THE FALL OF THE Berlin Wall, like its construction, took place in a single night. Just as on 13 August 1961, a city and a people awoke to find themselves divided, so on the morning of 10 November 1989 that division was no more. Although how many people actually woke up to this revelation is debatable, since during that night in Berlin many had not slept a wink.
Joachim Trenkner, for instance. By then head of Current Affairs for the Berlin branch of the state-supported ARD television network Sender Freies Berlin (the Free Berlin Station), Trenker was in Warsaw, covering the West German Chancellor’s historic visit, when he heard the news from the Wall. There were no flights to Berlin until the morning, and no trains. The whole press pack was in an agony of frustration, Trenkner included. Until it occurred to him, sometime around midnight, to call up the Polish taxi driver who had been chauffeuring him and his production people around Warsaw for the past two days while they organised the live coverage. He rang the man, asked him if he had a valid passport and was willing to drive to Berlin. The answer was, yes, and yes-in fact, he would be thrilled.
At one in the morning, they set off in a little Toyota and headed westwards through the night. For Trenkner, a man who might be considered a little jaded with travel, it was the most exciting trip of his life. Everyone struggled to stay awake, the driver included, but they crossed the GDR border at Frankfurt on the Oder around dawn. It was astonishing how easy and even friendly the usually curt East German Grepos had suddenly become. They drove on along the old Berlin autobahn. Everywhere, there were East Germans out in their Trabants and Wartburgs, honking and waving and smiling. Trenkner thought as they finally approached the city: ‘This is German reunification’.1
The little Polish taxi rolled up outside the SFB studios at nine a.m. Once they reached Berlin itself, the sights and sensations had been even more amazing. The mood in the city was, the Wall is gone, Berlin is once again Berlin. By the time they arrived, Trenkner didn’t just think he was seeing German unity, he knew it.
He was, of course, absolutely correct. For all the pussyfooting over the next year, there is little doubt that the moment the crowd had surged across the Bornholmer Strasse bridge, the end of the ‘two Germanys’ was just a matter of time.
There were a number of problems to be dealt with first. The idealists who had dared to oppose the regime during its last years were not, on the whole, full-blooded capitalists. They were of the Left, and Green, and aimed to build a collaborative rather than a competitive society; to transform the neo-Stalinist experiment that was the GDR into a laboratory for a ‘third way’ between capitalism and Communism.
The East German idealists were joined by leftists from West Germany, such as the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Günter Grass. And the most powerful among the Social Democrats’ leaders, Oskar Lafontaine, who just two years earlier had welcomed Erich Honecker home to the Saar. They opposed reunification for their own reasons, Grass because of concern that the sudden explosion into Europe of a united Germany might waken old, malevolent nationalist ghosts, and Lafontaine because of his fears for the generous social-welfare system of the West. Within days of the Wall’s fall, Lafontaine was warning Easterners against coming West and proposing that they not be allowed to enjoy the same welfare benefits as their Western cousins. Even Walter Momper, SPD Mayor of West Berlin, swept up amid the celebrations of 9 November, had cautiously declared that this was not a question of ‘reunification’ (Wiedervereinigung) but of ‘reunion’ (Wiedersehen).
All these attempts to slow the process down met with utter failure. Willy Brandt, at seventy-five now the elder statesman and conscience of the SPD, had already seen the future. He said on the Friday that followed the dramatic night of 9/10 November: ‘Now what belongs together will grow together.’
Brandt was right. But the growth did not prove to be slow or organic. It was more like a speeded-up nature film. By the end of that month, the momentum had become unstoppable. The call in October had been: ‘We are the people!’ By December it was, ‘We are one people!’ After decades of isolation, the people of the East had seen what the West enjoyed, and they wanted it too. But to pay for it they knew they must have hard currency. ‘If the Deutsche Mark won’t come to us,’ the reawakened masses cried, ‘we’ll go to it!’ They began to flood westward for a variety of reasons, some sentimental and some hard-headedly practical.
The GDR leadership had just about held on to its authority until 9 November. Almost immediately, its power began to dissolve. However, as usual, it was a somewhat more gradual and conflicted process than historical memory allows.
Even on Friday/Saturday 10/11 November, there were attempts at a quasi-reinstatement of the border. The dinosaurs were, after all, still in charge of the border troops and the Stasi. Generals Kessler and Hoffman, who had dedicated their lives to the Wall, could still issue orders, and during these next forty-eight hours they and their senior colleagues were in near-constant session. How to admit that the game was up?
Those who tried to leap over and enter the East that Friday night were politely but firmly sent back by border guards on their superiors’ orders. None the less, alcohol consumption was considerable, and the boldness of would be Wall-jumpers increased in proportion. Eastern officials protested to the Western police to keep ‘their’ people under control. At one point, around midnight, dogs and water cannon were introduced at the Brandenburg Gate. A few intruders got a soaking, though the Vopos didn’t turn on the power-jets. Someone rammed a jeep into the Wall from the Western side and took out a section several metres square. The Eastern guards carefully put it back.
