Germany's Unfinished Business

Almost 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany is about to hold elections. The country has come a long way — but not far enough

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Sean Gallup / Getty

An election campaign billboard featuring German Chancellor Angela Merkel is posted in Berlin.

Graveyards are usually about endings. But in December 1961 Waltraud Niebank embarked on a new life in East Berlin's Pankow Cemetery. She might have been mistaken for a young widow as she scanned the headstones, although in truth, her husband was alive. He was living in West Berlin and Niebank had been separated from him for four months. Now she was looking for a concealed tunnel which would reunite them. Soon after their wedding, the cemetery had been divided by a cinder-block barrier, part of a fortification some 100 miles 
 (160 km) in length which would eventually consist of a row of reinforced-concrete panels, a second fence and a "death strip" patrolled by snipers. Its architects called the structure an "antifascist protection wall" but Berliners knew it simply as die Mauer — the Wall. It was engineered not to protect, but to imprison.

As Niebank hovered by an open grave, a voice from below said "Jump," so she did, then scrabbled through the passage toward the husband who waited for her in the West. She still chokes with fear and anger at the memory of what she endured to leave the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.). "It was so painful," she says. "I never wanted to look at the Wall again."

That simple sentiment — revulsion about the Wall and all it represented — proved powerful enough to reunify Niebank's fractured nation. After Nov. 9, 1989, when the G.D.R. abandoned border controls, the drive for unity provided an overarching purpose that for many years shaped national politics. Reunification was Germany's greatest achievement of the last century — greater, even, than its postwar reinvention as an economic powerhouse. But as Germany prepares for an election just a few weeks before the 20th anniversary of that magical night in 1989, the fall of the Wall has become not just a metaphor for what Europe's most populous nation can do — but also of what it has left undone, of opportunities missed.

In the run-up to the election, there has been no grand new mission, no ambitious vision of remaking Germany — or Europe, or the world — on view. As the continent's largest economy, Germany could have taken a lead to ensure that the European Union came together to weather the worst economic downturn in 70 years; it did not. Germany, to be sure, has contributed 4,000 troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. And yet there is deepening unease in Germany about the nation's involvement in the war there. That is partly because German troops are killing and being killed in greater numbers as violence rises. But there seems to be an underlying concern, too, as if such visible engagement in global geopolitics is somehow dangerously unsettling to the good life that Germans have come to expect.

The strongest impulse in German politics is to avoid big changes, to hold the country steady as she goes. The electoral system supports such an impulse by producing consensus-driven coalition governments. It's pretty safe to assume that whatever coalition emerges from the election, it will not include Die Linke, a hard-left party formed by Western socialists and remnants of the G.D.R. communists. But Die Linke's likely decent performance in the eastern states also speaks to promise unfulfilled. Ossis — Easterners — vote differently from Wessis — Westerners — because they still perceive their interests as being different. Ossis earn less, produce less and have higher rates of unemployment than Wessis. According to a recent survey by the eastern German charity Volkssolidarität, 1 in every 10 Ossis wishes he or she were still living in the G.D.R.

Nowhere is Germany's obstinate gulf — a division that Germans call "a wall in the head" — more evident than in Berlin. The physical Wall has been all but expunged. In 1989, Mauerspechte — wall peckers — chipped out and sold pieces of the concrete from the Wall's graffiti-strewn western face; later, municipalities sent diggers to do the job more thoroughly. Like a clumsily retouched image, the Wall was airbrushed out of the picture. But its shadow remains, and with it other fractures in German society: generational fissures, cracks between communities that benefited from the fall of the Wall and those that suffered.

Germany remains at the mercy of conflicting interpretations of history. In that context, one commemorative project is worth a closer look. The Berlin Wall trail, completed three years ago, cuts through the heart of Berlin like a pathologist's blade. It exposes Germany's underlying conditions, and reminds those who care to see of Germany's unfinished business.

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