The fall of the wall: For some, there's little to celebrate
Reunification has led to fewer jobs and fewer people in the east, and some are nostalgic for a more certain past
Sunday 08 November 2009
It is unlikely that many residents will be wildly celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the German capital's sprawling tower-block suburb of Marzahn-Hellersdorf tomorrow night.
The district was built 30 years ago during the communist era on the north-east edge of the city, and with its street upon street of concrete high-rise flats housing 247,000 Berliners, it rates as the largest tower-block estate in Europe.
Once a glowing symbol of socialist progress, Marzahn-Hellersdorf is nowadays the political stronghold of Germany's new Linke party – the successor organisation to the banned former communist Socialist Unity Party that once controlled East Germany.
In Marzahn-Hellersdorf the Linke polled a staggering 47.7 per cent of the vote in Germany's September election. But the result was considered average by the district's politicians because the Linke has been the dominant political force in the suburb since German reunification in 1990.
"In political terms there has been a seamless transition from the old East German Communist Party to the Linke," Yvette Rami, the Linke's spokeswoman in Marzahn-Hellersdorf said. "The people still vote the same way as they did when the Berlin Wall was still standing," she added.
With voting habits like these it is perhaps not surprising that the Linke and its supporters have chosen to ignore tomorrow's anniversary. The party's district newspaper contains a page recalling events that took place 20 years ago in Berlin. This month's 9 November, 1989 entry reads: "10th party Central Committee meeting. Politburo voted out of office. New Politburo voted into office." The fall of the Wall is not even mentioned.
Mrs Rami said that despite concerted efforts, mainstream German political parties such as the conservative Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats had failed to make a significant impact in Marzahn-Hellersdorf.
The district was once the envy of East Germans. It was a brand new housing area which boasted what by communist standards were luxury flats with central heating, baths, and hot and cold running water. Communist Party members and supporters were first in the queue when it came to allocating them, and many still live there.
Places like Marzahn-Hellersdorf and the rise of the Linke, which is fast gaining ground in east Germany, are sobering reminders that German reunification, for some in the east, has not led to runaway success and the headlong embrace of western capitalism, which is how it is portrayed by many politicians in the country's mainstream parties.
Repeated surveys have shown that only a tiny minority of east Germans want the Berlin Wall put back up. But many, particularly those aged 55 and over, tend to forget that the wall kept them in a vast prison for 28 years, and that one in 20 of their fellow citizens worked as an informer for the country's reviled and omnipresent Stasi secret police.
Instead they look back to the country's communist era with nostalgia. They remember the crime-free neighbourhoods where nobody locked their front doors, full employment, free kindergartens, schools and medical treatment.
Such memories contrast starkly with today's reality in the numerous pockets of social and economic deprivation which are to be found all over the former communist east. For instance, in Hoyerswerda and Eisenhüttenstadt, towns that were mining and steel strongholds under communism, populations have fallen by nearly half since the wall fell, and unemployment has rocketed to 20 per cent.
The main reason for the breakdown of such communities has been the collapse of their industrial base. Mass emigration followed. Some two million of the former German Democratic Republic's 17 million citizens have gone west in search of jobs since 1989. More than a million homes are in the process of being demolished. The end of collective farming has led to the mass de-population of vast tracts of countryside in the agricultural regions of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Pommerania north of Berlin.
Yet there have been many success stories as well. The puffing two-stroke Trabant cars that used to judder along East Germany's pot-holed highways have been replaced by Audis, Mercedes and Volkswagens speeding along a vast network of new autobahns that now fan out across eastern Germany.
Towns such as Leipzig and Dresden, which before the Second World War were major European cultural centres, suffered appallingly from wartime bombing and subsequent neglect under communism. Today both cities have been restored almost to their former glory, and are enjoying the fruits of a slow but steady economic upturn and population growth.
New industry has put down roots in the region and even prompted the car-maker, Rolls-Royce, to open a showroom and dealership in a suburb of Dresden. The area is awash with immaculately renovated 19th-century villas which are being snapped up by wealthy newcomers from the west. But that said, the east's total economic output still only amounts to 10 per cent of Germany's Gross Domestic Product.
Twenty years ago an East Berlin protestant pastor and dissident called Werner Krätchell remarked that the fall of the Berlin Wall was so important to East Germans because, unlike West Germans, they felt that history had punished them twice since 1945 – once through defeat and again as a result of communist oppression.
In that sense, the fall of the Berlin Wall's true beneficiaries are east Germans aged 40 and under. They are a generation that has finally escaped punishment and which is able, at last, to take freedom to travel, free speech, and all the other attributes of a thriving capitalist democracy, completely for granted.
Nature has taken back the old frontier strip
Rupert cornwell, travel pages 69-71
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