Author: By Tony Paterson
So much for conserving it as a chilling memorial to the Cold War: 20 years
after its historic fall on 9 November 1989 and the collapse of nearly all of
the Eastern Bloc’s Communist regimes, Berlin has for the most part dumped
what is left of its infamous Wall into history’s dustbin. The only section
that has been kept for posterity is a 1,000-yard stretch called the East
Side Gallery, which is covered with murals painted by artists from
throughout Europe in early 1990. But this part of the Wall has fallen into
such serious decay that most of it has had to be completely rebuilt for this
year’s 20th anniversary of its demise. The artists have been recalled and
paid 3,000 euros a head to repaint their pictures.
A few sections of Wall were bought at the time by wealthy Americans and
millions of hacked-out bits have been turned into post-Communist
paperweights that now sit on desks across the globe. The rest has been
ground up and used as underlay for the new autobahns that stretch across the
unemployment-plagued former Communist East ? nowadays more optimistically
referred to as the “New Federal States”.
In an attempt to recreate the eerie and menacing atmosphere once exuded by the
Wall’s watchtowers, floodlights and Kalashnikov-toting guards, a private
entrepreneur has built an ersatz, Disneyland-style mock-up of the original
in the Bernauerstrasse. It’s now a favourite tourist attraction. But just a
few yards away in what used to be Communist East Berlin, in the city’s
once-blighted district of Prenzlauer Berg, the full impact of the monumental
changes that have taken place since the Wall fell will come as a shock to
anyone who saw the place during the city’s division.
The haunting German film The Lives of Others, which tells the story of how an
East Berlin writer and his girlfriend are kept under round-the-clock
surveillance by the infamous Stasi secret police, provides an inkling of
what Prenzlauer Berg was like 20 years ago. The district, which used to sit
close against the Wall, was not massively damaged by Allied bombing during
the Second World War, but it still looked as if the war had ended yesterday.
The borough, which incidentally used to be twinned with London’s Hackney
during the latter’s socialist heyday, contains street after street of
late-19th-century apartment blocks. Two decades ago, the facades of all of
them were either falling off or pockmarked with the holes of millions of
bullets sprayed on them by the invading Red Army (the tactic was designed to
deter snipers) as they took the city in May 1945. The district stank of a
soft brown coal called lignite, which was used to heat people’s homes, and
two-stroke-engine car exhaust fumes. It was home to academics, dissidents
and intellectuals but also to Communism’s failures and rejects, those
without enough friends in the ruling Socialist Unity Party to warrant a
Prenzlauer Berg is no longer twinned with Hackney. Perhaps that is just as
well: in the interim it has transformed itself into the Berlin equivalent of
Islington ? a yuppie enclave in a city which has been affectionately dubbed “poor
but sexy” by Klaus Wowereit, its gay Social Democrat mayor. There is
not much poor about Prenzlauer Berg, however: once the city’s punk borough,
it has come of age and is now home to a baby-boomer population of trendy,
young, middle-class and educated Germans. Its streets, which once had the
odd Trabant or Russian Lada parked in them, are now full of Audis and BMWs.
Children cavort in the well-organised playgrounds that have been set up on
what seems like every inch of green space. They, like their parents, are
dressed in designer clothes, while babies are wheeled about in pristine
prams costing 1,000 euros apiece.
East Berlin’s most radically altered district could be considered a glowing
(if slightly irritating) advertisement for the new Germany of Angela Merkel,
its first woman Chancellor, who happens to live just outside its borders. It
is an area in which the promise ? made back in 1990 by Helmut Kohl,
Germany’s unification Chancellor ? that East Germany would “blossom”
seems to have come true at last. Yet it is also a stark reminder that the
fall of the Berlin Wall has resulted not so much in Germany’s reunification
as the West’s wholesale annexation of the former Communist East.
