Fifteen years on, Berlin's wall still casts its shadow

On 9 November 1989, the world celebrated as the Iron Curtain began to fall. But the cost has been high, and a wave of nostalgia for the Communist East is sweeping Germany. Tony Paterson reports
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The Independent Online

Visitors to Germany's reunited capital do not have to look far to find the "Berlin Wall". At sundown, near the city's former Allied crossing, Checkpoint Charlie, floodlights glare on a 600ft stretch of white concrete barrier, eerily reminiscent of the real thing.

Visitors to Germany's reunited capital do not have to look far to find the "Berlin Wall". At sundown, near the city's former Allied crossing, Checkpoint Charlie, floodlights glare on a 600ft stretch of white concrete barrier, eerily reminiscent of the real thing.

To drive home the solemnity of the spot, hundreds of man-sized wooden crosses have been embedded in stone around it in memory of the 1,065 East Germans killed by Communist border guards while trying to escape to the West during the 28 years the wall stood.

Yet today's "wall" is a phoney, finished only a fortnight ago, the brainchild of the director of the city's privately run Checkpoint Charlie Museum, who insisted it was important to build a memorial "so people don't forget".

At first, the project was dismissed by German politicians and historians as a garish piece of "Disneyland" that should never have been put up. "The real Berlin Wall was a monstrosity, but this thing makes it look harmless," said the historian Hubertus Knabe, an expert on the former East German regime. Yet Berlin's erzatz wall has proved a roaring and (for reunited Germany's politicians) embarrassing success. It has 3,500 tourists a day, far more than most of the city's premier museums and art galleries.

At Checkpoint Charlie last Sunday, many of the Berlin visitors staring at the concrete barrier, yards from a reconstructed Allied sentry-box decked out with British, American and French flags, were not even aware that the new wall was a fake. "You mean this isn't the real Berlin Wall?" said Jon Farley, a student from Birmingham on a weekend trip to Berlin with his girlfriend. "Well, at least there is something here to give an impression of what it must have looked like." He seemed crestfallen.

Alas, 15 years after the "fall" of the real Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, it has been all but wiped from the face of the German capital. There are still a few bits standing in remote corners. Without knowing it, Jon Farley would have passed a section in a field on the bus route to Berlin's Schönefeld airport and his cut-price flight back to London. The rest has gone. Some pieces were shipped to America, but the bulk of the former Iron Curtain was ground into concrete granules that form the underlay on autobahns laid across eastern Germany since the Wall's demise.

Tourists can glimpse the real Berlin Wall on a placard-sized black-and-white photograph that hangs on an information stand close to the city's immaculately restored Brandenburg Gate. The picture was taken from a helicopter in early 1989. It shows the Wall with all its murderous trappings, including tank traps, watchtowers, trip wires, dogs, searchlights and Kalashnikov-toting border guards. The area is now covered by bank buildings and a vast construction site on which Berlin's controversial Holocaust memorial is being shaped.

Brian Todd, 37, a visitor from Los Angeles, looked at the photograph and said: "We Americans should have kept a piece of the Berlin Wall as it was and slapped a preservation order on it." The Americans left Berlin a decade ago.

But the city is bankrupt. Its government is run by Social Democrats and the Party for Democratic Socialism, the successor organisation to the East German Communist Party. Neither have shown interest in building a monument that could provide a genuine, lasting impression of what the real Wall was like.

Stephan Hilsberg, one of the few Social Democrat politicians belatedly campaigning for a wall monument, said: "Berlin has not just failed to exhibit its recent history, since 1990 it has actively suppressed it." Memories of the nastiness of the wall and the regime that erected it have been replaced by "Ostalgia" television chat-shows and popular films recalling an essentially cosy Communist East, as in Goodbye Lenin.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and leading members of his Social Democrat-led government have also demonstrated extraordinary insensitivity over the issue. Last week, Mr Schröder was at the forefront of a government campaign to scrap German unity day, decreed a public holiday on 3 October every year since the country was formally reunited 14 years ago. Mr Schröder said scrapping the holiday would put Germans back to work, saving the country an estimated €2bn (£1.4bn) in hitherto lost revenues. "I still think it is a good idea," the Chancellor said on Friday when the plan was dropped after widespread protest.

The Schröder government's blatant disregard for recent history is not difficult to understand. For most of the predominantly west German politicians who govern from Berlin, German reunification is less a source of national pride than tangible evidence of near-catastrophic economic failure, and a constant reminder of a problem that stubbornly refuses to go away.

The "blossoming landscapes" that Helmut Kohl, Germany's former "Unification Chancellor", promised east Germans back in 1990 have failed to materialise. In the years since the fall of the Wall, much of east Germany has become a sort of depopulated rump state where only 40 per cent of the 15 million inhabitants work, and which has become dependent on annual injections of €90bn from the West for survival.

Like Mr Kohl, Chancellor Schröder promised great things for eastern Germany when he was elected in 1998. The east was to become Chefsache, the Chancellor's personal project. Nowadays, Mr Schröder does not look east.

