It all happened here (1)
Getting to Berlin after spending two weeks in Poland is quite an event. More so than most Polish cities, Berlin is huge, international and diverse. All of that becomes instantly clear to me when my train arrives at Berlin`s new Central Station: a huge railway in the centre of the city that serves as an immense crossroad. On the exact border of former East and West, I am left wondering how much both sides are still different. Before diving into that, here`s a first impression of what people remember from the years surrounding die Wende, the changes caused by the reunification of Germany.
Here`s some very quick history to start off with. At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four zones. Each zone fell under the supervision of one of the allied powers, namely France, the UK, the USA and Russia. Berlin was subdivided in the exact same way, regardless of its geographical position in the middle of the Russian zone. The Russian sector, representing former East Berlin and the former German Democratic Republic (DDR), soon grew apart from its Western counterpart.
Julia (24) and Ralf (24):
`Every child from Eastern Berlin remembers the first thing they bought or got in the West`
The ideas of creating a physical border between the Russian sector and the remainder of Germany first surfaced in 1952. The DDR wanted to halt the movement of `Western secret agents` into Eastern Germany and, more importantly, the increasing number of Eastern Germans who settled in the Western zones.
Berlin remained initially untouched, but eventually also fell victim to the DDR border policies in August 1961. The constructions of the actual wall started only a few days later. Except for a number of specified crossing points, the border was closed within one night. From then on, traveling from East to West Berlin became almost impossible. Crossing the border in the opposite direction was slightly easier but not exactly encouraged either. Western Berliners were only allowed to stay in East Berlin for 24 hours. Commuters lost their jobs and relatives would not see each other until early November 1989.
During the 27 years of separation, both parts of Berlin had grown into two completely different communities. The West side of the city lived under a democratic, capitalistic system, while Eastern Germany was led by communist dictators. West-Berlin was only connected with Western Germany through a straight motorway with no exits. The city operated as a small capitalistic island in communist DDR. At times, it even had to rely on air supplies to nourish its inhabitants. West-Berlin`s special position also allowed it to get massive financial support from the USA, UK and France. By 1989, West Berlin had become a city that was no much different from cities in Western Germany, while East Berlin only differed from other Eastern German cities by its size.
It`s hard to determine which side of Berlin suffered most from the presence of the wall. From those I speak to today, those from the former East tend to feel sorry for the West Berliners who were somehow living on an island for so many years. On the contrary, many West Berliners feel sorry for people from the East living in poverty, while West Berlin was so rich and so nearby. The inflow of Eastern Germans after the fall of the wall confirmed the ideas of people from West Berlin. Seeing so many people so eager to buy what they saw as `basic supply` can only have strengthened their ideas that the East Berliners were leading miserable lives until the moment the wall came down.
The 9th of November 1989 is imprinted into the mind of every German who ever managed to complete primary school. Most of the people who are now between 20 and 25 clearly remember the day. In West Berlin, people remember scenes on TV, showing masses of East Berliners climbing over the wall and attempting to smash it to pieces. The same East Berliners were obviously not at home to witness the events on TV. Had they even wished so, they probably couldn`t because the images were only shown a couple of days later.
Stephanie (25) from East Berlin remembers hammering off a piece of concrete. `I still have it at home. Packed, somewhere, without any intended use or application for it.` Sapna (27) from West Berlin lived close to the wall and remembers the scene quite lively. `I was quite shocked at the sight of this massive herd of East Berliners. They looked so different from us. Different clothes, different glasses, different faces. I had been to East Berlin a few times before, but I was not too impressed what I saw. It was more of a confirmation of the image West Berliners already had of East Berling: grey buildings, some lakes and the landscape.`
Eastern Berliners were given 100 Deutschmark (now 50 Eur) as some kind of `welcome money`. Julia (24, photo) remembers how many East Berliners set foot to the `Kaufhaus des Westens` in West Berlin, determined to buy stuff that they had previously heard about but never had access to in real life: `Most East Berliners were not ignorant about what was available in the West. They had friends in Western Germany who took them LPs, chocolate, books, jeans or fruit whenever they visited. But now, everything was just there, ready to be bought. When the wall came down, my parents picked me up from kindergarten and we drove straight into West Berlin. My dad bought me a Barbie, which finally made a change from the eternal Mon Chichi that every Eastern German child had: a monkey with a plastic face who could suck his thumb.`
Ralf (24, also in photo) from East Berlin remembers how his mum came into his sleeping room to wake him up. `She was crying from all the impressions. She was completely overcome by emotions and couldn`t really make me understand what was happening.`
Enriko (27) from East Berlin remembers how the fall of the wall allowed him to drink his first can of Sprite. `At my first birthday after the changes, I was given a Matchbox miniature car, which we never had in Eastern Germany before. The early 1990s were marked by a persistent belief that everything that came from the West was better. We only later realised that not everything in the DDR time was really that bad. The streets were clean, there was no unemployment. I didn`t need a lot of toys. I just went into the woods with my friends and we amused ourselves. We didn`t need TV and we didn`t care about the fact that both our parents worked. There were plenty of activities at schools, so I didn`t even feel like spending a lot of time at home.`
Juliane (27) from East Berlin has less positive memories of the 9th of November. `As a kid, I was not aware of any political system. What I remember most was that after the reunification, the `pioneers groups` were abolished. We used to have some kind of national / nationalistic scouting which was attended by everybody. I was just on the point of making it to a higher year, but it never happened as pioneers ceased to exist.` Martin (29) lived in Bonn at the time the wall fell. `My father works for the government, which was at the time located in Bonn. The 9th of November is Saint Martin, my names day as well as the day German kids go along houses to collect sweets. When I came home from collecting sweets, my father told me that we were going to have to Berlin. He explained that the unification would mean that all government activities were going to be relocated to Berlin. I was not happy about that at all, like any kid who is 10 years old would be unhappy to move. Well, I have now lived in Berlin happily, for a couple of years. When I recently spent some time in Bonn, it felt like a puppet house. Very small, and I found it hard to imagine that it was once a capital city.`
Steff (28) from East Berlin remembers how her father used to have lots of trouble with the DDR regime: `He expressed his opinion and was imprisoned a few times for that. He was very happy when Germany reunited, but he soon grew disappointed. Since the Eastern German currency had very little value compared to the German Mark, most Eastern Germans started the 1990s with a very small personal capital compared to what Western Germans had managed to save up in earlier years. Unemployment also became a big problem in the East. My father has been unemployed for the last 10 years and now realises that the reunification did not bring paradise to Eastern Germany. He is happy to have political freedom, but he now has to deal with a lot of practical and financial problems that Eastern Germans never faced before the changes.`
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