• World

Germany’s Unfinished Business

15 minute read
Catherine Mayer/Berlin

Graveyards are usually about endings. But in December 1961 Waltraud Niebank embarked on a new life in East Berlin’s Pankow Cemetery. She might have been mistaken for a young widow as she scanned the headstones, although in truth, her husband was alive. He was living in West Berlin and Niebank had been separated from him for four months. Now she was looking for a concealed tunnel which would reunite them. Soon after their wedding, the cemetery had been divided by a cinder-block barrier, part of a fortification some 100 miles 
 (160 km) in length which would eventually consist of a row of reinforced-concrete panels, a second fence and a “death strip” patrolled by snipers. Its architects called the structure an “antifascist protection wall” but Berliners knew it simply as die Mauer — the Wall. It was engineered not to protect, but to imprison.

As Niebank hovered by an open grave, a voice from below said “Jump,” so she did, then scrabbled through the passage toward the husband who waited for her in the West. She still chokes with fear and anger at the memory of what she endured to leave the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.). “It was so painful,” she says. “I never wanted to look at the Wall again.”

(See pictures of the Berlin Wall.)

That simple sentiment — revulsion about the Wall and all it represented — proved powerful enough to reunify Niebank’s fractured nation. After Nov. 9, 1989, when the G.D.R. abandoned border controls, the drive for unity provided an overarching purpose that for many years shaped national politics. Reunification was Germany’s greatest achievement of the last century — greater, even, than its postwar reinvention as an economic powerhouse. But as Germany prepares for an election just a few weeks before the 20th anniversary of that magical night in 1989, the fall of the Wall has become not just a metaphor for what Europe’s most populous nation can do — but also of what it has left undone, of opportunities missed.

(Read: “It Happened One Night.”)

In the run-up to the election, there has been no grand new mission, no ambitious vision of remaking Germany — or Europe, or the world — on view. As the continent’s largest economy, Germany could have taken a lead to ensure that the European Union came together to weather the worst economic downturn in 70 years; it did not. Germany, to be sure, has contributed 4,000 troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. And yet there is deepening unease in Germany about the nation’s involvement in the war there. That is partly because German troops are killing and being killed in greater numbers as violence rises. But there seems to be an underlying concern, too, as if such visible engagement in global geopolitics is somehow dangerously unsettling to the good life that Germans have come to expect.

The strongest impulse in German politics is to avoid big changes, to hold the country steady as she goes. The electoral system supports such an impulse by producing consensus-driven coalition governments. It’s pretty safe to assume that whatever coalition emerges from the election, it will not include Die Linke, a hard-left party formed by Western socialists and remnants of the G.D.R. communists. But Die Linke’s likely decent performance in the eastern states also speaks to promise unfulfilled. Ossis — Easterners — vote differently from Wessis — Westerners — because they still perceive their interests as being different. Ossis earn less, produce less and have higher rates of unemployment than Wessis. According to a recent survey by the eastern German charity Volkssolidarität, 1 in every 10 Ossis wishes he or she were still living in the G.D.R.

Nowhere is Germany’s obstinate gulf — a division that Germans call “a wall in the head” — more evident than in Berlin. The physical Wall has been all but expunged. In 1989, Mauerspechte — wall peckers — chipped out and sold pieces of the concrete from the Wall’s graffiti-strewn western face; later, municipalities sent diggers to do the job more thoroughly. Like a clumsily retouched image, the Wall was airbrushed out of the picture. But its shadow remains, and with it other fractures in German society: generational fissures, cracks between communities that benefited from the fall of the Wall and those that suffered.

(Watch a video of the Berlin Wall.)

Germany remains at the mercy of conflicting interpretations of history. In that context, one commemorative project is worth a closer look. The Berlin Wall trail, completed three years ago, cuts through the heart of Berlin like a pathologist’s blade. It exposes Germany’s underlying conditions, and reminds those who care to see of Germany’s unfinished business.

See pictures of President Obama in Berlin.

What Was Rich Is Now Poor
After the G.D.R. closed its frontiers in 1952 to stanch the flow to the West, Berlin’s internal borders remained porous. Niebank met her husband at dance classes. She could have slipped west to join him but she decided to apply for permission to leave the G.D.R. The wedding took place on Aug. 5, 1961; her exit permit was to be granted 10 days later. But during the early hours of Aug. 13, the East German army ringed West Berlin with barbed wire and armed guards. The Wall had been built.

South of the cemetery from which Niebank escaped, the Berlin Wall trail follows a green scar of borderland between Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg, districts linked in Cold War days only by a crossing at Bornholmerstrasse. This was the first of seven inner-city checkpoints to abandon controls in 1989 after an apparatchik named Günter Schabowski announced the lifting of travel restrictions on G.D.R. citizens. At first officers tried to turn away the many thousands who congregated, pedestrians just wanting a look at the other side, and lines of olive green and turquoise blue Trabant cars. Finally the numbers forced the authorities to open the gates. Niebank’s brother was among the throng and came looking for her. “There was such celebration,” she recalls, “over every Trabi that drove through.”