Last August he made one of his rare forays into the region to campaign for his Social Democrats in elections in the eastern state of Brandenburg. When Mr Schröder appeared in the Elbe city of Wittenberge, a mob of heckling protesters threw eggs at him, and stones at his cavalcade of official black Mercedes. "You practise legalised poverty", read one of the placards.

Wittenberge is representative of hundreds of provincial towns in east Germany. Before the fall of the Wall it had a population of 38,000, mostly working at the Singer sewing-machine factory, rape-seed oil mill and vehicle repair plant. All three businesses collapsed after unification. Wittenberge's population is now below 24,000. Government job-creation programmes conceal a real unemployment rate of between 50 and 60 per cent. Local business leaders say that if the economic blight continues, by 2015 the town's population will have dropped to 15,000.

"The pattern is always the same," said Detlef Benecke, who runs a removals company. "First, the wife loses her job, then the husband loses his. Then the husband starts commuting to west Germany, where he has a new job. After a year, or even a few months, he decides he can't take the commuting any more so the whole family leaves."

Wittenberge's Packhof quarter, a once-elegant district of turn-of-the-century houses close to the main shopping street, bears evidence of the human haemorrhage. None of the 600 apartments in the quarter is occupied. Smashed pub signs, shattered windows and placards advertising west German beer glower at empty streets. The area is being demolished. East Germany has lost nearly two million inhabitants since the Wall fell, and the exodus continues.

Four years ago, a report on German government policy, commissioned by Wolfgang Thierse, Germany's Social Democrat parliamentary president and a former east German citizen, found that the massive annual subsidy from west to east had created an artificially sustained economy incapable of standing on its own.

The report was angrily dismissed by the Schröder government as a document which "sends the wrong messages", and "talks down the east". Claus Noe, an economist, said: "In reality, the attempt to create a market economy in east Germany is failing more and more each year. But anyone who speaks about this is considered a traitor."

Today's anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has given the German media another chance to explain why unification has been such a failure. First, there was Helmut Kohl's politically smart but economically disastrous decision to give east Germans the Deutschmark at a one-to-one conversion rate. The move in effect wrecked east Germany's industrial base in one fell stroke by rendering its exports some 400 per cent more expensive. So east Germany was flooded with west German products and east German business collapsed. Then the government's Treuhand agency was given the job of privatising east Germany's formerly state-owned industries. So there was a sale of east German businesses to the west which caused many mass closures.

Many economists said west Germany's trade unions added to the damage by demanding - and getting - equal pay for workers in east and west. The pay rises ruined potential investment in the east. Then the whole machinery of west German state bureaucracy was imposed on the east. With its countless laws and prohibitions the system still acts as a major disincentive to entrepreneurs in all of Germany.

Subsidising the east with massive transfers of western capital has caused German debt to spiral out of control. Ironically, the Schröder government's recent attempts to get a grip on this problem resulted in its abortive attempt to cancel "German unity day".

Klaus-Peter Schmidt, an economic analyst, wrote in Die Zeit newspaper: "The politicians appear to be as clueless as they were the day the wall fell. It is as if they have learnt nothing from the cardinal errors that were made during the east's reconstruction."

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Egon Krenz

The 67-year-old was East Germany's last Communist leader. He replaced Erich Honecker in 1989 but was forced to step down in December the same year, weeks after the fall of the wall. In 1997, a Berlin court sentenced Krenz to six and a half years in jail for his part in drawing up the shoot-to-kill order to guards stopping people crossing at the Berlin Wall. Krenz was let out of prison in December last year. He is retired and lives with his wife in the resort town of Dierhagen, on east Germany's Baltic coast.

Günter Schabowski

Now 75, he was the East German politburo member who announced the opening of the borders to the west on 9 November 1989. The Berlin Wall fell within hours. He was sentenced to three years for the wall deaths but was released after a year. Schabowski is one of the few politburo members to have denounced the former Communist regime. After reunification, he became a newspaper sub-editor and campaigned for the conservative Christian Democratic Party.

Helmut Kohl

At 68, Germany's former "Unification Chancellor" is enjoying a political comeback from public disgrace after revelations in 1999 that he ran an illicit slush fund to finance his ruling conservative Christian Democratic Party. Mr Kohl was cheered by Germany's young conservatives at a rally last month. Tonight he will appear at a Berlin venue close to the site of the former wall to talk about the failures and successes of unification.

Bärbel Bohley

Born in 1945, the artist and political activist was among the founders of the east German dissident movement New Forum, which staged demonstrations that led to the eventual collapse of the country's regime. Imprisoned under Communism for making illegal contact with the West German Green party, she was later given a visa for the United Kingdom for six months. In the 1990s, she moved to Sarajevo to work for the European Union. She now runs a child-help group in Croatia.

Kurt Masur

The celebrated east German conductor and humanist, born in 1927 in Breig, Silesia, who headed the New York Philharmonic orchestra in the 1990s, was in charge of Leipzig city orchestra in 1989. He negotiated with the ruling Communists to prevent police from crushing protests against the regime in the city. He is now musical director of the Orchestre Nationale de France in Paris and chief conductor at the London Philharmonic, as well as being a frequent international guest conductor.

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