Wall casts long shadow over city's elections

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The Independent Online

The flags flew at half-mast under a leaden sky, politicians in grey adopted sombre expressions and a wreath marking the spot where the wall had once defaced this city of eternal divisions was kicked asunder by an indignant dignitary. Another of those painful Berlin anniversaries passed off quite peacefully, leaving its residents wallowing in yet more bitterness.

Exactly 40 years ago yesterday the boundary between East and West Berlin sprouted a barbed wire fence overnight, followed shortly by a concrete wall, minefields, watch towers and a perimeter path for the patrol dogs. Though the wall fell in 1989, the anniversary of its construction appears to gain greater meaning with the passage of time. This year's commemorations struck a new pitch of hatred.

The offending wreath had been deposited by the Party of Democratic Socialism, the former communists. The PDS wanted to convey its grief over the hundreds of people shot dead by East German border guards. A member of a victims' group trampled upon it because the PDS, while prepared to shed crocodile tears, would not say "sorry".

The anniversary is not what has put the party's relationship to the past under the spotlight. For a decade the reform communists who lead the PDS have been ducking out of a meaningful statement on the most brutal symbol of their origins. But then they were deemed to be irrelevant, even though they held 40 per cent of East Berlin's voters in their sway.

Suddenly, due to the breakdown of the chummy alliance between the two biggest parties of the West, the new arithmetic has put the not-so- ex-communists in the centre of the equation of power. After elections to Berlin's regional parliament in two months, the PDS has a good chance of entering the city government for the first time.

To hear the politicians speak yesterday, a visitor from a distant land might be convinced that Berlin was a city stalked by the spectre of communism. In reality, the PDS will feel lucky if it is allowed to play second fiddle to the Social Democrats, who are expected to emerge from October's elections as the biggest force. Gregor Gysi, the PDS leader, may well be the cleverest and most popular of the politicians vying for the office of Mayor, but his chances of being elected are slimmer then winning first prize in a national lottery.

One of the ironies of the wall is that the people it had imprisoned harbour less hatred for its creators than do Western residents, to whom it was merely an inconvenience. Mr Gysi, a lawyer who had worked for dissidents while, according to a parliamentary committee, he had also occasionally moonlighted for the Stasi, is loathed in the West.

No party based in the West can afford to support him when the new regional parliament convenes to elect the Mayor. And, however well he does in the East, the overall PDS vote in Berlin will still be well short of 30 per cent.

But the mere prospect of the ex-communists being allowed to play, say, with the capital's trains has sent a shiver down the national spine. At the next scheduled anniversary, marking the official date of German unification, even Helmut Kohl, the "Chancellor of German unity", is likely to come out of mourning to warn the city of the red peril at its gates.

In the meantime, residents will be treated to the spectacle of an endless procession of politicians dwelling on their favourite bits of the past. For anyone straying into the dangerous waters of German history must master the art of selective memory, as the leading exponents have already demonstrated. Thus, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, when speaking yesterday about the evils of the communist regime, did not mention his cousin who had worked full-time for the Stasi. Nor did Angela Merkel, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats, speak of her time as an Agitprop secretary of the Communist Party's youth wing. It would have been irrelevant. After all, like Mr Gysi, Ms Merkel was far too young to play any role in the building of the wall.