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.

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What Was Rich Is Now Poor
After the G.D.R. closed its frontiers in 1952 to stanch the flow to the West, Berlin's internal borders remained porous. Niebank met her husband at dance classes. She could have slipped west to join him but she decided to apply for permission to leave the G.D.R. The wedding took place on Aug. 5, 1961; her exit permit was to be granted 10 days later. But during the early hours of Aug. 13, the East German army ringed West Berlin with barbed wire and armed guards. The Wall had been built.

South of the cemetery from which Niebank escaped, the Berlin Wall trail follows a green scar of borderland between Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg, districts linked in Cold War days only by a crossing at Bornholmerstrasse. This was the first of seven inner-city checkpoints to abandon controls in 1989 after an apparatchik named Günter Schabowski announced the lifting of travel restrictions on G.D.R. citizens. At first officers tried to turn away the many thousands who congregated, pedestrians just wanting a look at the other side, and lines of olive green and turquoise blue Trabant cars. Finally the numbers forced the authorities to open the gates. Niebank's brother was among the throng and came looking for her. "There was such celebration," she recalls, "over every Trabi that drove through."

That night, jubilant Easterners surged into Wedding, past modern residential high-rises. "The West was flaunting what it could do, building these state-of-the-art apartments right next to the Wall," says Axel Klausmeier, an architectural historian who heads the foundation responsible for conserving and commemorating the Wall and its history. Today, as the trail wends through Berlin, you notice that people in low-status jobs — sweeping streets, cleaning toilets — are Easterners or immigrants. Yet there's also been a striking geographical reversal. The poorly paid and the unemployed were shunted into the high-rises of Wedding, in the west, as rich Berliners swooped on the elegant 19th century housing of Prenzlauer Berg, left to crumble in the East during the Cold War era, now lavishly restored. It's similar along the edge of the neighboring district of Mitte, the focus of the city's bar and restaurant culture. West Berlin was catnip to avant-garde artists, musicians and filmmakers from all over the world; its population swelled still further as young West German men moved to the city to avoid the military service that was compulsory in the rest of the country. But today East is cooler than West. "That's where people with money want to live," says Klausmeier. "Now there's a social border in place of the physical one. It continues to shock me."

A mental border, too. When the earthmovers arrived at Bernauerstrasse, a Lutheran pastor called Manfred Fischer confronted them, arms outstretched. His intervention saved the substantial chunk of the Wall along the Wedding-Mitte border that today forms the core of the Berlin Wall memorial. Plans have been drawn up to add a secular shrine to the victims of the Wall with their portraits embedded in a "window of memory." The list of 136 victims includes eight G.D.R. border guards: two deserters shot by their comrades and six killed by West German police protecting escapees. To exclude them, says Klausmeier, would ignore the extent to which East Germans were coerced by the state.

Whether or not to include the G.D.R. guards is just one more example of the difficulty that Germans still have with their history. For much of the period after World War II, both the G.D.R. and West Germany resisted serious examination of their collective culpability for Nazism. In the West, that denial poisoned relations between the generations, infusing Germany's student and counterculture movements with an anger not matched in other countries. A similar failure to confront the truth about the G.D.R. — its violent repression and the extent to which East Germans accepted and sometimes aided the regime — expresses itself in ostalgie, the rose-tinted nostalgia for a G.D.R. that never was. Ostalgie inspired the 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! and underpins the renaissance of iconic East German brands.

But there's a darker side to ostalgie, a yearning for the old order among elderly Ossis to whom life in reunited Germany hasn't always proved kind. Hubertus Knabe — the director of Hohenschönhausen, a former G.D.R. prison and now a memorial — argues that the success of Die Linke in the eastern states reveals a dangerous form of amnesia. His book Honeckers Erben (Honecker's Heirs) depicts Die Linke as direct descendants of G.D.R. leader Erich Honecker's repressive communist regime. "It's a very human quality to whitewash the past," he says. But he adds the warning: "It means one can't learn from history."

There used to be a blank space on maps of East Berlin where the Hohenschönhausen jail stood. Germany's secret police, the Stasi, employed one officer for every 180 G.D.R. citizens and had a network of 180,000 informers. Those who fell foul of the system paid a heavy price. "This is not a museum," insists Cliewe Juritza as he leads a group through the former prison. "If you visit a Baroque palace, you ponder on times that are closed. These times are not closed."

Juritza, born in 1966, was captured, age 18, during his third escape attempt. One of 72,000 East Germans incarcerated for trying to leave their country, he served 10 months, suffering physical and psychological torture, before his freedom was bought by the West German government. (The G.D.R. earned hard currency and rid itself of dissidents by literally selling thousands of political prisoners.) Yet some Ossis still think Juritza and his fellow prisoners deserved their punishment. He tells of falling into conversation with an old man on a Berlin street. When Juritza mentioned his stint in jail, the old man erupted in fury. "Someone forgot to kill you," he said.

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