grew stronger still, with electrified fences and minefields. Buildings along the wall had their windows bricked up to prevent anyone from leaping over. Steel stakes were planted in the ground along potential escape routes; Germans nicknamed them “Stalin’s Grass.”

The East German government called the wall the “Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier,” but in truth it would have done little to protect the East from the West. But it did stop the flow of East Germans to the West. In the days before the wall went up, 1,500 easterners were moving west every day.

The wall didn’t just divide the city geographically, it created a cultural and economic gap. Western powers saw West Berlin as an island of capitalism in the communist East and pumped millions into the city to make it a showcase for Western money. Storefronts hawked the finest luxury goods; the Kufurstendamm strip became the Berlin equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Meanwhile, the East stuck to boxy, dirty socialist architecture, with depressing street scenes and smoke-belching factories. The division between the two cities was clear from the air. Even the wall’s two sides showed the gap: the East guarded by armed men in uniforms, the West covered in colorful graffiti and the work of political artists.

Even with the wall, East Germans tried to escape, often by scaling the wall or tunneling under it. In all, 239 East Germans were killed trying to flee. An eastern border guard was given a holiday on the Baltic for every escapee he shot.

But 5,043 managed to make it across the border.

The beginning of the end came in May, 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev made a state visit to West Germany and informed Chancellor Helmut Kohl that the Soviet Union would no longer use force to prevent democratization in its satellite states in eastern Europe.

“We could feel the change coming,” said Oskar Wohlrabe, then an East German factory worker. “The direction was changing, and it couldn’t be stopped.”

That month, Hungary opened up its border to Austria. Thousands of East Germans realized that they could travel freely to the communist country of Hungary, cross the border into free Austria, and then reach West Germany. Within six months, 220,000 East Germans had made the trip.

In a last-ditch attempt to save the government, East German leaders decided to allow free travel. On Nov. 9, shortly before 7 p.m., Gunther Schabowski, a member of the Politburo, announced that the border to West Berlin would be opening. The reform was supposed to be phased in over some time, but Mr. Schabowski mistakenly said the border would open “immediately.”

All across the city, people heard about the change and rushed to the wall. Guards had not been given instructions on what to do, but several decided to let people through. In the next few hours, the wall became a relic of the past, and Berlin became the site of the world’s biggest party. As Americans watched on television, the verdict was almost unanimous: Symbolically at least, the Cold War was over.

“It was amazing,” said Mr. Wohlrabe, who was at the wall that night. “Everyone was excited, jumping around, hugging people they never knew. It was like the whole place was drunk. Everybody was so happy.”

Angelika Wohlrabe, then his girlfriend and now his wife, was with him. “We went around to all the shops and looked in the windows at all the West had,” she said. “People thought that the wall would be there for their children and their grandchildren and that it would always be there. It was magic. It was real magic.”

Germany’s national high lasted for about a year. After the wall tumbled, the nation’s thoughts turned to reunification. On Oct. 3, 1990, East and West officially were united into one Germany.

Then came the hard part, the part with which Germany is still struggling: making that unification more than just official.

“The Ossies [easterners] don’t understand how to run their land,” said Mr. Quambusch, the Wessie [Westerner] taxi driver. “I feel a lot more in common with young Italians, Americans, or French than with these people in my own country. It will take generations for them to learn.”

Berlin is the centerpiece of Germany’s struggle for unity. Like the entire country’s, the city’s reconstruction has been a mix of unrelenting optimism and disheartening division.

When the wall came down, enormous swaths of prime property in the middle of Berlin suddenly was open to development. City planners set about hurriedly trying to determine how Berlin would be rebuilt.

(The last time someone tried to plan a new Berlin was before in the 1930s, when Hitler had his architect, Albert Speer, completely redesign the city, renamed Germania, along a north-south axis, with monuments of a truly Reich size, such as a 700-foot dome and a memorial arch twice the size of the Arc de Triomphe. Speer had a chance to start work on his plan – at least the parts that involved tearing down buildings in Jewish neighborhoods – until World War II interrupted his plans.)

The result has been the largest construction site in Europe and the second-largest in the world only to Shanghai. From the roof of any tall building in Berlin, you can count the huge construction cranes that dot the skyline, with more than a hundred visible from some vantage points. The German press has reported that there were more than 700 cranes in the city at one point.

Certain districts of East Berlin, such as the newly hip Prenzlauer Berg, have seen huge reconstruction efforts, with fancy new stores, luxury apartments, and office complexes. This summer, the German government moved its capital from sleepy Bonn to Berlin, creating a rush on property for the thousands of bureaucrats, officials, and lobbyists moving to the new capital.

