I put on the wrongest shoes on earth that night: a pair of Valentino, suede shoes. I sank into the mud in front of the wall. The press people were standing on a stand that they had built. I climbed up next to them and I looked and people were just pouring over the wall. And then they started hammering it. The whole world was upside down. Nobody could stop that,” said Renata Stih, a West Berlin-based artist who focuses on topics of Germany’s memory and history in her art.
In the twenty years after the reuniting of East and West Germany, much has been discussed about what “Der Fall de Mauer” (the fall of the wall) meant for Berliners, for Germans, and for international politics. Writing this week in The New Yorker, George Packer described the anniversary as a reminder that the political center of the world’s focus no longer lies in Europe, concluding, “No one is prepared to die for European unity, and no one will have to.”
But the night of November 9, 1989, brought anything but closure. The memory of the Berlin Wall’s fall continues to captivate because it at once recreated and disoriented city.
That much is clear from speaking with Stih, who laughed as she described her outrageous outfit, which had inadvertently revealed a contrast between the richer, Americanized West Berlin and the Soviet East.
The Easterners who flooded West Berlin were like men on the moon. Stih described their initial shock at even the geography of West Berlin: “East Germans came to the car and said, ‘Do you have a map for us?’ The East German maps wanted to give the people the illusion that there was nothing on the other side, like it was empty… the newcomers couldn’t find their way.”
Their disorientation was to be expected considering the nearly 30 years that the wall had been in place. Immediately following the post-war Soviet takeover of East German land, and later the 1952 closing of the inner German border, Berliners had sensed ‘Sovietization.’ Nearly 3.5 million of them—mostly young, educated intellectuals—fled to the West or out of Germany altogether. For a country that had lost millions of its men to the war, this exodus of minds severely limited the East’s already lowered human resources. With the 1961 erection of the wall, those left in the East were physically imprisoned. Forbidden to travel west, many East Germans lost their jobs immediately. This unemployment contributed to a steady economic decline that continued until the wall’s breakdown.
East German authorities claimed the 1961 wall was a barrier against fascism, or “antifasistischer Schutzwall” as it was called in pamphlets and maps. Yet the reality of its approximately 90 miles was neither protective nor beneficial. In the years of the city’s division, Stih recalls sitting at the Berlin State Library in West Berlin. From this “quintessential center of knowledge,” she could see the “Death Strip”—a sand covered strip of land that lay between the wall and a second fence to keep Easterners trapped—adjacent to the “monstrous construction” of the wall. “It was pure extravagance,” she said, remarking on the contrast between her comfortable seat and a strip of land that saw hundreds of failed-escapees shot dead. As the West repaired its war-torn holes and modernized, the East continued to stagnate in failing communism. This ever-widening gap would become another wound to patch up for the already crater-marked German nation.
The wall closed off Westerners as well, but as Stih described it, the trap was of a different sort. “We were imprisoned with this wall, but you wouldn’t feel it,” she recalled. “It was more or less a cloister of fun. You were captured inside while the people of East Berlin were really imprisoned.” Stih recalls the über hip “Jungle Club” and “Paris Bar,” two Berlin venues in the West that attracted the likes of David Bowie, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Prince, while the East sank deeper into cultural and economic depression. With too few educated and young residents, East Germany—particularly Berlin—stagnated.
In 2009 much has changed, but Berlin is still repairing itself. “Berlin is still a very strange mix of East and West,” Stih said. “Today you can tell where a person is from. East Berliners try not to cause a commotion, because they were living in a police state for so long. They have another way of approaching people, another way of saying things.” Stih recalls these disparate sensibilities of Easterners and Westerners even from the days just following the fall of the wall. “At the time, East Berliners were so pale because they wouldn’t get enough vitamins. I remember that night when a wall came down, there was a couple standing outside a West Berlin supermarket and they said, ‘Look, they really have oranges and bananas.’ They would buy pounds and pounds of bananas and pass them on to others still in the East. They were the banana people.”
