The Berlin Wall, 30 years later

Berlin Wall - Trabbi

Tomorrow, November 9th, is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the most visible in a series of events that triggered German reunification. My German husband had assured me back in the 1980s that the country would never reunite. They’ve grown apart, he said. They’re two separate countries now. It’s over.

This prediction was earth-shatteringly wrong, but more important it shows that he was a child of his generation. The politicians in charge of Germany when the Eastern Bloc disintegrated of an age that knew one Germany from their youth. For them there was no question: Of course the two countries belonged together. The Cold War had split Germany in half and had finally ended. Now that it was over, reunification was the obvious final chapter in that story.

When East Germany fell apart, I was amazed at how all the talk was not about whether the two countries should reunite, but when. That whole discussion was fast tracked. It turned out that there was an underlying desire to reunite, particularly among those in power. When the historic opportunity presented itself, the ruling politicians at the time, notably Helmut Kohl, jumped on it and bent over backwards to make it happen and happen fast. Hans Dietrich Genscher, Foreign Minister at the time and instrumental in supporting reunification, was himself from Halle of former East Germany. Given his personal history, who could blame him for championing it?

While Angela Merkel was famously in the sauna while her comrades were storming the Wall, my husband and I were sitting dumbfounded on the couch in faraway Munich watching the events unfold on TV. Our mouths had been pretty much agape for several weeks as the Eastern Bloc crumbled before our very eyes. Now it was East Germany.

“Good thing we’re far away down south in Bavaria,” I said, clicking off the TV before we went to bed.

That illusion lasted one day. That was the length of time it took for the Trabbis, the nickname for the tiny (and only) cars driven by East Germans, to come chugging down the Autobahn on their way to Munich. Along the way they choked the highway since their two-stroke motors only allowed them to drive 80 km/h. Just imagine a caravan of rider mowers on the highway.

Anyone who has ever been anywhere near an Autobahn knows that someone driving at 80 km/h is either entering or exiting the highway – but certainly not driving on it! Unless, of course, you’re sitting behind the wheel of a Trabbi. In no time they had arrived and lined the streets and sidewalks of Munich. The police turned a blind eye, allowing our East German cousins to enjoy their first taste of freedom without a parking ticket.

The sight of this flood of tiny cars that had been designed in the 1950s gave rise to all kinds of jokes, like this one:

A cow pie on the highway gets run over by a Trabbi. The Trabbi stops and looks down.

Trabbi: Sorry, I didn’t see you there!

Cow pie, looking up: What in the world are you?

Trabbi: I’m a Trabbi, silly. A Trabbi!

The cow pie shows no reaction.

Trabbi: I’m a car!

Cow pie: Well, if you’re a car, then I’m a Black Forest cherry cake!

For me as a foreigner, it felt as if a time capsule had been cracked open. Suddenly reporters were scurrying around interviewing people all over East Germany, an area that had just until recently been sealed off and completely inaccessible. They were eager to interview real people on the streets, which is exactly what they did.

The first time we tuned into the news I couldn’t believe my ears

“What kind of an accent is that?!” I exclaimed to my husband. “I didn’t understand a word!”

“It’s Sächsisch,” he said. “It’s what they speak in Saxony.”

I had never heard anything like it. I had been so proud of my mastery of differentiating between a Bavarian accent and an Austrian one (something that is glaringly obvious to native speakers but tricky for foreigners). Now I had a whole new batch of accents to recognize and understand.

Fortunately for Bavarians, Sächsisch has since joined Bavarian at the top of the list of accents to poke fun at in German comedy shows (all three of them) or when talking to friends who are from anywhere but Bavaria or Saxony. For people in Berlin and Northern Germany, nothing beats making fun of a Bavarian. Or a Saxonian. Up until reunification, Bavaria had to take all the punches. It was very kind indeed of Sachsen to line up and join ranks with their southern neighbors and share the glory.

My husband, my sister Katie and I had taken a trip to East Germany after the Wall came down but before reunification when East Germany’s fate was still in limbo. There was a strange sensation afoot. What would happen now? Reunification? And if so, how and when? What form of government would they have? It was a very anxious time for East Germans.

This was no ordinary vacation. During this period there were no hotels, hardly any restaurants – and no tourists. Planning our trip was very much off the cuff. Some enterprising individual had compiled a list of private homes in East Germany that would host people, so that’s where we stayed.

In Dresden, we stayed with a woman in her early 60s. She kept referring to me as English. After correcting her gently several times, I finally figured out what was going on: She had had so little exposure to the outside world that the line between English and American was blurry. I was some English speaker and whether I came from the one side of the Atlantic Ocean or the other was irrelevant. I spoke English; she didn’t. That’s all that mattered. For her, I may as well have been from the moon.

In East Berlin, the heart of divided Germany, we stayed in the apartment of a nice young couple in the neighborhood of Marzahn, one of those areas that screams Eastern Bloc. It was a Plattenbau, the name for the socialist housing consisting of row after row of sterile, high-rise apartment buildings commonly found in Eastern bloc countries. Our host told us he was just about leave on an extended trip through the socialist brother countries, as fellow members of the Warsaw Pact were known. Prior to the fall of the Wall, those were the only countries where East Germans were allowed to travel since there was little danger of defection.

