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Walls in the Head: “Ostalgia” and the Berlin Wall Three Decades Later

Walls have always served a dual purpose: they keep people in, and others out. The mentality of the wall is one of imprisonment and exclusion. Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we see such infrastructure, both symbolically and in actuality, potent.

On August 13, 1961, the German Democratic Republic began construction of the structure officially dubbed the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall ostensibly to keep fascism at bay. More astute observers felt that this was a survival strategy, one initiated to halt the flow of GDR residents to the West to prevent the disintegration of the state. It seemed, to use Neal Ascherson’s words, “a piece of sadism in concrete”, but possessed a certain cruel logic arising out of great power constipation to come to a solution without conflict. It was also very much a statement of GDR general secretary Erich Honecker’s own view that socialism and capitalism were essentially irreconcilable opposites, as fire and water.

According to Frederick Taylor, who visited Berlin in 1965 as a school boy, the wall and the state that created it were expressions of power, pure and simple. “East Germany, I realised, might pretend to be the workers’ paradise, but when you came down to it and put to one side the free nursery-school places… the place was about power. Unrestrained, unmitigated power. The kind of power that could build a wall to keep 17 million people captive.”

The captives, in turn, did what asylum seekers and refugees do now: pay for flight; seek sponsorship for illegal exits; speculate about how best to tunnel under the infrastructure of death. The fatalities during the period of the Wall’s standing is put at 140, though this figure also takes into account the deaths of eight East German border guards and those who, despite not intending to flee, also suffered death.

Eventually, history proved its own corrosive agent, making apertures in the foundation that led to the opening of the barrier on November 9, 1989. The previous month, the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was attending festivities in East Berlin commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the GDR’s foundation. “As I stood on the nostrum, greeting the columns of participants in the parade,” he reflected, “I felt almost physically the people’s discontent.” Not even a handpicked parade could dispel that sense.

Few then would forget the press conference in East Berlin presided over by the Socialist Unity Party media spokesman Günter Schabowski. It was one riddled with uncertainty, given the increasing number of East Germans who had been fleeing to the West that summer. What, for instance, did he mean by the making of permanent exit applications that might be done immediately? It brought forth a media storm, and eventually, the words of a functionary became the wisdom of permissive movement, with media outlets such as Reuters and Associated Press deducing that the borders between the GDR the Federal Republic had been opened. With the Soviet Union keeping its soldiers in barracks, despite pleas for interference from the GDR leadership, the process for the dissolution of both the wall and the state commenced.

The removal of such barriers served a structural purpose, but did not result in total catharsis; psychic disturbances gnawed and remained. East Germans had lost their sense of home, the ridding of their Heimat as a biographical aberration; West Germans had to shoulder their poorer cousins, something done with mixed generosity. As an East German dissident remarked on the GDR’s absorption into the Federal Republic, “Yes, West Germany has swallowed us, but soon it will be having indigestion.” Novelist Peter Schneider described the condition in exemplary fashion as “the wall within the head”.

It did not take much time for some form of nostalgia, born of disaffection, to take root. West German firms preferred to focus to their patch, feeling little obligation to invest in the east. Besides, East German labour could be called upon to swell their ranks. The ill-regarded Treuhandanstalt, or Handover Agency, was tasked with the mass privatisation of enterprises, a cumbersome legalistic process that consumed viable concerns while also embedding corruption. This left a telling legacy: no notable companies have their headquarters in the East.

In 2001, then president of the German parliament and deputy leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Wolfgang Thierse warned that, “Any honest appraisal must establish that East Germany’s social and economic situation is approaching the brink.” Its de-industrialisation and underdevelopment had led to the region moving from one “in transition” to becoming a “second rate [area] in perpetuity.” The former GDR had become, essentially, an internalised colony.

East Germans came to be seen as a drain. Productivity fell in agriculture, machine production and textiles. Unemployment rose, as did emigration. (In 2018, the average unemployment in the former GDR was 6.9 percent; in the West, 4.8 percent.) The political conditions were duly created for a spike in nationalist sentiment. Resentment found, and continues to find voice, at the polling booth. In 2017, the right wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) stormed onto the German political scene by winning 94 seats in the Bundestag. It also succeeded in pushing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives into third place in regional elections in Thuringia. But gains have also been made by the left party, Die Linke.

In less belligerent and political form, nostalgia became Ostalgia for products from the GDR and their consumption: mustard from Bautzen, Spreewald gherkins, ClubCola, and Rotkäppchen sparkling wine from Freyburg. The marketization of such products has become capitalism’s great rebuke: the system in that form, at least, has won, and reduces all opposition and contradiction by way of a consumerist act. Memories can be purchased; historical re-enactments can be rented.

Beyond the market system lies ideology as concrete and barriers: the state keen to control the movement of populations; the state niggled by fears of losing control of borders. Walls are torn down, but also have a lingering habit of remaining in mind and material. The Berlin Wall is gone, but Germany, and Europe, is in the process of erecting new ones.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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