Beyond the shadow: 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall

Beyond the shadow: 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall

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Saturday 9th November marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989. 

The German capital is hosting a weeklong arts and music festival to celebrate and commemorate the event that marked a pivotal moment in world history.

Walking around Berlin today, you can still see sections of the wall that remain standing as a sombre reminder of a recent past. While parts have been reappropriated as a canvas for public art, poignant memories of an era of division remain tangible within its brickwork

The Mauerfall was not only the first critical step towards German reunification, but also a physical symbol for the collapse of Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain that cut an ideological divide across Europe during the Cold War.

A boundary that stood for 28 years, the wall was ostensibly erected by the German Democratic Republic (DDR) to protect East Germany from fascist enemies. In reality, it was a measure to prevent its own citizens from leaving, after around 3.5 million people fled from East to West Germany between 1945 and 1961.

The 3.6-metre high barrier was composed of one inner wall, one outer wall, and a so-called “death strip” up to 160 yards wide that was monitored by guard dogs and armed soldiers. Crossing was almost unthinkable.

When it eventually came down, celebrations followed – new found freedom and the beginning of a reassembly of the German nation.

But 30 years on, the East-West divide continues to exist beyond the realms of historical anecdote. The East is still playing catch up with the West, and an impatience to close the gap has resulted in increasing resentment and nationalist tendencies in the form a rise in support for the far right.

The beginning of the end

By the end of the 1980s, public uprisings and demonstrations against Communist rule were spreading rapidly throughout the Eastern bloc. But even as cracks began to emerge in the Soviet sphere of influence, the Berlin Wall appeared to be a permanent fixture to those living on both sides of its shadow.

In the end, the fall came as something of an accident.

On 6th November 1989, the East German Interior Ministry published a draft of new travel regulations that would loosen travel restrictions in order to appease East Berlin citizens who demanded freedom of movement to the west.

The spokesperson for the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany, Günter Schabowski, announced the new regulations at a press conference the following evening, but was not fully briefed regarding details of its implementation.

When a journalist asked when the new regulations would take hold, Schabowski hesitated before responding: “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”

His comment sparked an immediate response from the world’s media and the people of East Berlin, who flocked to the wall and vastly outnumbered guards who were similarly unsure of how to react.

At 10:45pm, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing guard Harald Jäger opened the gate and around 20,000 people flooded through that night alone.

Over the following days and weeks, the wall was demolished brick by brick as East and West Berliners were reunited.

Less than a year later, all border controls were stopped and the DDR was dissolved. The road to the official reunification of the German state had been laid.

30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall: is Germany unified?

This year’s annual government report on the status of German unity labelled the process of reunification as “an impressive success story,” with per capita GDP in the former East Germany growing from 43% of that in West Germany in 1990 to 75% in 2018.

However, the report also revealed that 57% of East German citizens still perceive themselves as second-class citizens.

The approval rating for democracy in the east was also noted as “worryingly” low, with almost half of the population dissatisfied with the democratic structure. Economic disparity between east and west continues to fuel frustration.

Today, full-time employees in East Germany still earn 16% less than their western counterparts, while only 16 of the country’s top 500 companies by revenue are based in the east.

Lingering dissatisfaction and sentiments of political alienation, exacerbated by issues of unemployment and poverty, have also seen a rise in support across East German regions for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany herself, said: “Official German reunification is complete. But the unity of the Germans, their unity was not fully complete on October 3rd 1990, and that is still the case today.

“German unity is not a state, completed and finished, but a perpetual process.”

A demographic crisis

While many lauded the fall of the wall as the signal for a newly unified Germany, the East soon faced a severe demographic crisis with nearly a quarter of the East German population moving to the West between 1991 and 2017.

After the wall came down, many towns and cities in East Germany experienced an exodus of young workers who fled to the West.

The population of Görlitz, a city on the Polish border in Saxony, fell by 25% from 1990 to 2013. Today, initiatives such as the one-month free stay scheme that allows potential dwellers to ‘try before they buy’ aim to attract potential new residents and counteract stagnating unemployment statistics.

The rise of the far right

Saxony itself has seen a recent surge in support for Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. Lingering discontent in the region, caused by economic disappointment and political dissatisfaction, have stoked the embers of support for the far-right party that promises a restored, state-managed order and tight restrictions on immigration.

In September 2019, the AfD gained 17.8 percentage points in Saxony compared with the 2014 election, solidifying the state as a stronghold for the party.

That discontent and other factors have made the eastern region fertile ground for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, even though many of its leaders are from the former West Germany. The party has surged to strong second-place finishes in three eastern state elections this year.

The legacy of the wall

The rate of growth in East Germany has undoubtedly been stalled by the fall out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. To deny that a divide exists would be to undermine the real frustrations felt by people in the East and fuel the deep-seated anger that comes as a result of historical grievance.

And while the ramifications of the Cold War era continue to teach important lessons, walls continue to divide communities across the world.

On the 20th anniversary of the Mauerfall in 2009, a group of Palestinians held a demonstration and pulled down parts of the Israeli West Bank barrier, which has been protested as a means by which to annex Palestinian land under the guise of security.

More recently, President Trump announced a further $300 million will be spent on “quality assurance” after his Mexican border wall proved easily breached.

As we remember the fall of the Berlin Wall today, we should not look to it as a purely historical anecdote, but as a source of learning. For Germany, it did not merely mark the end of an era, but the beginning of a new one that in still evolving.

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