The army and the Stasi remained on alert through most of the weekend. There were anxious consultations between the forces of order in East and West. Not until the afternoon of 11 November was all danger of bloodshed considered past. The East German army in the neighbourhood of Berlin was stood down, as were the Stasi’s forces. On the morning of Sunday 12 November, the mayors of West and East Berlin presided over the opening of a new crossing point on the Potsdamer Platz, 500 yards south of the Brandenburg Gate. The pressure now diminished. Visitors could pass through with the mere wave of an identity card or passport, and a permission stamp was automatic.2
On 13 November there was another major reshuffle of the Politburo and the government in East Berlin. The former bosses of the GDR were rapidly being revealed as so many Wizards of Oz, cranking pathetic little wheels to maintain their huge, rumbling façade of power. And the most Oz-like of all was the Stasi Minister, 81-year-old Erich Mielke.
Appearing to give an account of himself before a newly emboldened East German parliament, the state’s foremost secret policeman tried to present himself and the Stasi as diligent and humane guardians of the East German people. When heckled and booed by hitherto obedient parliamentary deputies, the old man seemed genuinely upset. ‘But I love you all!’ Mielke declared, on the verge of tears. ‘I love all human beings!’ Then he left the podium and never returned. If there was any truth in Mielke’s bizarre outburst, it reflected an affection for humanity of the unhealthy variety, the kind so accurately expressed by the aptly named rock band, the Police, in their song about obsessive love: ‘Every breath you take/Every move you make/I’ll be watching you’.
On 3 December, Krenz announced his resignation as SED First Secretary. The party’s members were now themselves leaving in their hundreds of thousands. In a vain attempt to show the the party’s ‘democratic’ credentials, many of the old leadership, including Schabowski and Krenz, would soon be expelled.
Hans Modrow, Gorbachev’s original candidate to succeed Honecker, had been made prime minister on 13 November. He stayed in office until the new year, when free elections were held. Although Modrow was respected as a genuine reformer, it was too late even for a respected SED leader to stay in control. To the vast majority of East Germans, the party was tainted goods. Even before the elections, Modrow was forced to accept non-Communist representatives into the government.
The first free vote in East Germany for almost sixty years was held on 18 March 1990. The SED received 16 per cent. This respectable outcome probably reflected its true support—time-serving apparatchiks combined with inveterate idealists—even throughout the long years of dictatorship. The CDU, whose Western leader Helmut Kohl had become a hero to the East German masses for his promotion of reunification and promises of rapid prosperity, got 40 per cent. The SPD paid for its ambivalence on both these issues with a disappointing haul of around 22 per cent. Support for the ‘third way’ dissidents of ‘New Forum’, ‘Democratic Awakening’ and so on, who just months previously had seemed so influential, had dwindled quickly. Their votes amounted to no more than 6-7 per cent of the total. In April, a CDU-dominated government, led by Eastern CDU chairman Lothar de Mazière, took power. Reunification was inevitable. Only the terms remained a matter of speculation.
The wider world watched in surprise and some apprehension. 1989 brought the ‘German problem’ full circle. Just as in the summer of 1961, the building of the Wall had been greeted with covert relief by other Western powers, especially France and Britain, so its sudden demise in the autumn of 1989 brought into view all the hidden anxieties and rivalries that seethed behind the polite façade of Western Cold-War unity. For decades, the NATO powers had regularly protested at the undoubted brutality and ugliness of the German/German border. Now the full extent of the hypocrisy involved was mercilessly revealed.
After the Second World War, the Germans had been permitted, even encouraged, to revive their economy and military power, but their ‘punishment’ was, in fact, programmed to continue. As the most populous and efficient country in Europe, blamed for two bloody wars (three if you were French and remembered 1870/1), to many of its former enemies Germany looked altogether better divided than united. The deep-freeze of the Cold War had kept it in that condition quite effectively. Douglas Hurd, Mrs Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary, remarked in December 1989 that the Cold War was ‘a system…under which we’ve lived quite happily for forty years’.3
Hurd’s boss, Mrs Thatcher, showed her feelings surprisingly openly. While anything that showed the weakness of Communism was manna from heaven to her, and the great night of the Wall’s end contained undoubted delights, in the longer run she faced a dilemma. Thatcher had been and remained sceptical of the European project, and was frankly disturbed by the sudden collapse of the two-state Germany and its potential consequences, domestic and international. As someone who had been a teenage girl during the Second World War, she could not help but have (as her aide Sir Charles Powell recalled) ‘memories that are very difficult to erase about what happens when Germany becomes too big and too powerful’. Furthermore there were concerns about how a sudden and dramatic, possibly even violent, collapse of Soviet control in East Germany might undermine Gorbachev rather as the Cuban failure in 1962 had fatally wounded Khrushchev, thus halting the progress towards a ‘moderate, reforming Soviet Union’.
