The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later

Remaining stretch of the Wall near Ostbahnhof in Friedrichshain called East Side Gallery, August 2006 Photograph Source: Herraotic – CC BY-SA 3.0

Remembrance Days are rewarding for journalists, especially since Google made research digging so easy. And how the German media love such days! Their favorite dates recall four events: June 17, 1953,  the “Uprising” (or whatever it’s labeled) by East German workers in the birthing period of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the building of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, its opening up on November  9, 1989 and “German unification” on October 3, 1990. The final digits of round-numbered years are 3, 1, 9 and 0. Add on five-year final digits – after all, proper calendars must mark 25 or 35 year anniversaries – and you get 8, 6, 4 and 5, so all but two years every decade offer fine opportunities for journalists, orators and politicians to remind us, for days, even weeks in advance, how awful the GDR was, how doomed to fail and how lucky its demise made all of us poor “Ossies” (East Germans).

We are again blessed with one such year. Not German unification, a 29th year is not round. But November 9th fits the bill, a full 30 years after the Berlin Wall was breached, so we must ready our nerves for weeks of speeches, articles, memory dips and PR stunts. At one such event miles of big domino stones were pushed down, at another, thousands of brightly lit balloons sent floating upward. Such celebrations usually end up near the Brandenburg Gate with giant fireworks and fervent singing of the all-German anthem, “Deutschland über alles”.

Sarcastic voices mumble that their basic aim was formulated back in 1991 by Minister of Justice Klaus Kinkel: “It must be possible to delegitimize the GDR system, which justified itself till the bitter end with its anti-fascist beliefs, its professedly higher values and its asserted absolute humanism while, under the cover of its Marxism-Leninism, it built up a state in many aspects just as inhumane and frightful as fascist Germany”. This from a man whose second goal for Germany contained curious, worrisome undertones: “… to complete something we have twice previously failed to achieve: finding a role, in agreement with our neighbors, which corresponds with our wishes and our potential.”

His equation of fascists and communists, of fascism and communism, was recently adopted as official policy by the European Union, blaming both for World War Two, ignoring even a mention that Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sachsenhausen were freed and Nazi Germany defeated thanks more to the USSR than to any other country, and that it lost 27 million of its people as a result of Nazi aggression.

Why is the 20th century’s tragic history so distorted? And why, in Germany, are unrelenting salvos still fired at a sunken vessel, the GDR, aimed at any broken spars still visible above the waves? Why, after thirty years, is it still being kicked, like the corpse of a deceased work horse? Do some still fear it might yet kick or bite?

But sarcasm is unappropriate when recalling how thousands, in total euphoria, poured through the suddenly opened checkpoints of the Berlin Wall. At last they could freely visit friends and relatives – with no restrictions or limitations. They could soon join eager lines to admire Mona Lisa, climb the Leaning Tower, ride cablecars in Frisco’s Chinatown or camel backs to Gizeh’s pyramids, try their luck in Monaco or Vegas. After 28 years of feeling walled-in they could now breathe joyfully the fresh air of the free world. Their tears of joy were genuine.

Most immediately, they found a very tangible goal in those first heady days. Every West Berlin bank awarded them “welcome money”- 100 marks, West-marks at last, not the scorned East-marks! They could spend them freely for the bananas they had missed, like papayas and other fruits rare or unknown in the East. There were Mars bars, Hershey bars (and even all-night bars), Big Whoppers, the latest fashionable shoes, blouses, dessous and dildos, they could admire crowded Ku’damm, West Berlin’s “Fifth Avenue” or the lone, widowed panda bear in the West Berlin zoo. Or see the latest Hollywood blockbuster and buy books by Tom Clancy (or Koestler), still unavailable in the East where, within a few months, any last faded slogans about peace, production, socialism – and our wise leaders – would disappear, replaced by glittering images of Marlboro cowboys, golden McDonald arches, sleek VWs or BMWs displayed by sleek female beauties. Above all, there were those West-marks, respected in all the world – and soon required in every purchase and payment.

But alas, before long unexpected thorns were felt: unity brought rapid privatization, shutdown and abandonment of almost all East German industry, some of it decrepit, some of it state of the art, the lay-off of millions, the firing of nearly everyone in any form of administration, down to “ignorant eastern” traffic or sewage disposal managers, the silencing of teachers, professors, journalists, scientists, actors and musicians by the thousand.