Not very pretty, but Plattenbauten serve their purpose of providing housing for the masses. Many of these have since been torn down.
Source: Wikipedia creative commons

The crucial detail in this case, however, was that he could spend his Ostmark in these countries. Nowhere else. He correctly guessed that reunification was imminent and that his money would then become worthless. He was right. Up to a certain amount East Germans could convert their Ostmark 1:1, after that in reduced proportions, and above a certain amount it was not accepted. That meant for many East Germans the loss of life savings.

Getting out of East Germany felt like being let out of a cage. Suddenly the impenetrable boundaries that had been life-defining fell away. Many East Germans had previously not bothered to dream about what lay beyond the border. Why should they? It was an exercise in frustration. This made the shock all the greater once they were able to travel and leave the country.

My friend Anja from Dresden describes seeing the planes lined up at Frankfurt International Airport for the first time.

“To think,” she exclaimed, “that all you had to do was get into any one of those planes and it would take you anywhere in the world!”

I thought about this for a moment. Here I was, an American living on the other side of the ocean, simply because I had decided one day that I would like to give it a try. The only difficulties I wrestled with were in my own mind: Should I stay for good or go back? In the end I decided to stay. It was wholly my decision.

I could not fathom what it would be like to have no control over where I live.

But Anja has more than made up for lost time. The only corner of the world she hasn’t visited is really the corner – Antarctica – and possibly the Galágapos Islands, although those two places are most certainly on her list. When I started rhapsodizing about my amazing trip to the American West, I was quickly put in my place.

“Bryce Canyon, fantastic! I absolutely loved it. And did you go to Arches? Antelope Canyon? The Grand Canyon?”

Not only had she visited them all, she had hiked and camped there extensively. She also used the opportunity to get selfies with the park rangers and got close-up shots of all the wildlife with her giant telephoto lens, photos which are now carefully sorted and labeled in thick albums.

I decided not to show her my vacation photos. It’s not that I hadn’t taken any, I had plenty on my phone. At that point I made a firm decision to sort them, too. No problem. They’re somewhere between detailed shots of spring flowers in the yard and my annual batch of Oktoberfest photos.

Anja has also been to Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia. Together with her husband they rented a motorcycle and traversed the back roads, hitting all the temples, which she dutifully photographed – with her telephoto lens, of course. She took pains to arrive at either sunrise or sunset, depending on the optimal slant of the sun, to get just the right shot. She also knew exactly what season was the prettiest and the best way to avoid the throngs of Chinese tourists.

My friend Michael lived in Paris for years and came to Munich to visit. He was baffled by its appearance.

Michael: Why does everything look so new?

Me: Well, they clean the buildings you know. Come on, it’s Germany.

Michael: No, it’s more than that. Paris looks really old. Why does everything look so new here?

Finally, it hit him.

Michael: It’s the bombs! Munich was bombed in WWII! But Paris wasn’t. That’s why everything looks so extremely old there. Because it is old. Here it’s new old.

I was reminded of this on our trip to East Germany just after the Wall came down. Everything was so run down. The buildings were covered with soot and many still showed damage from WWII, which at that point was 45 years in the past. Buildings badly needed renovating and the facades had crumbling stucco and warped wooden doors and shutters.

A few years after reunification, walking through an East German city feels like walking through the town in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Everything is freshly renovated, painted and scrubbed, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale come to life. This is the Solidaritätszuschlag or solidarity premium, a tax to finance reunification, at work. There are also huge shopping malls, hotels, restaurants. It’s hard to imagine how different it looked not so long ago.

Now East Germany looks even newer than the West, or as my friend Michael would say, now it’s new old.

The resurgence of the far right in the new states, as the states of former East Germany are referred to, is troublesome. To understand how this could happen, imagine a high school where all the top students change to the private school across town, leaving only the average ones and especially the bullies and troublemakers. That’s what happened to East Germany after reunification. The young, moderate, and hard-working people who had been keeping the economy afloat left for the West.

After all, that’s why the built the Wall in the first place – to keep everyone in. Once it was gone, the floodgates were open.  

There was not just a population shift, but East Germany is also treated somewhat like a colony. They criticize this situation, referring to themselves as an extended workbench. All large companies have their headquarters in the old states or former West Germany. There are subsidiaries in the East, but few headquarters. The federal government has made promises to relocate a certain quota of ministries in the East, but this program has not been rigorously enforced.

People who are young enough not to remember the fall of the Wall or who were born afterwards feel more like citizens of one single country. Older people had a much harder time adjusting and many lost their jobs. There are still inequalities to be sure – and the right-wing movement is not to be ignored – but most young people by and large feel like neither East or West German – just German. It will take a generation or two, but eventually the scars from the former division of the country will heal and fade. It will become part of the collective memory and a chapter in the history books.

Brenda Arnold

More interesting posts:
The Berlin Airlift: Reflecting on 75 Years of Historical Significance
Berlin, lost and sometimes found

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