The situation for France was even more complex. President Mitterand was on intimate terms with Chancellor Kohl, and unlike Mrs Thatcher he felt no qualms about accelerating European integration. But instinctual French distrust of a powerful Germany, based on grim experience, came flooding back as the pictures from Berlin filled the television screen at the Elysée Palace in Paris, just as it did in tens of millions of other homes, humble and grand, throughout the world.
Thatcher recalled in her inimitable style a hasty meeting with Mitterand:
I produced from my handbag a map showing the various configurations of Germany in the past, which were not entirely reassuring about the future…[Mitterand] said that at moments of great danger in the past France had always established special relations with Britain and he felt such a time had come again…
The Americans, especially President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James H. Baker, provided the heavyweight international support for German reunification. Washington saw great advantage in a strong, democratic and capitalist Germany, and virtually no down side.
It was Helmut Kohl, of course, who pushed it through with verve, determination and an invincible—some would say finally disastrous—capacity to suppress economic and social misgivings in the cause of the final political goal.
In the end, Mitterand decided against entering into a classic wartime-style alliance with Mrs Thatcher’s dangerously Eurosceptic Britain. After thinking things over, the old fox in the Elysée seized the only other option, which also provided the chance of a permanent solution to the problem of overwheening German power. Mitterand’s strategy involved drawing the newly enlarged Germany (and its physically no less considerable chancellor) into such a binding, permanent hug that the country’s ability to divert that power into destructive channels would be severely limited. Mitterand promised Kohl his support for a reunited Germany, but at a high price. The price was closer European integration. In particular, it would mean the sacrifice of the mighty D-Mark and the introduction of a single European currency.
East Germany, with its inexperienced cabinet and parliament, plus a continuing and expanding financial deficit, was already beginning to fold over into its big brother, the Federal Republic. In Berlin, some controls remained in place until the spring, but public movement was largely unimpeded.
Already, official and unofficial demolition teams were at work on the Wall. The border-marker wall on the Western side, covered over the years in colourful graffiti, had become a tourist attraction and—for those who could lay their hands on hammers and chisels—an instant takeaway memento. In the central city areas, substantial stretches began to disappear. The financially embarrassed East German government was already debating what to do with the de-fortified but still largely intact structure. It decided, since the Wall seemed to be such an interesting commodity, to sell it as one might any other artefact: at auction.
The sale of the century—or least thirty years of it—took place at the Hotel Parc Pallas in Monte Carlo, Monaco, on 23 June 1990. The official who organised the transport of the Wall sections to the sale was, curiously, the same man who had first drawn up a map of what became the Wall and who, on Tuesday 15 August 1961, had painted the famous white line to show the border at Checkpoint Charlie: Hagen Koch.
There was an odd but compelling logic to it all. A private at the time of his first brush with fame, Koch had progressed to captain in the Dzerzhinsky Regiment before leaving the service of the Stasi in 1985, just before his forty-fifth birthday.4 Never seen as a warrior type, and considered schwatzhaft (a loose talker), which was a distinct disadvantage for a Stasi man, his progress through the ranks had been slow. For fifteen years, he had pursued, if we are to believe his memoirs, a harmless existence as a ‘cultural officer’, bringing music and the arts to the troops—naturally, within the right ideological context. Not the area to be in if you wanted a high-flying career, and organising a ‘talent show’ without sufficient ideological content (but plenty of dirty jokes) did not help either. The job Koch got after his release was with the Department of Cultural Monuments, organising the transporting and setting-up of art and museum exhibitions. It was thus that, in the spring of 1990, he was instructed to organise the shipping of the Wall segments down to the Côte d’Azur.
Eighty-one sections, all certified as genuine, were put on the block, and all of them were sold, realising an average of DM 20,000 (£6,500) each, to international clients who wanted substantial chunks of the Wall in their businesses or homes. It was a quiet triumph for Koch. However, a West German television team was covering the auction, and they had done their homework. Koch kept out of the way while his department head gave the main interview, but when the report was aired, the camera zeroed in and froze on the hapless ex-Stasi captain. A stern voice-over identified him as a ‘Stasi operative’ who had ‘found a hiding place’ at the innocent-sounding Department of Cultural Monuments. After all, was this not the fanatical creature who had drawn the notorious white line at Checkpoint Charlie so many years ago?
This marked the beginning of a fifteen-year battle for Koch, who found himself turned into a symbol of the Wall and its evils, a media scapegoat. He was soon fired from Cultural Monuments, and then hounded from a similar job working for a West German art-transportation firm. But Koch, overcoming considerable adversity, has since transformed himself into a respected Wall expert, writing and lecturing to anyone who will listen to or read what he has to say. That is how he now lives and finds his self-justification.
After 1989, the expiation of the Communist past and its simultaneous erasure became a curious twin-track process. At first, amnesia seemed the easy way out.
On 1 July 1990, the West mark became the official currency of both East and West Germany, as the two states remained for another few months yet. For the first 2,000-6,000 East marks, depending on various factors such as the age of the individual in possession of the money, the exchange rate was fixed at one West mark to one East. For all other sums held, it was 1:2. This was an astoundingly generous ‘gift’ to the East, since the open-market rate at that point from East into West marks stood at between 10:1 and 20:1.