But some districts still look out of sorts, with socialist architecture, grimy buildings, and the depressing shadow of the East.

“It makes you sad to be in some of the places in the East,” said Mr. Heissig, who recently moved from his home in grim, decaying Marzahn to the West. “Everything is so decayed.”

East and West Berlin are still quite different but not in the way they used to be. In the days of the wall, the capitalist playland of the West stopped at the wall; a few feet away was the sad grayness.

Now, the area just across from the wall is filled with the fresh cleanliness of newly constructed buildings, along with a few bustling shopping districts. The sad grayness is still there, but it’s been pushed back a bit farther into the East.

Still, nostalgia for the old eastern way of life lives on among some. Not so much among the former East Germans, but among young Wessies who latch onto Ossie kitsch. Dussman, a large bookstore in downtown Berlin, has a separate room that does a brisk business in “Ostalgie”: Ossie nostalgia. In the middle of a completely modern three-story store selling books, compact discs, and DVDs, you can buy a 30-year-old dusty copy of Das Kapital or the collected works of Marx and Engels.

“It’s cool to have these Ossie things,” said Martin Erde, a 22-year-old wearing a stylish leather jacket and a nose stud in the Ostalgie room. He did say, however, that he’d stop short of getting a Trabant, the famously clunky plastic-body car of East Germany.

The idea of celebrating any part of German history may seem unusual to a 20th-century observer, considering the country’s starring role in two world wars and the deaths of tens of millions.

Still, Berlin has a big party planned for Tuesday, the wall anniversary, complete with a rock concert at the Brandenburg Gate and speeches by Mr. Gorbachev and former President George Bush.

But Nov. 9 is not just the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise. Tuesday is the 61st anniversary of Kristallnacht, one of the first bursts of organized terror from Hitler’s Nazis. On Nov. 9, 1938, rampaging mobs roamed the streets of Germany, attacking Jews, burning their homes, and destroying their synagogues. In the end, at least 96 Jews were killed, 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, and 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to some of Hitler’s first concentration camps.

And the significance of Nov. 9 doesn’t end there. It was on that day in 1918 when Kaiser Wilhelm II, his nation crushed in World War I, was forced to abdicate and the Weimar Republic was declared.

It was this event, many scholars believe, that caused a young Hitler to decide to eradicate the Jews, who he held responsible for Germany’s defeat.

In 1939, Hitler wrote the foreign minister of the Czech government: “We are going to destroy the Jews. They are not going to get away with what they did on Nov. 9, 1918. The day of reckoning has come.”

That is the difficulty inherent in celebrating Germany history: How to separate the good from the bad; how to evoke national pride without reviving the totalitarian past.

Initially, the biggest problems with integrating the East were economic. East Germany was years behind the West in its industry, its infrastructure, and in the training of its workers. Thrown into a single economic system with West Germany – and, through the European Union, with all of western Europe – the East simply wasn’t able to compete.

Within a year of reunification, economic output in the East fell 30 per cent. Eastern plants were less than a third as efficient as their counterparts in the West. In four years, 14,000 state-run firms were turned over to private industry and 4,000 more liquidated.

Rebuilding the eastern economy has taken enormous amounts of money: hundreds of billions of dollars went into housing, industrial parks, environmental cleanups, telecommunications, and a myriad other areas. And that has created an enormous amount of bitterness among some in the West. But the eastern economy has made great improvements and is now stronger than any of the other former Warsaw Pact countries.

Now, the differences are less economic and more personal.

“In the United States, you had a Civil War that lasted four years, and people in your country are still working out North against South,” said Alec Hauptvogel, a shopkeeper in the Kreuzberg district of western Berlin. “You still have people with Confederate flags. In Berlin, we had the Cold War for a generation and a half, and it will be a very long time before people are actually united again.”

The country still is dealing with the psychological issues of uniting a people split for decades by a war over ideology. Among the victims: immigrants and minorities. Throughout the 1990s, the former East has seen a rebirth of far-right-wing activity, along with anti-immigrant violence often directed at Turks. One Ossie said that for every communist old man in East Germany, there’s a neo-Nazi son.

Berlin is trying its best to create a new image for itself. Despite being the largest city between Paris and Moscow, most people probably could not name a single monument in Berlin other than the wall. The future, which seemed so heavenly 10 years ago, is more cloudy now.

“Rebuilding takes a long time,” Mr. Quambusch said. “Before, the two sides were going in different directions, because the governments made them. But now, the division is personal, and that makes it harder to put the country back together.”