(Read: “Is the Trabi, East Germany’s Clunker, On the Comeback?”)

That night, jubilant Easterners surged into Wedding, past modern residential high-rises. “The West was flaunting what it could do, building these state-of-the-art apartments right next to the Wall,” says Axel Klausmeier, an architectural historian who heads the foundation responsible for conserving and commemorating the Wall and its history. Today, as the trail wends through Berlin, you notice that people in low-status jobs — sweeping streets, cleaning toilets — are Easterners or immigrants. Yet there’s also been a striking geographical reversal. The poorly paid and the unemployed were shunted into the high-rises of Wedding, in the west, as rich Berliners swooped on the elegant 19th century housing of Prenzlauer Berg, left to crumble in the East during the Cold War era, now lavishly restored. It’s similar along the edge of the neighboring district of Mitte, the focus of the city’s bar and restaurant culture. West Berlin was catnip to avant-garde artists, musicians and filmmakers from all over the world; its population swelled still further as young West German men moved to the city to avoid the military service that was compulsory in the rest of the country. But today East is cooler than West. “That’s where people with money want to live,” says Klausmeier. “Now there’s a social border in place of the physical one. It continues to shock me.”

A mental border, too. When the earthmovers arrived at Bernauerstrasse, a Lutheran pastor called Manfred Fischer confronted them, arms outstretched. His intervention saved the substantial chunk of the Wall along the Wedding-Mitte border that today forms the core of the Berlin Wall memorial. Plans have been drawn up to add a secular shrine to the victims of the Wall with their portraits embedded in a “window of memory.” The list of 136 victims includes eight G.D.R. border guards: two deserters shot by their comrades and six killed by West German police protecting escapees. To exclude them, says Klausmeier, would ignore the extent to which East Germans were coerced by the state.

(See pictures of East Germany making light of its dark past.)

Whether or not to include the G.D.R. guards is just one more example of the difficulty that Germans still have with their history. For much of the period after World War II, both the G.D.R. and West Germany resisted serious examination of their collective culpability for Nazism. In the West, that denial poisoned relations between the generations, infusing Germany’s student and counterculture movements with an anger not matched in other countries. A similar failure to confront the truth about the G.D.R. — its violent repression and the extent to which East Germans accepted and sometimes aided the regime — expresses itself in ostalgie, the rose-tinted nostalgia for a G.D.R. that never was. Ostalgie inspired the 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! and underpins the renaissance of iconic East German brands.

But there’s a darker side to ostalgie, a yearning for the old order among elderly Ossis to whom life in reunited Germany hasn’t always proved kind. Hubertus Knabe — the director of Hohenschönhausen, a former G.D.R. prison and now a memorial — argues that the success of Die Linke in the eastern states reveals a dangerous form of amnesia. His book Honeckers Erben (Honecker’s Heirs) depicts Die Linke as direct descendants of G.D.R. leader Erich Honecker’s repressive communist regime. “It’s a very human quality to whitewash the past,” he says. But he adds the warning: “It means one can’t learn from history.”

There used to be a blank space on maps of East Berlin where the Hohenschönhausen jail stood. Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, employed one officer for every 180 G.D.R. citizens and had a network of 180,000 informers. Those who fell foul of the system paid a heavy price. “This is not a museum,” insists Cliewe Juritza as he leads a group through the former prison. “If you visit a Baroque palace, you ponder on times that are closed. These times are not closed.”

Juritza, born in 1966, was captured, age 18, during his third escape attempt. One of 72,000 East Germans incarcerated for trying to leave their country, he served 10 months, suffering physical and psychological torture, before his freedom was bought by the West German government. (The G.D.R. earned hard currency and rid itself of dissidents by literally selling thousands of political prisoners.) Yet some Ossis still think Juritza and his fellow prisoners deserved their punishment. He tells of falling into conversation with an old man on a Berlin street. When Juritza mentioned his stint in jail, the old man erupted in fury. “Someone forgot to kill you,” he said.

See pictures of the Berlin Wall.

A Symbol of Resilience
These days juritza makes a living as a tour guide and one-man antidote to ostalgie. But the bulk of Berlin’s tourist industry colludes in revisionism, selling Berlin’s history to visitors in meaningless lumps, like the wall peckers hawking pieces of the Wall. Yet just as you despair that Germany will ever escape its conflicted sense of the past, the Wall trail crosses the River Spree, and symbols of the nation’s astounding resilience come into view. The Reichstag, opened in 1894 when Germany was a young nation-state, and later burned as the Nazis took power, is now the home to a thriving democracy. The Chancellery is currently occupied by Angela Merkel, the first woman and first Ossi to become Chancellor. Barring any great upsets she will still be there after the elections, her low-key pragmatism in tune with most in her country.