The first of July was also the day that border controls between the two Germany were abolished. On 23 June, the final structures at Checkpoint Charlie were removed in the presence of the Foreign Ministers of France, Britain, the USA, the USSR and of the two German states. The presence of the Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, was a tacit admission by Moscow that unification was inevitable. Shevardnadze took the opportunity to make a surprising offer: that all foreign troops be withdrawn from German soil within six months of reunification. The timetable turned out longer-the last would leave in 1994-but the principle proved true.
On 3 October 1990, German was formally reunited. All-German elections were set for 2 December.
Buoyed by a continuing wave of support from the East, Chancellor Kohl’s Christian Democrats triumphed with 43.8 per cent, the SPD got 33.5 per cent, the FDP (‘Liberal Party’) 11 per cent. As in other post-Communist countries, the former ruling party had transformed itself into a democratic legacy outfit. The SED had changed its name to the ‘Party of Democratic Socialism’ (PDS) and proclaimed that it represented a reformed and reforming version of its former self. The PDS got only 2.6 per cent of the vote throughout Germany. Because of the so-called ‘5 per cent hurdle’, this would normally have meant it was allocated no seats in the parliament. However, during the reunification negotiations it had been agreed that the East would not be subject to this rule. As a result, for the 1.1 million votes the PDS won in the East (10 per cent or so of the total), it was awarded seventeen seats in the first reunited Bundestag.
This was the Communists’ low point and the high-water mark of the East German masses’ enthusiasm for capitalism and its political representatives. For a while, due to the favourable transfer of savings and investments into West marks, the recently liberated population had hard currency burning a hole in its collective pocket. Trabis and Wartburgs were dumped in favour of Volkswagens and Toyotas. The ‘new provinces’ became a favoured dumping ground for old Western cars, many of which would have had trouble finding a buyer in the Federal Republic. Families from Saxony, Thuringia and East Berlin-so long trapped in Ulbricht’s and Honecker’s walled-in republic of virtue-launched themselves on to the European motorway network or jetted on bargain holidays to Majorca and Mykonos.
The backlash set in within a couple of years. The industries in which most of the citizens of the former GDR had worked and which, however their work-forces grumbled and chafed, had formed the social framework and economic basis of tightly knit community-based lives, were taken over and disposed of by an overwhelmingly West German public body known as the Treuhandanstalt (Trust Agency). Money from the West flooded into the so-called ‘new provinces’ of the former GDR, but much was spent by and on consultants and ‘experts’ who were seen, not unfairly, by the bewildered and increasingly angry East Germans as greedy carpet-baggers. The merciless ‘Yuppie’ culture of the 1980s West collided bruisingly with a society in the East that, behind the grisly but prophylactic barrier of the Wall, had kept many of those old-fashioned social values that had once been accepted all over the industrialised world but were now dismissed as wilfully eccentric, even contemptible.
There was an old joke about the social pact that made the Communist system half-way tolerable. It went: ‘We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.’ By the mid-1990s, the joke was no longer funny. The polluting, rusted, often staggeringly inefficient industries of East Germany were deemed unviable and closed down. For wide swathes of the newly reunited population, especially the older people and the burghers of the smaller, more remote East German towns, and of uncompetitive heavy-industry centres such as Bitterfeld, the-admittedly relatively generous-welfare system taken over from West Germany became their only source of income. There was little realistic hope of long-term re-employment for such redundant workers. Perhaps a new motto might now have been more suitable: ‘We pretend to look for work and they pretend to pay us.’
Many of the young and energetic went to the West. Ironically, after the Wall came down, a new wave of emigration soon rivalled in scale and socially undermining effect the exodus of 1949-61. For all its ideological and intellectual narrowness, East Germany had offered an efficient system of education and training to its young people. With severely limited opportunities in the East, there was only one direction for many of them to take their skills.
By the mid-1990s, East Germany’s economy was largely kept alive by a busy reconstruction industry, which was hard at work restoring long-neglected towns and installing modern transport and communications systems. Real economic viability was confined to a few ‘hot-spots’. The population was ageing dramatically. A political backlash benefited the PDS, which, after barely surviving the ‘Turn’ (Wende) as reunification became euphemistically known, climbed in the polls as the last decade of the second millennium CE progressed. The Communist successor party was helped by some appealing leaders, including the East Berlin lawyer and controversialist Gregor Gysi, a son of the old East German élite who became a standby on talk shows all over Germany. Perhaps more importantly, the PDS successfully asserted its rights as legal successor to the SED, and thus controlled a large number of bank accounts and properties that had belonged to the party when it was synonymous with the Communist regime. This made it perhaps the richest small political party in the world. Within a few years, the PDS’s share of the vote had settled at around 20 per cent in most of former East Germany, including East Berlin.
