The Fall of the Wall

Victor Grossman, Berlin

I hate to sound like the grouchy Grinch. Radio and TV here in Berlin are celebrating the Fall of the Wall twenty years ago so intensively that there’s hardly a moment for the weather report, which, unfortunately for all the planned events, turned out nasty and rainy. From my window I just watched the fireworks’ brave attempts to spite the clouds and drizzle.

It is well-nigh impossible to be nasty about that strange event in 1989 when a seemingly random remark by an East German big shot opened the gates to a mass rush by East Berliners to West Berlin and, soon after, points further westward. There was general euphoria, bliss, the commonest word was “Wahnsinn” - “insane, crazy, unbelievable”. Then and now it seemed petty to entertain even the tiniest critical idea.

Without a doubt, the great event permitted happy reunions of many families and opened the way for East Germans to visit no longer only Prague, Warsaw or Moscow but also Paris, Washington and Munich, as well as West Berlin. It was truly a blissful occasion. TV has shown the film footage a thousand times but the crossing, embraces, the dancing on the wall are still moving, even to tears.

But as a socialist American, one of a handful who lived on the eastern side of the Wall, who tries to analyze history, I find it impossible to banish certain heretic recollections and doubts. For moments of mass euphoria, wonderful as they are for those involved, do not always explain history. And for me too many issues and questions remain unexplained or simply unasked.

Why does no one recall that it was Eastern Germany, the GDR, which pushed for reunification during the postwar years while Chancellor Adenauer brusquely rejected all proposals, even general elections? Only then, and after West Germany set up its own state, formed an army, joined NATO and insisted on regaining huge hunks of what had become Poland, were such attempts finally abandoned?

Why is it never mentioned that the GDR, though certainly undergoing an economic crisis, was in less of a crisis than all of Germany today, and that until its very end it had no unemployment, no homelessness, free medical care, child care, education and a sufficiently stable standard of living?

Why is it forgotten that many of its travel restrictions had been considerably eased in the two previous years, so that not only pensioners, who were always able to visit West Germany, but 1-2 million GDR citizens had been able to visit West Germany in 1987-1989?  Young people wanted desperately to travel, it is true; but their chances of being able to were gradually improving.

Sadly, there was a widespread stuffy, intolerant atmosphere in the GDR, traceable to the limitations of its aged leadership, to bad traditions inherited from (or in part imposed) by the USSR, but also to a kind of paranoia which was, however, not fully unrealistic in its fears of being swallowed by West Germany, which is just what finally happened. Geographically and historically Germany’s weaker third from the start, the GDR was always under powerful, merciless attack. This created endless problems for GDR leaders, which they were never able to solve satisfactorily. Nevertheless, most participants in the demonstrations and rebellions in the fateful autumn of 1989 demanded an improved GDR, not a dead one. Only after Chancellor Kohl, Willy Brandt and other West German leaders promised them not only freedom but all the consumer goods they had gazed at so enviously in TV shows, summarized most succinctly by the words West marks and bananas – rarely available in the GDR – were they lured by the seductive songs of the Lorelei beauties from the Rhine.

Many have done very well since thanks to their status as Federal German citizens. Certainly all consumer goods and travel possibilities are available. The leaden speeches and dull media articles are gone and forgotten, though replaced by endless new platitudes and deadening commercials.

And for freedoms won there have been freedoms lost. In the GDR, according to one bon-mot, you were wise not to criticize Honecker and other government or party big shots. But you could say whatever you wanted against your foreman, manager, or factory director. Now, it was learned, this had been reversed. People were fired for rejecting unpaid overtime, for asking what a colleague earned, for simply being suspected of eating a company-owned roll or forgetting to turn in a 13 cent coupon. Beggars, the homeless, patrons of free food outlets, people with untreated tooth gaps – all unknown in GDR days – are now taken for granted. So are towns with closed factories and a population of pensioners, with most young people off somewhere far away hunting jobs.

Another factor was important to historians: the GDR had been founded with certain basic principles, above all, as a bulwark against fascism. It was led almost exclusively by anti-Nazis, replete with anti-fascist books, films, theater, even the names of streets, schools and youth clubs. This was in extreme contrast with a West German establishment whose military brass and diplomatic corps, academia, police, courts and even its government up to the peak were riddled with former Nazis, not a few of them frightful criminals.  In 1961 when the Wall was built they were still in leadership to a remarkable degree. When the Wall came down in 1989 most old Nazis were retired or dead, but the giant concerns, trusts and banks which built up Hitler and made billions from his war – and hundreds of thousands of slave laborers – were for the most part still powerful. When the Wall went down they swarmed back to East Germany, and beyond – the Czech Republic, Poland, Rumania. Their army and navy, built up by war criminals, still led by militarists, was no longer blocked by the GDR and was maneuvering or fighting in parts of Africa, the Near East, Afghanistan. It was engaged in two wars since the Wall went down. And while the GDR had aided Algeria, Vietnam, Allende, Nicaragua, the ANC and SWAPO of southern Africa, the Federal Republic was always on the other side.  

Yes, the euphoria of the common people who always suffer from the deeds of the big shots was understandable. But today, in Frankfurt, Detroit or Helsinki, wealthy men in towering skyscrapers coolly decide the fates of tens of thousands: fire 3000 here, 10,000 there, move this factory a thousand miles eastward, close that one, as if they were playing some gigantic Monopoly game. Nokia, Opel-GM, Siemens, pharma firms, weapons makers. To a great extent they rule the roost, more than ever with the new German government, despite sweet words about the Wall or Freedom.

But isn’t a note of worry audible in their declamations? The latest crisis, by no means healed, is making some people ponder a bit. More and more even spite the media and pronouncements and vote for a party which calls for re-thinking, sometimes even for socialism. Not the same as in the GDR with its many weaknesses, but a state no longer ruled by the Monopoly men in their skyscrapers. Perhaps the ingenious domino ceremonies and slightly soggy fireworks, in their constant insistence on “Our answers are the only answers,” reflect these very worries.                          

November 10, 2009