But while most of the replaced ones hunted sadly for any new occupation, however meager and unaccustomed, and others simply gave up, younger generations searched for new niches in the new/old system, rejoiced at the wide choice of cars, books, or vacation destinations and enjoyed the fireworks, perhaps even the newly-learned anthem, without regretting the loss of a fading past with all its deficiencies and injustices. And by now, after all, three decades have helped it fade!

And yet today’s atmosphere, especially in the five eastern, former GDR states, somehow seems to lack the esprit of past remembrance days. The reasons? Wages have still not caught up with West German levels, hours are longer, jobless figures higher than those in the West. In both East and West the jobs are more often insecure, temporary, part-time, lower-paid. Germany’s powerful economy, based on exports of cars, machines, chemicals, is weakening. The scandal at Volkswagen and then most other carmakers, with lying cheaters at the top poisoning the atmosphere with their gas emissions while raking in millions, is cutting export figures. A likely break-away of Britain with its Brexit can hit export trade sharply and weaken the entire European Union which Germany has been increasingly dominating. It, too, is currently torn by dissension and the increasing stubbornness of its eastern members, also rescued thirty years ago from diabolical totalitarianism but now turning ever more clearly to the right, from Warsaw and Budapest to Sofia and Kiev.

Even thirty years have not accustomed all ex-GDR citizens to seeing youngsters in the streets with their ragged dogs and paper cups for charitable donations, concert violinists begging money with Mozart in cold subway stations or, on icy nights, homeless huddled figures in sleeping bags on the stations’ concrete floors – although some may “not even be Germans” but only immigrants from other liberated regions such as Poland or Bulgaria.

Not only sympathy or charity result. Many in eastern Germany are still waiting for the promised “blossoming landscapes” and wondrous West-mark bounties. Insecurity and feelings of dissatisfaction at “second-class citizenship” lead many to sullen rejection of all “establishment parties” and, fueled by racist propaganda too often aided by the media, cause them to believe that aid and support they are deprived of is wasted on “refugees and immigrants”, especially Islamist Muslims – in other words the poorest.

Many in Germany watched with alarm when Görlitz, one of its most beautiful towns, after losing nearly all its industry and large numbers of its young citizens, came very close to electing an extreme right-wing xenophobe from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) as mayor. On September 1 that party won a powerful second place in two of the five East German states, Saxony and Brandenburg. In two weeks it will try for the same goal in Thuringia, where its leader spouts, almost verbatim, quotations of fanatic Nazi leaders from the 1930s.

Such anger is not only expressed in voting booths but in violence as well, by fanatic loners or networks of neo-nazis, often tolerated or even supported by frightened small town mayors, sympathizers wearing police uniforms, judges’ robes or parliamentary suits and ties. Most attacks are against those “other” Muslims, but anti-Semitism can also be found again in German streets. In Halle, in the East German state, Saxony-Anhalt, a synagogue was attacked during Yom Kippur ceremonies and a man in a Turkish shop nearby was killed. And hatred now possesses a political base in every German state legislature, east and west.

The Fall of the Wall and the demise of the GDR which followed had other consequences. For the first time since 1945 Germans in uniform engaged in military battle when, defying the UN and international law, Tornado fighters fired NATO missiles against Serbia, a land Germany had violently attacked in both world wars. Following this historic breakthrough was the deployment of soldiers and pilots to Afghanistan and Mali and sailors to the Mediterranean.

At least as alarming are the maneuvers around northern Russia. Last year it was “Trident Juncture 2018” with 50,000 troops from 29 countries, 150 planes and 60 ships in Norway and Arctic waters, the biggest NATO maneuvers since the Cold War ended.

Next spring it will be “Defender 2020” with 37,000 American soldiers, 20,000 flown in from the USA to join 17,000 already stationed in Europe and with Germany serving as a hinge with “convey support centers” to help transport them eastward. Aside from sending its own troops, top officers and weapons, Germany will spend billions to guarantee that its highways, railroad lines and waterways can withstand the rapid transport of 130-ton tanks, artillery and other modern weapons eastward to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – perilously close to Russia’s second metropolis, St. Petersburg.