But the PDS was largely a party of older people. Around 60 per cent of those who voted for it were themselves over sixty. The young of the former GDR-those who stayed behind-often expressed their disillusion, and the results of decades of intellectual isolation, in a tendency to swing not to the old far Left but to the new far Right. This was particularly true in smaller provincial centres, but there was also a strong presence in cities such as Magdeburg, Halle, and Chemnitz (which had changed its name back from Karl-Marx-Stadt). Racist skinhead gangs sought out the relatively few foreigners who lived in the East and often committed terrible acts of violence against them. Support for far-right parties such as the NPD and the DVU burgeoned. A fervent, if ultimately poisonous and stifling, ‘national’ subculture spread across the former East Germany, and remains a prominent and ugly feature of the ‘new provinces’ well into the twenty-first century. Transparently neo-Nazi parties are represented in the provincial parliaments of Saxony and Brandenburg, though they have as yet failed to make the same mark on the national political scene. A number of the major leaders of this movement in the East are, in fact, ‘carpet-baggers’ from the West. They saw an opportunity to break out of the electoral ghetto to which they had long been confined there, and consciously targeted the more fertile territory of the former GDR. In this they showed considerable astuteness.
As a substantial minority of East Germans swung back to the familiar tropes of the SED regime in reaction against the cold wind of capitalism, so at the same time a counter-trend saw a wave of accusations against those who had managed and served the state during the Ulbricht and Honecker years. Prosecutions followed.
Former conscripts, who had fired on and in many cases killed fellow East Germans attempting to cross the Wall, were hauled into court. The fresh-faced young Grepos of the 1960s and 1970s, now middle-aged, were forced to confront their actions. Decades later, the whole mess of fear, brainwashed enthusiasm, confusion and conformism that had dictated the world of the GDR’s border guardians during those ugly years was the subject of well-publicised court cases.
It must have given some satisfaction to victims such as Walter Tews, crippled at the age of fourteen as he fled to the West, and to the families of such young martyrs as Peter Fechter, Günter Litfin and Chris Gueffroy, when they saw these men and the state they served held to account. But in these often bewildered and defensive men it is not usually possible to discern heartless killers whose actions should be treated as common murder. The courts have tended to find them guilty but hand out short or suspended prison sentences.
As for the SED leaders, the really big fish got away.
Ulbricht, the East German state’s true begetter, died while his GDR still had a decade and a half of life in it. His successor and protégé, Erich Honecker, survived to be held responsible for the state he had helped create and the Wall whose construction he had overseen. He had fled to Moscow in the early spring of 1991, just as legal proceedings were being opened against him. After the Soviet Union itself collapsed, he was extradited back to Germany to answer accusations of having caused almost 200 deaths at the Berlin Wall and the border between the two Germanys.
However, Honecker escaped the worst because he faced the worst. By the time the former General Secretary came to court in 1992, now aged eighty, he was dying from a liver cancer that the surgeons had failed to find and remove during his hospital stay in the fateful summer of 1989. Sometimes, as he shuffled to and from the courtroom, he would bump into the likes of Mielke, Kessler, Hoffmann, all also arraigned for the Wall deaths. The elderly comrades would exchange gruff Marxist-Leninist phrases of encouragement, for all the world as if they were young, persecuted anti-Fascists again, with a future to fight for. Shortly after returning from Moscow, Honecker had joined the recently refounded, 500-member German Communist Party. Though mortally ill, he admitted he could not bear to remain ‘unorganised’-his Communist equivalent of a Catholic’s horror of dying ‘unshriven’.
The reunited German state took pity on the sick, tired old man in a way that his implacable apparatus of oppression would never have done under the same circumstances. Despite the fact that Erich Honecker defended the building of his Wall to the very last, he was released on health grounds on 12 January 1993. The court declared that Honecker’s death was ‘so imminent that the conduct of a criminal proceeding has lost its meaning’.5
The next day, 13 January 1993, the former East German leader climbed slowly aboard Flight RG 741 of the Brazilian airline, Varig, at Frankfurt Airport. The Boeing 747’s destination was São Paulo. There Honecker would change flights and continue on to Santiago, the capital of Chile. In fact, right up to the moment the plane took off, those who wished him to be prosecuted, sick or not, continued efforts to prevent him from embarking on his journey into exile.
Honecker’s choice of destination was based on personal circumstances. His daughter, Sonja, had married a Chilean exile who, like thousands of the country’s other leftists, had sought and been granted refuge in the GDR during the bloody period of military dictatorship between 1973 and 1988. Margot Honecker had left Moscow after her husband’s extradition to Germany the previous summer, and since then had been living in a comfortable villa outside Santiago. Honecker was welcomed enthusiastically by many Chileans. To them the GDR had been a friend. The Stasi had helped rescue endangered opponents of the military dictatorship and given them a safe haven. Looked at from their point of view, the East German secret police played the role, not of the ‘Red Gestapo’, but of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The deposed SED leader died at his comfortable final refuge on 29 May 1994, in his eighty-second year. Homesick to the end-he spoke no Spanish-he none the less gave no sign of repentance or regret. Erich Honecker was buried in Santiago. The crucifix traditionally attached to a coffin in Catholic Chile was concealed, in the case of this lifelong atheist, by a black-red-and-gold GDR flag.
