‘It’s not the golden west and dark east’: German division still evident 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

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‘It’s not the golden west and dark east’: German division still evident 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

When Barbara Hallmann was 10 years old, her parents snuck into an apartment that her uncle had abandoned when he fled to Austria. They lived in East Germany, where such trespassing was prohibited, but they wanted to retrieve the bedding, cutlery and clothes.

“During the night-time, they entered this apartment with little lights,” Hallmann recalls. Afterward, “they were always afraid of having authorities come and take them to prison.”

This fear dissolved just weeks later, on Nov. 9, 1989, as Germans started chipping down the concrete and barbed wire wall that bisected Berlin. Hallmann drank her first glass of champagne, and the family drove to Stuttgart in the West. After 45 years of separation, East and West reunified the following fall, when the newborn republic raised a flag and lit fireworks in Berlin. The president declared, “In free self-determination we have completed the unity and freedom of Germany.”

“Imagine someone tells you tomorrow you will be allowed to fly to the moon, and next Sunday, you stand on the moon,” says Hallmann.

Her father had been assigned to patrol the border with a gun during his military service, while in his 20s, and was instructed to shoot defectors on sight. He decided if he ever saw one, he would run instead of shoot. Hallmann says the fall of the wall “turned around his life 180 degrees.”

Yet, 30 years later, division is still evident. The five eastern states have lower incomes, pensions and employment rates. Among 457 federal judges in Germany, only three are from eastern Germany. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel was raised and first entered politics in East Germany, just two of 16 cabinet members in her government are from the east. Stereotypes persist about the accents, dialects and traditions of easterners, who are seeing a rise in far-right populism.

“They feel today they were seen as second-class citizens, cheap labourers from the East

The wall was built by the Communist regime in East Germany, in theory to keep out the so-called Western fascists. In reality, millions had fled to West Germany in the years following the Second World War. That number fell dramatically after the construction of the wall, and with the threat of execution by the East German soldiers who patrolled it.

After the fall of the wall, a controversial agency called the Treuhand was established, which led to the privatization of 90 per cent of the region’s businesses. The East was deindustrialized, lost three million jobs and saw a mass exodus.

“They feel today they were seen as second-class citizens, cheap labourers from the East,” says Swen Steinberg, who grew up in East Germany and recently moved to Ontario to do post-doctoral work at Queen’s University. “When I was a teenager, it was really somewhat embarrassing to be from East Germany.”

As of 2018, citizens in the highest-earning east German state earn approximately $23,000 less per year than citizens in the highest-earning west German state. In the eastern state with the highest pensions, residents receive approximately $3,500 less per year than peers in the western state with the highest pensions.

This inequality could be one factor in the rise of eastern populism. In a state election in October, the far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland, rose to second place in the eastern state of Thuringia. The party won 24 per cent of the vote following a campaign in which supporters spewed Nazi slogans and death threats.

Until 1990, residents in the former East Germany had depended on networks among neighbours who would help and trade with each other. These networks declined after the fall of the wall.

“You have a society that lived with scarcity, and then somebody has to renovate, I don’t know, his bathroom, and someone else has the items the person is interested in,” Steinberg explains. “This kind of bounded-ness or integration, that was lost.”

Others dispute the idea that the country is significantly divided, especially in the minds of young people. Hallmann lived in Switzerland for several years but recently settled with her family in an east German town between Hamburg and Berlin. She notes some cultural differences between regions — for instance, children take afternoon naps at kindergarten in the east but not the west — but she says Germany is more clearly divided between urban and rural lines.

“It’s not the golden west and dark east,” she says.

Katharina Niemeyer, a professor of communications at the Université du Québec à Montréal, notes there are stereotypes about every region, not only the east (for example, Northern Germans are often stereotyped as having traits of Bavarians). She says the populism in east Germany is not so much caused by east/west inequality as by anti-immigrant sentiment that is not unique to Germany.

“It’s not about east and west. It’s all about the current general (sentiment) in Europe,” says Niemeyer, who grew up in west Germany. Regarding infrastructure in the east and west, she says, “The difference is not so drastic anymore.”

Still, she has done research on nostalgia for the days of the wall, and she says reunification was carried out too quickly from an economic perspective.

“It was like almost swallowing the east,” she says. “People in the east were dreaming that travel and capitalism could bring a lot of happiness, but then only a few years later, people saw that the capitalism is not the best either, that everybody has to fight on his or her own.”

Along with a desire for freedom, to reunite families and abolish the Stasi, the notorious secret police and their cadre of informants, citizens in East Germany had another motivation to revolt. The Communist party had begun giving incentives to certain citizens, who could access catalogues of western goods, including cars.


In this file photo taken on December 22, 1989 people from East Germany greet citizens of West Germany at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images

“It was the little differences that really got underneath people’s skin,” says Laurence McFalls. “When people were protesting the regime, in many cases, they were not overthrowing socialism. They were saying, ‘We want real socialism.’”

In 1990-91, McFalls interviewed more than 200 people who had lived in East Germany. By the end of the regime, the economy was crippled and the environment damaged — “I thought I was going to choke to death,” he says of a visit to one town. But he found that neighbours chatted over their fences; children played in yards, and almost every beach was clothing-optional (“East Germany was a big nudist culture,” McFalls notes).

Since 2014, McFalls has been collecting home videos of people from East Germany before the fall of the wall. Under other Communist regimes, such as those in Romania and Bulgaria, protests were often triggered by hunger, but East Germans had access to milk, meat and bread, as well as apples, plums and other produce.

McFalls was seven when he saw watched the news of people drinking champagne in the streets. It was early November, but he figured it must be New Year’s Eve.

“Then we drove into West Berlin, and everything became so bright and colourful, and there were these neon advertisements everywhere,” he says.

Hallmann, too, remembers her childhood drive to the West in 1989, when her family made it — with no map — to Stuttgart, where locals waved and honked their horns at the sight of this East German car. She saw her father cry for the first time; it happened as they browsed utensils in the cooking section of a department store. In the East, they had never seen such displays.

“Nothing was shiny,” she says. “We didn’t know the colour pink.”

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