Thirty years ago, on November 9, with a sense of momentous events palpable in Berlin’s famous air, East Germans began streaming through the Berlin Wall, two-stroke East German cars putt-putted past major symbols of capitalism like the KaDeWe department store, and it appeared that the Germans were the happiest people in the world.
I was there to interview eyewitnesses I had found in my dissertation research for a documentary film and gave a lecture on October 25 at East Berlin’s Humboldt University on “socially forced concessions in Nazi Germany.”
Crossing from West to East Berlin for the enormous November 4 demonstration on Alexanderplatz 10 days later, we joked, “Why not drive straight through the Brandenburg Gate without stopping?”
For 28 years, the wall split Germany like an iron curtain, into the capitalist West and the communist East. Estimated hundreds had died trying to cross that wall, and beginning in September 1989, demonstrations demanding reform were swelling quickly week by week.
The day after the Wall fell, former West German Chancellor Willi Brandt foresaw a “challenge to all of us to do a lot more in order to bring together what belongs together.”
But 30 years later, I see the divide growing between the East and West.
It brings to mind a friend and Stasi agent, who in 1988 told me that East Germany could tear down the wall and the East German people would stay. Or the East German dissident who remarked in 1993 that “Yes, West Germany has swallowed us, but soon it will be having indigestion.”
‘The wall in the head’
How is it that the disappearance of the wall separating capitalism from socialism, which East German leader Erich Honecker in 1987 likened to “fire and water,” would unite East German officials and those who had just risked their lives to protest against them?
To begin with, the leaders of East Germany’s protest movement agitated for some democratizing reforms for socialism, not a demise of the state in favor of an effort to balance democracy with capitalism in the image of the West. They encouraged the change in the protesters’ initial chants from “we want out” to “we’re staying here.” Reform was the theme in the anti-unification demonstration I witnessed in December 1989.
Many East Germans, drawn west by images from West German TV and the imagination of things the wall was forbidding, soon began to agree. Turned away by the hectic pace and competition of cold individualism in place of socialism’s boring security, many returned.
Novelist Peter Schneider had written of “the wall within the head,” independent of the physical wall, reflecting the different experiences of two generations in divided Germany.
In West Germany, the unification Chancellor Helmut Kohl led a plan to grow the two parts of Germany together through forces of capitalism, promising an Eastern “blooming landscape” of jobs, high living standards and a range of amazing consumer products. The West German system was essentially extended to encompass the East.
But entrepreneurs did not establish production sites in the East, as Kohl predicted. West German entrepreneurs preferred to increase production from Western firms, putting Eastern factories out of business rather than moving capital there to launch industry and jobs.
The West maintained that capitalist democracy would soon make West Germans of the Easterners….[ ]