Honecker’s defence of the Wall merits little consideration. All the same, the case for condemning it, while ultimately compelling, is no simple matter either. According to the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office, between 13 August 1961 and 9 November 1989, 86 human beings died as a direct result of violence at the Berlin Wall. Other estimates run higher, largely depending on the criteria they use for classifying deaths as ‘Wall-related’. The government-supported website www.chronik-der-mauer.de quotes a death toll totalling 125, including several East German border guards killed in exchanges of fire and a few unfortunate individuals whose death can be obliquely blamed on the Wall. One such was a gentleman in his sixties who had a heart attack while being searched at the Dreilinden control point in 1971. Another man died in 1983 while being interrogated at a border crossing. A five-year-old boy from West Berlin drowned in a canal on the border while trying to retrieve his football. And a baby from the East, concealed in a suitcase while its parents made a successful escape, was found on arrival in West Berlin to have died of asphyxiation. There was also a desperate young couple who committed suicide at East Berlin’s Schönefeld Airfield after failing to steal an aircraft, which they had hoped to fly to a new life in the West.
The highest number of victims is cited by the Arbeitsgemeinschaft 13. August, an organisation associated with the late anti-Communist campaigner Rainer Hildebrandt’s Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum. This list encompasses individuals who died for any reason at all either at or because of the Wall. It includes those who were caught and secretly executed for escape attempts, those who escaped but were kidnapped back across the border and then killed, and even those successful escapers thought to have been ‘liquidated’ by Stasi agents while living in conditions of apparent safety in West Germany. The list’s broad and changeable figure, contested by many experts, totals 227.6
It is not that these deaths were not tragic. They are terrible to see described, and appalling to record. But when we compare the experience of other countries that in the twentieth century were forced to survive on ideological or religious fault lines, we may find ourselves marvelling not at how many died in Berlin or at the border between East and West Germany, but how few. Compare the millions who died in similarly divided countries elsewhere-North and South Korea (another fortified border which still exists), North and South Vietnam, or Northern and Southern Ireland. Or in the collapsed remnants of Yugoslavia, or the disputed borders between India and Pakistan, or between Israel and Palestine, where once again the Wall solution, while embarked on for different reasons, embarrasses and troubles us…
But in the case of the Berlin Wall we can read the individual stories of violent death. In the cynical words of Stalin, who knew a thing or two about mass murder, ‘a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic’. And while every death, even when lost among millions, is a tragedy to someone, the Wall deaths are all obviously and unmistakably individual. None the less, altogether, even if we take the most pessimistic of the death tolls-227 souls-then we are discussing a number equivalent to those killed in a commuter airliner coming down in a snowstorm. And if we accept the lower, more critically sifted figures, then we should add that the airliner was only half full.
That these deaths constituted a crime in principle and many score of crimes in practice, cannot possibly be denied.
But what, then, was the greater ‘punishment’ inflicted on the people of the East? Just three decades of ugliness, claustrophobia, shattered families, and a few score of violent, pointless deaths?
It was more subtle and long-lasting than any of those things. Within a few years after the end of the Second World War, the defeated Germans in the Western zones were permitted to establish parliamentary democracy and to launch what turned out to be one of the greatest economic recoveries in history.
Not so their Eastern brothers and sisters. Already held back by draconian Soviet reparation demands, and radical social and economic reorganisation in the Communist interest, by 1961 such formerly prosperous and advanced parts of Germany as Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, not forgetting East Berlin, had lost huge swathes of their productive capital, industrial know-how, patents and management skills to the dynamic, free-market Western zones.
After the Wall fell, two factors became shockingly clear. Firstly that the GDR’s loudly trumpeted industries were almost entirely uncompetitive, both in the enlarged domestic and the wider international market. Secondly that those skills, manpower and productive capital resources lost to the West in the post-war period were not coming back-or at least not in the quantities that would have made possible a genuine revival of the region’s fortunes to pre-GDR levels.
The true ‘punishment’ of the East-and the most insidious, lasting crime of its Communist masters-was this theft of hope.
Western German taxpayers poured billions upon billions into the East after 1989, but for little permanent gain. In the 1950s and 1960s, West Germany created its ‘economic miracle’, conquering the export markets in a post-war world crying out for the kind of quality goods that this energetic and skilled people could produce. Meanwhile, their brothers and sisters in the East stumbled along on a path which brought a modest revival, one that was almost considered another ‘miracle’-until the so-called wonder turned out to be mostly statistical sleight of hand.
By the 1990s, when the East Germans finally got their chance to catch up, the world was a different place: an emerging global market-place. In the 1950s the West Germans had faced relatively little comparable competition, but in the 1990s there was Japan, Korea, Malaysia, a revived USA-and towards the end of the decade, China-all producing goods of a quality that could compete more than adequately in the world market.
