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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A Symbol of Resilience
These days juritza makes a living as a tour guide and one-man antidote to ostalgie. But the bulk of Berlin's tourist industry colludes in revisionism, selling Berlin's history to visitors in meaningless lumps, like the wall peckers hawking pieces of the Wall. Yet just as you despair that Germany will ever escape its conflicted sense of the past, the Wall trail crosses the River Spree, and symbols of the nation's astounding resilience come into view. The Reichstag, opened in 1894 when Germany was a young nation-state, and later burned as the Nazis took power, is now the home to a thriving democracy. The Chancellery is currently occupied by Angela Merkel, the first woman and first Ossi to become Chancellor. Barring any great upsets she will still be there after the elections, her low-key pragmatism in tune with most in her country.

That Germany has achieved so much in such a relatively short period after reunification — stability, democracy, prosperity — paradoxically highlights its failings, the sections of society that have been excluded from the success story. Berlin has memorials everywhere, the earnest expression of modern Germany's desire to acknowledge its difficult history. Yet for every memorial, there's also a theme-park rendition of the past. At Potsdamer Platz you can have your picture taken with smiling "border guards" next to remounted Wall panels, decorated with faux graffiti on their eastern faces. "It's disgusting," says Knabe. "And it makes harmless something far from harmless."

Nowhere has history been more thoroughly defanged than at Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing at Friedrichstrasse that has mutated into a kind of G.D.R. funfair. Tourists jostle for ice cream at the Kalter Krieg (Cold War) parlor, buy Russian hats and I ♥ BERLIN T shirts, and pose at a reconstruction of the American military post. "Cool," says a teenage visitor to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, inspecting a VW Beetle with a secret compartment for smuggling human cargo. "Reunification was really great," says Alexandra, a 15-year-old from southwestern Germany, as she browses in the museum's gift shop. She finds it hard to explain her enthusiasm. "[The East Germans] speak German too," she says finally.

Indeed they do, and sometimes unstoppably. Give them a chance and many Ossis will tell you what is wrong with the new Germany. "This is a throwaway culture. When you buy bread, it goes so hard you have to cut off the edges and it gets moldy really quickly," says an elderly Ossi, working as a toilet attendant in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. "You never know what anything costs," she continues. "In the G.D.R., a half-pound of butter cost the same in all the shops." Her current job is badly paid ("Don't ask") and she has to fund her prescription glasses and hearing aid. Things would have been different, better, in the G.D.R., she says.

Such laments are common among older Ossis. They get short shrift from Niebank. Life after she settled in West Berlin didn't prove easy — she divorced in 1970. She has worked hard and dutifully shelled out her "solidarity taxes" to lift the eastern German economy. "We had to pay for the East," she says, "but they're full of envy." Young Germans, she says, have moved on. "My sons have absolutely no interest in history. They've never asked me about how I survived the war and they're not interested in the Wall," says Niebank. "Young people think of the future not the past."

Untreated Wounds
Yet if Germans are to continue to enjoy the benefits of living in one of the world's most prosperous countries, they would be wise not to ignore the inequities that so obstinately persist two decades after reunification — not just between Ossis and Wessis, but also between immigrants and others. For if there is one clear lesson from recent German history, it is this: wounds that are left untreated fester.

East of Checkpoint Charlie, the Wall trail crosses Axel-Springer-Strasse to the north of its intersection with Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse. Springer, a West German press baron, owned newspapers that denounced the Federal Republic's nascent student-protest movement and Dutschke, its charismatic leader. When Dutschke was badly injured in an assassination attempt in 1968, the riots that followed exposed the rage young West Germans felt towards their elders. Two years later, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof founded the Red Army Faction, a left-wing terrorist group. In a 1971 survey, a quarter of West Germans under 30 professed to "a certain sympathy" for the terrorists.

There is nothing like the Baader-
Meinhof gang in modern Germany. But offenses by far-right extremists jumped by 16% last year, with the rise most marked in the east, according to a report published in May by the German Interior Ministry. The Volkssolidarität survey in July found that 41% of Ossis were hostile to foreigners.

Ironically, Hilmi Kaya Turan, a leading member of Germany's Turkish community, has fond memories of trips to the G.D.R. Turkish guest workers from West Berlin found that a handful of hard cash ensured they were treated like kings by the Ossis. These days Turan counsels the long-term unemployed. Among the 200,000 Berliners of Turkish origin — many live in districts along the old course of the Wall — joblessness, which averages 14% across the city, hovers around 50%. There's yet another irony there. "Turks came here to work," says Turan. "We were Gastarbeiter — guest workers. And there was work. But it changed very quickly after the Wall came down." As Ossis moved west in search of jobs, Turks found themselves ousted and isolated. Their children then refused to assimilate. In Kreuzberg and Neu Kölln, the Turkish flag is everywhere: in windows, on shirts, draped across shoulders and heads. "The kids are interested in Islam and think of themselves as Turkish," says Turan. "They say if the Germans don't want us, we don't want them."

The failure to provide opportunities for all its Muslim population is another way in which Germany's unwillingness to think big has hurt it. Germany is fundamentally a strong and cohesive society. Sour Ossis and disaffected immigrant communities do not threaten a new Weimar or a revival of the nihilism that scarred the 1970s. Muslims in Germany, for the most part, have rejected the siren calls of jihadism. But there is a strain of disappointment and resentment in Germany 20 years after the hated Wall came down which makes one uneasy about the future. In Oranienstrasse a convoy of cars drives past, horns blaring, Turkish flags fluttering from aerials. "It's a wedding," says Turan, "A celebration. We celebrated like this, we applauded as the Wall fell. But now we say 'The Wall fell on us.' "

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