In a November 5 discussion at Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies, former Consul General Reiner Möckelmann intensified Stih’s description of the “strange mix of East and West” in Berlin. Möckelmann described East Germany as the so-called “loser of the delayed modernization process,” even today. “[The people there] have a different tradition of communication,” he explained. While the Western Germans’ style is more confident, positive, and more aggressive and business-like (he called it “more American”), that of Easterners is markedly evasive. “They try not to impress, they let the other talk, they avoid confrontation.”
Today, Berlin still attracts artists, intellectuals, politicians, and activists. The city’s history makes tourism one of its biggest draws. Museums like the German Democratic Republic Museum and the German History Museum rely on this very frightening and recent past of oppression and division to draw in a crowd. The museums offer walking tours through a cramped East Berlin apartment, a seat in an East Berlin Trabbi (a type of car), and hundreds of photographs of the city in various stages of ruin. Visitors are invited to enter museums or simply wander the streets to discover the ever-changing patterns of Berlin life.
The wall’s ironic legacy is millions of tourist Euros in hand for Berlin’s government. You can even buy an original piece (about two square inches) of it for a mere 12 Euros. The wall and its bloody history have become commodities. Though socialist and capitalist merging during the years following ’89 have left wounds visible on the streets, many now seem to bleed gold. One building’s façade in Prenzlauer Berg (a district in East Berlin) reads in large, glittery letters “Kapitalismus Zerstört,” (in English, “Capitalism destroys”), a gesture toward the now fashionable history of the place.
It is a balancing act for Berlin, between managing a memory of World War II terror, the postwar divisions of place, and the present day cultural lure of the capital. Berliners and East Germans must negotiate the uneven terrain of their history, constantly second-guessing the meaning of a building or a name, and digging deeper into archives that may reveal some greater atrocity.
Yet these hardships are more often than not met with success, to which Berlin’s burgeoning art population and overflowing university population attest. Stih, for example, works with her partner Frieder Schnock as their online statement says, to “see and experience their surroundings and [explore] the possibilities of exerting psychological influence through the intrusion of art into the sphere of everyday life.” Their intensely physical, wonderfully intrusive public art thus fits the city; its psychological undertones confront the public with questions of self, and raise issues (such as the Holocaust) that agitate viewers. Seen through Stih and Schnock’s lens, for example, Berlin—with its layers of history and memory of lives and deaths—almost begs to be a site of creative expression. Art in Berlin serves as a healing mechanism, one that attracts international talents, yet it also relies on the commodification of history and memory. These layers of incentive for the artists thus make unusual demands on creators and viewers alike.
This November was a day of celebration, a day during which a new, constantly-reinvented and positive Berlin seemed to triumph. Still though, the larger task of removing the wall in the heads of West and East Germans remains, especially for those who live there. Tourism and transitory excitement, albeit lucrative, cannot be the city’s sustenance. With the actual, geopolitical wall no longer around, Western migration continues. There are one million empty apartments in East Germany, Möckelmann stated in his presentation, and in 2005, the East German unemployment rate was 18.6 percent, compared with the West’s 9.6 percent. These figures are disheartening and reinforce the insecurities that East Germans may harbor, even though Russian military operations have not been legally “ready” (ie. present) on German soil since 1994.
Berlin is not and cannot be an autonomous city. It is the capital of a united Germany and remains vital to the success of the East; it must continue to defeat the challenges reunification presents if Germany as a whole is to fully rebuild and refortify itself.
If anything, the city of Berlin stands as testament to the unabating struggle to modernize, to reinvent and to absorb the hardships of history and memory for the better of the nation. As Stih commented, “The united Berlin is still big enough to swallow a lot, to [provide] a place without borders, and in the spirit of Frederic the Great: ‘Chacun a son gout’ (to each his own taste).”
Isabel Parkes B’11 loves bananas and will see you in Berlin.