That Germany has achieved so much in such a relatively short period after reunification — stability, democracy, prosperity — paradoxically highlights its failings, the sections of society that have been excluded from the success story. Berlin has memorials everywhere, the earnest expression of modern Germany’s desire to acknowledge its difficult history. Yet for every memorial, there’s also a theme-park rendition of the past. At Potsdamer Platz you can have your picture taken with smiling “border guards” next to remounted Wall panels, decorated with faux graffiti on their eastern faces. “It’s disgusting,” says Knabe. “And it makes harmless something far from harmless.”

(Read: “The Battle For Berlin.”)

Nowhere has history been more thoroughly defanged than at Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing at Friedrichstrasse that has mutated into a kind of G.D.R. funfair. Tourists jostle for ice cream at the Kalter Krieg (Cold War) parlor, buy Russian hats and I ♥ BERLIN T shirts, and pose at a reconstruction of the American military post. “Cool,” says a teenage visitor to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, inspecting a VW Beetle with a secret compartment for smuggling human cargo. “Reunification was really great,” says Alexandra, a 15-year-old from southwestern Germany, as she browses in the museum’s gift shop. She finds it hard to explain her enthusiasm. “[The East Germans] speak German too,” she says finally.

Indeed they do, and sometimes unstoppably. Give them a chance and many Ossis will tell you what is wrong with the new Germany. “This is a throwaway culture. When you buy bread, it goes so hard you have to cut off the edges and it gets moldy really quickly,” says an elderly Ossi, working as a toilet attendant in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. “You never know what anything costs,” she continues. “In the G.D.R., a half-pound of butter cost the same in all the shops.” Her current job is badly paid (“Don’t ask”) and she has to fund her prescription glasses and hearing aid. Things would have been different, better, in the G.D.R., she says.

Such laments are common among older Ossis. They get short shrift from Niebank. Life after she settled in West Berlin didn’t prove easy — she divorced in 1970. She has worked hard and dutifully shelled out her “solidarity taxes” to lift the eastern German economy. “We had to pay for the East,” she says, “but they’re full of envy.” Young Germans, she says, have moved on. “My sons have absolutely no interest in history. They’ve never asked me about how I survived the war and they’re not interested in the Wall,” says Niebank. “Young people think of the future not the past.”

(See pictures of 1989.)

Untreated Wounds
Yet if Germans are to continue to enjoy the benefits of living in one of the world’s most prosperous countries, they would be wise not to ignore the inequities that so obstinately persist two decades after reunification — not just between Ossis and Wessis, but also between immigrants and others. For if there is one clear lesson from recent German history, it is this: wounds that are left untreated fester.

East of Checkpoint Charlie, the Wall trail crosses Axel-Springer-Strasse to the north of its intersection with Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse. Springer, a West German press baron, owned newspapers that denounced the Federal Republic’s nascent student-protest movement and Dutschke, its charismatic leader. When Dutschke was badly injured in an assassination attempt in 1968, the riots that followed exposed the rage young West Germans felt towards their elders. Two years later, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof founded the Red Army Faction, a left-wing terrorist group. In a 1971 survey, a quarter of West Germans under 30 professed to “a certain sympathy” for the terrorists.

(Read: “Germany’s Islamic Terrorists: Echoes of Baader-Meinhoff.”)

There is nothing like the Baader-
Meinhof gang in modern Germany. But offenses by far-right extremists jumped by 16% last year, with the rise most marked in the east, according to a report published in May by the German Interior Ministry. The Volkssolidarität survey in July found that 41% of Ossis were hostile to foreigners.

Ironically, Hilmi Kaya Turan, a leading member of Germany’s Turkish community, has fond memories of trips to the G.D.R. Turkish guest workers from West Berlin found that a handful of hard cash ensured they were treated like kings by the Ossis. These days Turan counsels the long-term unemployed. Among the 200,000 Berliners of Turkish origin — many live in districts along the old course of the Wall — joblessness, which averages 14% across the city, hovers around 50%. There’s yet another irony there. “Turks came here to work,” says Turan. “We were Gastarbeiter — guest workers. And there was work. But it changed very quickly after the Wall came down.” As Ossis moved west in search of jobs, Turks found themselves ousted and isolated. Their children then refused to assimilate. In Kreuzberg and Neu Kölln, the Turkish flag is everywhere: in windows, on shirts, draped across shoulders and heads. “The kids are interested in Islam and think of themselves as Turkish,” says Turan. “They say if the Germans don’t want us, we don’t want them.”

The failure to provide opportunities for all its Muslim population is another way in which Germany’s unwillingness to think big has hurt it. Germany is fundamentally a strong and cohesive society. Sour Ossis and disaffected immigrant communities do not threaten a new Weimar or a revival of the nihilism that scarred the 1970s. Muslims in Germany, for the most part, have rejected the siren calls of jihadism. But there is a strain of disappointment and resentment in Germany 20 years after the hated Wall came down which makes one uneasy about the future. In Oranienstrasse a convoy of cars drives past, horns blaring, Turkish flags fluttering from aerials. “It’s a wedding,” says Turan, “A celebration. We celebrated like this, we applauded as the Wall fell. But now we say ‘The Wall fell on us.’ ”

See pictures of the Cultural Icons of 1989.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com