In 1989, West Germany seemed so rich and successful that the general opinion was, the East Germans are the lucky ex-Communists. They had their big, powerful brother to help them, whereas the Czechs and Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Poles and the Baltic nations, would have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In fact, the attachment to West Germany turned out in most ways to be a disadvantage. The unions representing East German workers demanded near parity between wages in the East and those in the West-while productivity lagged dramatically and would clearly take years to approach the West German level.
Result: millions of jobs lost or, instead of going to the East German provinces, exported to the low-wage, low-cost countries beyond the Oder river, with their aggressive tax breaks and eager, co-operative governments. At the time of writing (2006), it is reckoned that soon the highest proportion of automotive workers per head of the population in Europe will belong not to Germany or France or Italy (and certainly not Britain) but to Slovakia.7
There has been a lot of talk of the ‘Wall in the head’, as if East Germans were somehow dramatically different from West Germans. Statistics, spurious or otherwise, are regularly published in German newspapers or quoted on radio and TV to the effect that such-and-such a percentage of Germans in East or West ‘wish the Wall could be rebuilt’. In truth, the situation between ‘Ossis’ and ‘Wessis’ is not that different to the feelings the Scots have about the English, and vice versa. It is rare to find a Scotsman with a good word to say about the larger country south of Hadrian’s Wall (that wall thing again), but on the other hand they somehow never quite cut loose. As for East Germans, their history was certainly different to the West’s for forty years or so, and largely worse. It will probably take a whole new generation, growing up since the end of the Wall, to begin properly integrating the ‘two Germanys’. With a new woman chancellor, Angela Merkel, who grew up in the East and saw the fall of the Wall from the Eastern perspective, perhaps the process will accelerate. But maybe the problem is not the ‘Wall in the head’, but the simple fact of unemployment and hopelessness in one part of Germany versus prosperity in the other.
The ‘Wall in the head’ may represent a rationalisation of this hope-lessness. Communities in crisis tend to blame others, and to fall back on the things and people they consider ‘their own’. Hence the wave of so-called Ostalgie (‘Eastalgia’) in the ex-GDR, with its selective reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ of Ulbricht, Honecker, FDJ uniforms, guaranteed jobs and that shabby sense of belonging. It is to be found at its most harmless in hit films such as Good Bye, Lenin! (which has the advantage of being genuinely funny and charming) and Sonnenallee, and at its most toxic in votes for the PDS and resentment against caricatured West German ‘yuppies’. We can hope that tougher, more realistic films such as the recent ‘The Life of the Others’ (Das Leben der Anderen),showing the grubby and life-destroying abuse of domestic surveillance for political purposes by the Stasi, will help redress the balance. This was a society where brother was encouraged to betray brother, husband betray wife. Life under the pitiless, probing gaze of the Stasi was composed of a hundred thousand tiny betrayals in the intimate sphere, between people who in any decent society should have been able to trust each other. To see life in the GDR any other way is to inhabit a rose-tinted fantasy world.
None of this means that, more than a decade and a half after the Wall tumbled, the former GDR does not have serious problems. The region’s ancient and often beautiful small towns, though in many cases rebuilt and cleaned up with Western money since 1989, are decaying and losing their young people.
The population of the former GDR is ageing at a terrifying rate, and the birth rate is at a record low. In total the region has lost 8 per cent of its population since 1990, amounting to 1.3 million people (as of 2003). In 1949, 25 per cent of the population of Germany lived in the area that would become the GDR. Fifteen years after the GDR’s demise, the figure was down to less than 18 per cent. It is predicted to fall to 13 per cent by 2050.8 The tax base of the new provinces is still fragile, in some areas almost non-existent, and in a few years the rate of Western financial aid for the East is due to fall dramatically. Leipzig and Dresden show clear signs of life, as do Jena and Eisenach, where optics and automotive engineering respectively have revived, but the old manufacturing centre of Chemnitz, the ‘German Manchester’, has lost more than 15 per cent of its population since 1989 and has by some calculations the lowest birth rate in the world. Small cities such as Schwerin and Rostock have lost more than 20 per cent, and the population of the once-key chemicals centre of Halle, with more than one in five unemployed, has declined from 310,000 to 240,000, a loss of 22.6 per cent.9 Recently (and expensively) renovated apartment buildings are now being torn down because the city authorities cannot afford their upkeep and there is no hope of finding tenants. In the Halle suburb of Silberhohe, of 14,000 apartments, 3,500 stood empty before the recent wave of tear-downs started.1O
The Easterners have reason to be disappointed and unhappy, and also-despite the generosity of the Westerners since 1989-reason to be bitter. The problem is that they often blame the wrong people-that is, the West, and not the SED bosses who kept them behind the Wall while the world changed around them, until it was all but too late to cope.
