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The Charming Mountain Goat… is grazing along the former Berlin Wall

May 4th, 2009 · No Comments · Berlin, Charming Mountain Goat, Travel Writing

On being German, Part I

It will be twenty years this November that the Berlin Wall came down in what is called here the “peaceful revolution”. Naturally, Berlin is remembering the event, but compared to recent public parties such as the 2006 Football World Cup, it is still all rather low key.

A permanent information box in the form of stairs at Potsdamer Platz near the Brandenburg Gate, gives visitors the opportunity to get a feel for the changing landscape surrounding this central part of Berlin. Here is the symbolic centre of where the Wall once stood. 

Other “travelling” information boxes will be erected in different parts of the city throughout the year. A floating red arrow directs visitors to various boroughs of Berlin to highlight the dramatic changes that have taken place. The website Mauerfall09.de is surprisingly simple and non-celebratory, and appears to have been launched almost as an afterthought.

No one in Germany can quite believe that twenty years have passed since the amazing events of that night in November. Most Germans either side witnessed it first hand or on television. What the fall of the Wall actually meant to Germans was the removal of an artificial border that had divided families, lives and a country’s culture and history.

But somehow it feels that there is not much too celebrate. Germans on both sides are too pragmatic and honest with themselves to go for colourful pageants of nationalistic nature. While the image of marching Germans sometimes seems to dominate people’s impressions abroad, it is not our most marked characteristic.

The material burden of reunification is well known. Most of the major cities in the West had forty years to rebuild their infrastructure, patched up the wounds that history, the war and subsequent occupation had inflicted upon them. Berlin and the East had no such opportunity. Whatever the history books might promote, here the common conclusion is that reunification was rushed through for personal political reasons by the Chancellor of the time.

Although it was “verboten” to watch western TV programmes, many people in the East did and mistakenly assumed that the West German health service was being documented in the doctor drama “Schwarzwaldklinik”, the German version of “General Hospital” or “Holby City”.

Germans in the West had the freedom to travel, but not many people could not afford a ticket on the “Traumschiff”, and the togetherness that was seen in one of the many strange music shows such as “Musikantenstadl” where guests in large convention halls sat on wooden benches around long wooden tables, drank beer and sang songs together, is not an accurate depiction of neighbourly love in Germany.

Reality is altogether different. Figures released March 31st, by the Bundesagentur für Arbeit show that the unemployment rates in the former East (“Neue Bundesländer”) continue to be among the highest in Federal Germany; between 12,7% (Thüringen) to 15,4% (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) well above the national average of 8%.

Although no one would openly advocate rebuilding the Wall, there are voices both in the East and the West that hanker back to the days when Germany was divided. The cost of reuniting what had belonged together decades before, has been largely carried by those western post-war children who worked hard to rebuild West, and are now no longer able to benefit from Germany’s once generous social benefits.

Talking to former “Ossis” most are relieved to have the freedom of expression that many of us take for granted. But they also explain that they miss the camaraderie that existed amongst friends. They have found it difficult to get used to the elbow mentality that is the hallmark of successful materialism.

While it is not good journalistic practice to quote taxi drivers as the source of the voice of the people, a recent encounter with a former East German whose thick Saxon accent immediately gave him away, is an exception. Like many of his generation, he retired at 65, but needs to work to supplement his income. His monthly pension is €450 and in his own words: “After I have paid €300 for my health insurance, I can decide if I pay my rent or eat myself silly with food from Aldi.”

He shot off a barrage of jokes that under different circumstances would have raised a tired polite smile. But delivered in his inimitable accent with the timing of somebody who had obviously rehearsed these jokes in a whisper to avoid being overheard by the Stasi, this was different.

“Why was the Trabi called ‘Trabi 601’?” “Because 600 were ordered, but only one was delivered.”

“Good morning. Is this the shop where I can’t buy shoes?
“No, here you can’t buy bananas. You can’t buy shoes in the shop next door.”

“What is the first prize in a joke contest in the DDR?” “Ten years in prison.”

He continued for quite a while, smiled and said by way of explanation: “Ja, Galgenhumor…” – “gallows humour”. When I asked if he missed anything from his life in the former East, he shot back: “I don’t miss anything, but I can’t stand the injustice.” There was a pause. “Look, everyone knew the people who worked for the government and sometimes I see them, driving big cars. They have never been tried, just slipped into the new system and profited.”

I suggested that the same had happened after the war with some of the Nazis. There was another pause and another smile: “Give us the 5th Reich, because the 3rd and the 4th have let us down.”

While the tourists might come to look at the material changes that are pointed out by red floating arrows, Germans are still working on something else. The fall of the Wall has allowed them – East and West – to start working through a part of their history that is a little older, but was also divided by the wall: the aftermath of the 3rd Reich and the war.

There are no permanent information boxes for the new German identity yet; it’s a work that continues to be in progress.

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