Somehow journalistic remembrance agility rarely extends back 85 years, when Hitler’s modern network of Autobahn highways served a very similar purpose. Or five years later, when German troops held Leningrad, St. Petersburg, in an icy siege, starving and freezing to death more than a million civilians. But the present maneuvers, as Lt. Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli assured the press, are innocently meant, only “to frighten off possible enemies”.

Among those rejoicing at the breach in the Wall in 1989, though far less publicly, were giants like Bayer, BASF, Siemens and finance moguls like the Deutsche Bank. All had been thrown out of East Germany. Finally, at last, they could return – to old possessions and new sources of juicy profits. For forty years the GDR had, like its eastern sisters, large and small, served as a partial barrier to further expansion, the giants’ basic motivation in World War One and, after building up Nazi rule, for World War Two, where they made billions with their murderous slave labor. After 1990 the road eastward, like the Autobahns, could again be broadened, smoothed, and  freed of obstructions.

This time, of course, the German giants had to accept being junior partners of their transatlantic rescuers, partners and sometime rivals. But their goals were not dissimilar, they joined hands when it seemed advantageous. A symbol was the merger of Monsanto and Bayer, two war criminal firms joining to force the world’s farmers to buy their variety-strangling seeds and as deadly poisoners of milkweed, monarch butterflies – and humans.

Doors could be opened wider to sister monopolies, ever fewer in number but richer in dollar and euro billions, with almost no barriers to their lucrative efforts to cripple and poison the world, from the Sacklers with their opioids, soft drink moguls with their diabetic-obesity refreshments and electronic mind conquerors, now gaining ever tighter control over our daily needs and our most personal thoughts. Others pushed to terrestrial destruction of oceans, archipelagos, glaciers and ice-caps and all the magnificent opulence and beauty Nature had given us, from tiny, exquisite frogs and beetles to savannah rhinos and mountain gorillas, from delicate orchids and exotic cacti to giant redwoods and tropical rain forests.

Most dangerous by far were firms like Krupp with its submarines, Rheinmetall with its tanks, BAE with warplanes and Heckler-Koch with assault rifles, all boasting more than a century’s bloody experience, which joined with Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Boeing to enjoy the billions awarded them long after the Fall of the Wall. And when products get manufactured they clamor to be used – and to be replaced, whether insulin syringes or guided  missiles.

Yes, recollections on this coming Remembrance Day are a mixed bag. Some things were gained, others lost on that memorable occasion thirty years ago. What about the future?

The biggest German party, the Christian Democratic Union (with its Bavarian sister), greatly weakened in popularity, is busy seeking a successor to its long-lasting leader, Angela Merkel, and some forces in the party want to push it further right, even to closer ties to the AfD. Its coalition partner the SPD (Social Democrats), decimated in votes and members, is fully occupied with choosing two new leaders, a man and a women, who can save them from total downfall. Seven duos are competing for the party congress decision in December, and a few are seen as leaning leftwards – whether by principal or for pragmatic reasons.

The Greens, highly successful with voters but wobbling among themselves, as ever between left-sounding positions on saving the environment but less interest for working people or for promoting international detente instead of confrontation with Russia. They, too, must soon choose leaders; a determined party right-winger is hoping for a come-back.

The LINKE, or Left, alone consistent in opposing all foreign involvement and defending working people’s rights, has suffered damaging defeats and a major loss of confidence in its main stronghold, eastern Germany, where it is too often seen as “part of the establishment”. In seeming contradiction, it hopes on October 26 for a favorable vote, indeed a victory, in Thuringia, where it polls strongest, with close to 30%, and thus far heads the government.

The LINKE now plans a national strategy conference in Kassel for February 29-March 1. It has invited all members to submit ideas on how to break from its present low level of 8% in the national polls, how to join or lead campaigns mobilizing against rumbling tanks and soaring rents, against racist attacks and environmental disaster, how to reach former supporters and a far broader section of the population without abandoning the party’s basic goal, not to “save this system” but to achieve socialism. This will certainly involve weighing lessons from the past,  not least of all those from that dramatic event and episode just thirty years ago.

Victor Grossman writes the Berlin Bulletin, which you can subscribe to for free by sending an email to: