It was a bitter winter’s night in the formerly Soviet East Berlin. The stark harshness of the uniform greyscale tower blocks, menacing leftovers of the repressive Moscow-controlled GDR regime, and lack of directions on the dark streets inspired trepidation in Rainer Hildebrant.
Not so long ago, he had been hounded by those who guarded and fortified this sector of the city with an iron fist; they had tried to kidnap him three times. ‘State security’ had made it clear that he was not welcome here.
Time had passed and political circumstances had changed, but in the mind of Hildebrandt, being lost and defenceless in the old enemy territory only led to a cold sweat of panic.
Hildebrandt scanned the dimly lit boulevards of the desolate concrete jungle for his beacon of light; a benevolent stranger who would help to guide him back to his world. He cried out to passers-by, “How do I get to West Berlin?”
Rainer’s now widow Alexandra, these days curator of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum the political activist set up before the fall of the wall, tells me the story of one of her late husband’s only visits to East Berlin. We are sitting in a small study four floors above the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in a typical Berlin townhouse. Small passageways lead to large and gloomy wood-trimmed rooms and it all feels very enclosed, save for a small window with light and city noise pouring in from the street below.
“The people on the streets of East Berlin all laughed” she recalls. A quiet smile appears on her face while she shares her bittersweet memory; “There is no more East and West Berlin! It’s all Berlin!’” they told him.
They were right; it was all just ‘Berlin.’ But what was Berlin anymore? The city now dredges up many different memories for different people, namely those older citizens of the German capital who forcibly endured one of the cruellest evils of the 20th Century.
The wall sprang from hate, fear and suspicion, and destroyed German lives. Much of Berlin’s population had known war, and yet they had never experienced war like this before; families and friends were separated and people lost their jobs. Children grew up knowing nothing about the lives of their fellow countrymen behind the wall; this created segregation and isolation within the German community, which continues to this day.
Miles of erected concrete splintered the city. The wall stood for twenty-eight years; it wasn’t a long time in man’s history, but it was more than enough time for Berlin to become a cauldron of unrest; violent uprisings, murder, pain and tears which would divide the war-weary nation for generations to come.
“If you drive through the city of Berlin in 2008” says Alexandra Hildebrandt, “you’ll see that physically, the old East and West sides are starting to look not that different. Shops and cars are the same, and the buildings in the East will be nicer because of renovation in many places. Not everything is equal yet, but step by step…”
“Buildings in the East are newer, more hi-tec,” Gerd Glanze, East Berliner and the man who demolished the largest amount of the Wall, tells me. “The West side is older, and I think that West Berliners are a bit sour about the East being a bit more developed now.”
When I meet with Hildebrandt, I recall what Gerd told me. I’m curious to know her thoughts. She laughs and says it’s a joke among Berliners that the once deprived East will now be newer and more advanced.
Simone Matern of the city’s Trabi Safari company undercuts the jest by explaining, “Sometimes, anger from West to East Berliners flares up because the Westerners still pay the East some solidarity tax to help them up, so they can build new streets and develop their industry. Some Westerners think that if the Easterners still haven’t made it yet, it’s their own fault.”
West Germans, she says, “Have more money; their families are richer; it’s still this way, definitely.”
Matern was a child in the time of wall, and she reveals of her experiences, “I grew up in this fenced West Berlin. For me it was safety; it was like a field in a fenced garden, and I felt at home. My parents asked me, ‘How can you think like this?’ because they knew the old times without the wall. For them it was normal to get back to having East and West combined again in 1989.”
Gerd Glanze sits aside his counter at the East Side Gallery souvenir shop, slowly picking through the remnants of Communist regime, which he tells me he was happy to have known. A chirpy group of teenagers from Hong Kong milling around next to him sift through some once coveted ‘exemplary Soviet citizen’ pins that have long since been reduced to mere tourist bric-a-brac. Gerd tells the school kids that his wife, too, is Asian. It does seem peculiar that while Germany is now a fully globalised nation, there is still a psychological civil war being played out within the German society.
Glanze, as an East Berliner, doesn’t agree that nothing good happened in the lives of those living under Communism. “Without the Fatherland spiel of having to do the Communist salutes and things, the education was excellent,” he says.
“The ideals of Communism,” Gerd smiles, “are friendly- like religion- but in reality, wars are caused. Communism is an unnatural illusion. It’s a great idea, but the wrong planet for that ideology to succeed in…”
The problems of the reintegration, which, it seems, still exist nearly twenty years on, do not stop at economics; it is very clear that in terms of economic redevelopment, there has been definite and successful progress in Germany. To give an example, ‘No man’s land,’ or the once notorious ‘death strip’ running through Berlin is now under regeneration. Impassable for decades, the ‘Green Ribbon,’ as the strip is now proudly christened, will presently be transformed into a leafy oasis running through Berlin for all to enjoy. While birds and plants will undoubtedly appreciate the Council’s restorative efforts, perhaps some Berliners will feel uneasy at the prospect of sitting down for a family picnic on a spot where so much blood was so recently shed.
The persevering problem, still needing time to heal, is the breaking down of barriers in both ex-West and East German heads. Still, with now tourist-magnet reminders of the years of German conflict at every street corner, Berliners could be forgiven for their apparent inability to at least forgive and reintegrate, if not forget.
“People still have the mentalities from the socialist time;” confirms Hildebrandt. “It will take generations to change that. We Berliners still know where the borders of the wall were.”
It seems that it will be many more years before true and complete reintegration is achieved in Germany. Their twentieth century was long and traumatic; it would be understandable if true peace in the Fatherland were only attainable a century later.
“You have to have lived through the situation in order to know about it, and those who didn’t will never truly understand” Glanze admits.
Both he and Hildebrandt give the same response when I ask what the generation of Germans born after the fall of the Wall think. “Young people don’t care. They must hear stories from their parents and grandparents, but unless you’ve lived through something, it’s a story, that’s all. Sure, a terrible story, but just a story.”
“It is very important,” Hildebrandt says, her voice lowering to a solemn whisper, “that we show everything that happened; how we, the people, lived, and to know that will never happen again” she tells me. “Many young people come here to understand how it was. We have hope that it will never happen again.”
“What can be good” she continues, “about a system of government where people did not have the most important thing- freedom- their human rights? What can be good?” She queries, before sighing, “Nothing.”
Matern admits that West Berliners don’t move too much around East Berlin. “They’d rather leave the city than move to East Berlin, and East Berliners don’t really move to West Berlin. There are very few marriages between East and West Berliners. It’s amazing.”
“For my friends,” she continues, “The East is a cool area to go out, but for their residence, they all prefer their ‘safe’ area where they grew up.”
Despite this, Matern, born in West Berlin, now lives in the East. More Germans must feel compelled to acquire her example if Germany is to move on, but despite the divisions, there seems to be a quiet confidence growing within the Fatherland that the country will, at a slow yet steady pace, be able to break away from the painful psychological shackles of its own past to embrace a full and finalized unification.
“Europe has an ugly past,” admits Gerd Glanze, “But I’m hopeful; I think Europe has a chance at peace now.”