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Germany is still living in the shadow of the Wall

The installation "Visions in Motion" by artist Patrick Shearn. Photo: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

As the country commemorates 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, John Kampfner visits and finds the divisions of the past are still raw.

Reiner Kneifel-Haverkamp is, by his own definition, one of the first adventurers. He had a solid job at the Foreign Ministry in Bonn. He had just returned from a posting to the Philippines, but now he wanted a real adventure.

In August 1991, barely 10 months after reunification, he accepted the call to go east, to the defunct GDR, to help establish a Justice Ministry in the region of Brandenburg. When he arrived in Potsdam, the historic city that was to be its HQ, he could have been on another planet.

“I was one of the first.”he says. His boss, a Wessi as they all were, had a big telephone on his desk. That was the 
only one with a direct line to West Germany. The office had to queue up to use it.

Reiner’s basic income was already considerably more than his eastern counterpart, but westerners were given a bonus as an incentive to up sticks and help. It was dubbed the Buschzulage, jungle money. It was a term given to colonial civil servants working in inhospitable far-away lands under the Kaiser.

I was the Daily Telegraph’s Berlin bureau chief in those heady days when the Wall came down and the two Germanys became one. I got there at the start of 1989, just as it was kicking off.

I wanted to live in the east, although I didn’t consider it a hardship. Being a citizen of an Allied victor, I could come and go as I pleased; but that was something I painfully did not emphasise to my East German friends. I watched it all unfold – the mass exodus of thousands via Hungary, the demonstrations that took hold in the summer of that year and the extraordinary crumbling of the communist regime.

I still pinch myself. Anything could have gone wrong. It is a testament to those involved that it didn’t.

The small territory of the GDR was one of the most militarised spaces on earth. Now, 30 years on, I have spent much of 2019 in united Berlin and in other German cities, retracing old steps, but also digging deeper into the political culture of a country that has emerged from the trauma of the Third Reich, destruction, division and sudden reunification.

A sense of grievance is now deeply embedded among many in the east. Some of it is tangible and understandable, some less so. Perhaps the biggest error was the failure to identify senior positions and role models. It would have been unthinkable not to remove the Communist Party top brass. But even now, not just across Germany but in the eastern states almost all the top jobs are occupied by Wessis.

Even now just 1.7% of east Germans hold top posts in politics, the courts, military and business, even though the east accounts for 17% of the population. The westerners who have set up in the east are commonly referred to as Di-Mi-Dos (Tues-Weds-Thurs commuters). They do their work, then they get away from the hillbillies of the east.

The writer Frank Richter calls it a collective outbreak of “embitterment disorder”, a delayed response to the shocks and to the impossibly high hopes of the time. For sure, expectations were not managed in the euphoria. What happened was not just the end of a state; it was the dismantling of mindsets.

Bettina Leetz has been a judge in the family court since 1982. There wasn’t a lot to do in the old days. Divorces were not complicated in the GDR as few people had assets to haggle over and children were looked after much more by the state. After the fall of communism half the judges were removed; the higher the court, the more likely you were to lose your job as you would have been closely involved in the system.

Leetz is one of those who has adapted, who appreciates her better life. But the differences have not gone away. Indeed, her daughter feels more different, she says, now in her 20s than when she was younger.

Easterners joke about the way westerners walk (with a swagger) and the way they talk (“I’m a bit tired of the Maldives, perhaps I need to trade in my Audi”). As a judge, she was married 
to a plumber. Shortly after the changes, they divorced.

I ask her if that was a personal decision or if the upheavals had anything to do with it. She couldn’t disentangle one from the other; but she noted that in the east such a pairing would not seem out of place. When she started mixing with westerners, they couldn’t quite understand such a mismatch in status. “You have to concede that the takeover was efficient, but many issues were papered over.”

Could more have been done to 
salvage parts of East German heritage? The woman who led the organisation charged with privatising or closing down GDR industry, Birgit Breuel, admitted recently that it failed to see communities in the round and to show enough imagination in helping enterprises with potential to bridge from one system to another. “We demanded too much of people,” she says. Yet the resentment has little base in economics (per capita GDP in the five eastern Länder is now 85% of the west and continues to rise). It is much more in psychology, a sense of disorientation that manifests itself in support for the far-right AfD and, to a lesser extent, the far-left Linke party.

Nearly two million east Germans 
have gone west since 1989. Those who 
left were overwhelmingly young, ambitious and well educated. A number of villages and small towns have been stripped bare. The shop, doctor’s surgery, pub have gone.

Yet when one looks back over this period, it’s important not just to ask “were mistakes made? Did people suffer unnecessarily?” The following question should be added: “Could any other country have dealt with a situation such as that with so little upheaval?”

This goes to the heart of the present-day debate. In the months leading up to the commemoration at the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, politicians, think tanks and the media have talked of little else (apart from Brexit, on which they remain ghoulishly hooked).

One evening in August, I was watching one of Germany’s many good talk shows. The panel that night included two important figures with strongly divergent views.

Bernhard Vogel is the only person to have run two states – Rhineland Palatinate from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, and then the newly reconstituted Thuringia. Up against him was Jana Hensel, whose book Zonenkinder, (or After the Wall, to give it its English-language title) brilliantly captured the trials and tribulations of a certain generation of former GDR citizens.

He, the affluent male politician in his mid 80s; she, journalist and author in her mid-40s who lived through the dramatic moments as a teenager. Her peers, she says, are the in-betweens, neither too old to change, neither young just to get on with the new life. Initially they both played to type. He complained of the perpetual Jammerei (whinging) of the Ossis; she dwelt on the arrogance of the Wessis.

In characteristic German fashion, they eventually conceded that they were both right. “For those in the west, reunification was the end of the story,” Hensel noted. “For us in the east, it was just the start.”

John Kampfner’s book on contemporary Germany will be published next year

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