by by Isabel Parkes

illustration by by Adrian Randall

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 inadver-
tently 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 noth-
ing 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 ap-
proximately 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 ex-
travagance,” 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 de-
scribed it, the trap was of a different sort. “We were impris-
oned 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
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 re-
calls 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 su-
permarket 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 mod-
ernization 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 Ameri-
can”), 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 big-
gest 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 mem-
ory 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 his-
tory, 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 state-
ment 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 his-
tory 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 apart-
ments in East Germany, Möckelmann stated in his presenta-
tion, 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 Ger-
man 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 reunifi-
cation 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 bor-
ders, 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.