One dark, ambiguous footnote to all this is provided by the fate of Conrad Schumann, the young border guard who was so famously photographed as he leapt the wire from the Bernauer Strasse into West Berlin on 15 August 1961. At first sight, his was a success story. He integrated well into Western society, married a young West German woman and went to live in Ingolstadt, a prosperous town in northern Bavaria. He worked for almost twenty years in the Audi car factory, and brought up a family. Then the Wall came down. Schumann was finally able to visit his relations and friends, in a small Saxon town between Dresden and Leipzig. Cause for joy, it would seem. There, however, he found that he was not entirely welcome. He was the iconic Wall-jumper. Or, as he had been portrayed in the East, iconic traitor and tool of the imperialists. These were the accusations from which the Wall had protecred him. Schumann could nor reconnect with the friends and comrades of his youth, the ones he had left. behind when he took that impulsive jump to the West all those years ago. With that ‘desertion’ he had excluded himself from being one of them, and never could be again.
Conrad Schumann hanged himself on 20 June 1998 in the orchard of his house near lngolstadt. The family blamed his suicide on personal problems.
And Berlin? The Wall was not just, or not even, about Berlin. It was about imprisoning an entire country’s population. Since reunification, surprisingly, Berlin’s population has also declined, by around 45,000, despite the fact that it became the seat of government in 1991. And Berlin is broke. What used to be the Western sectors no longer receive the generous aid from the federal government that they enjoyed during the city’s time as a protected capitalist island in the Communist sea. The same goes for East Berlin, which as capital of the GDR and the Workers’ and Peasants’ State’s tourist showcase was also lavishly subsidised by East Bloc standards.
Berlin still mirrors the nation’s differences.
The historic centre of the city, just inside what used to be East Berlin, has now been renovated and seems virtually indistinguishable from the West. However, in the areas east of the Alexanderplatz, where there are still tram services, the continuing difference becomes clear. The horizon is dominated by the looming, monotonous Plattenbauten (literally slabbuilding) apartment blocks that were built between the 1960s and the 1980s in the rush to house East Berliners in a manner that Ulbricht, Honecker and comrades thought fit. The clothes are cheaper and often drabber, the cars older. There’s an old-fashioned clannish feeling here, a closeness and an often attractive lack of pretension. The east end of Berlin was always the working people’s area, the place where a century or more ago the immigrants from the countryside and abroad tended to gather. So it’s not just because of forty years of Communism that it looks and feels this way. All the same, as someone who got to know the East during the 1970S and 1980s when the GDR was in its deceptively solid heyday, when I’m there I don’t need a street sign to know where I am.
But the city as a whole has survived, will survive, and will grow together, as Willy Brandt predicted back in 1989, because it belongs together. Individuals and companies are moving into the old East of Berlin because it is cheaper and, frankly, in many ways more interesting than the somewhat sedate and sanitised, often strongly middle-class, districts westwards of where the Wall used to be. The East is where most of the clubs are, the experimental theatres and venues, the funky restaurants and less expensive apartments. It has an edgy, unexplored feeling that for Westerners is attractive as well as slightly unnerving.
And strangest of all, the Communists now rule again in Berlin. Or rather, they co-rule. Since 2001, the PDS has been in coalition with the Social Democrats at city hall, to the shock and ourrage of some and the wry amusement of others. PDS senators, many of them former SED members, run various departments of the united city administration. The comrades are back, in modernised form of course. At the 2001 elections, to city hall, they had gained a respectable 23 per cent of the vote to the SPD’s 29 per cent. Although their vote dropped noticeably in 2006, they continued to participate in the capital’s government. The PDS fraction from the Berlin city assembly even dares to lay a wreath at the Berlin Wall monument in the Bernauer Strasse every 13 August, or at least it did so in 2005. On that occasion, the tribute disappeared in a matter of minutes. I never managed to find out exactly why, or where it went. The so-called ‘Red-Red’ coalition seems to work, but the wounds of the Wall have not yet closed. Maybe, even in an age of post-modern irony, it is still possible to take some things too far, too fast.
But Berlin has seen worse, a lot worse. It likes to party, and parrying is what it does well, even when the city coffers are close to empty. Especially in the summer of the World Cup. The city has an openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who also has a high fun quotient and continues to enjoy high popularity. Berlin bleibt Berlin. Berlin remains Berlin. And with a little luck and hard work, perhaps Germany’s time of punishment will soon be truly over.
For anyone who knew the city when the Wall cast its pall across Berlin, nothing can beat the pleasure of being able to stroll through the Brandenburg Gate and across the Pariser Platz, maybe heading for an espresso in one of the boulevard cafés on Unter den Linden. And nothing is sweeter than the awareness that, compared with twenty years ago, the greatest danger you run when taking these few unhurried paces is of being knocked into by an over-enthusiastic bicycle courier, not cut in half by a burst of automatic fire.
When we’re doing this, and the sun is shining, sometimes we can believe that Hitler never happened, that Auschwitz was just the German name for an obscure village in Poland, and that the Berlin Wall was just a figment of somebody’s mad imagination.