Gentrification has hit Prenzlauer Berg at a speed unmatched even by the most
tarted-up quarters of other European capitals. Ninety per cent of the
district’s apartments have been vacated by their original East German
inhabitants since the Wall’s fall. They have been replaced by a generation
of young Germans who have arrived as rich invaders from the West. The
standing joke in Prenzlauer Berg is that the borough is populated
exclusively by Swabians from wealthy south-western Germany. Like most jokes,
it contains an element of truth.
The first building to confront visitors as they emerge from the district’s
Senefelder Platz metro station is a mammoth, yellow-painted, organic food
supermarket. It is the biggest of its kind in Europe and run by a chain
called LPG ? an ironic dig at the former East because the initials were once
Communist-party jargon for a state collective farm. LPG does a roaring trade
with its environmentally minded customers, who live in the immaculate
turn-of-the-century apartment blocks ? now restored to their former Imperial
German glory ? that surround the district’s fashionable Kollwitzplatz
square. During the recent European elections, the Greens won between 48 and
60 per cent of the vote in Prenzlauer Berg constituencies. Oysters and
Prosecco are standard fare at the quarter’s Saturday market, which is
flanked by a wide selection of French resturants and Italian-run cafés
selling expensive Latte Macchiato to drink on the premises or “To Go”.
The nearby Kastanienallee avenue boasts more organic foods stores and an
array of funky shops selling retro furniture and clothes.
One of the main concerns exercising the minds of the quarter’s Green
politicians nowadays is whether to retain its quaint Communist-era street
lamps. Most of the new residents agree they are a wonderful piece of retro
chic, but unfortunately they also waste a lot of energy.
Annette Friedrichs and her husband Theo, both in their early thirties, came to
Prenzlauer Berg from Hamburg and Munich in the mid-1990s. They both enrolled
at Berlin University. “It was the place to be, the rents were dirt
cheap and the parties were wild,” Annette recalled as she bounced her
baby son on her knee in Kollwitzplatz square last week. However, she
admitted that since her arrival more than a decade ago, the rent for her
100sqm apartment has quadrupled. Theo, who now works as a meteorologist in
Berlin, insisted that neither of them would ever dream of leaving. “There
is a good sense of community. With so many children about, everyone is the
next man’s babysitter,” he said. For the other factor that makes
Prenzlauer Berg special is that it has the highest birth-rate in Germany. At
times, when strolling along its admittedly wide pavements, it is not unknown
for pedestrians to run into a pushchair traffic jam.
Prenzlauer Berg owes its near-instant gentrification to developments in the
property market immediately after the fall of the Wall. Many of the
original, pre-war owners bought back properties which had been confiscated
under Communism or expropriated by the Nazis before the Second World War.
Most apartment blocks were then sold to property developers who gentrified
the buildings with the help of state-funded grants. Many East Berliners have
thus found themselves forced out by the Western invaders ? and for all its
prosperity, the effect is unsettling: walking around the district or sitting
in one of its numerous cafés, means being surrounded by what seems like a
cloned generation of white-middle-class Teutons. There is hardly a
non-European face or anyone over 40 to be seen. “We are stuck with a
monoculture,” admits Dr Michael Nelken, a 57-year-old Berlin city
councillor who lives in Prenzlauer Berg. “We are trying to attract
people from other sections of society, but it is not easy. This is what
Baerbel Bohley is a longstanding Prenzlauer Berg resident. A painter, she was
also one of the East Germans who led the protest movement against the
Communist regime back in 1989. Her flat in Fehrbelliner Strasse was once a
meeting place for dissidents, and she was arrested and imprisoned twice for
her activities. Now 64, she is planning to leave Prenzlauer Berg for good.
Having just returned from several years in Bosnia, she is shocked by the
changes in her old neighbourhood. “It’s too much for me nowadays,”
Even in a slight breeze, 60-year-old Steffi Schultz has to clamp shut all the
windows in her Seventies-built tower-block home in the town of
Eisenhüttenstadt, close to Germany’s border with Poland. Opposite her
kitchen window, a giant articulated hammer-drill controlled by faceless men
in masks, goggles and helmets, bites its way into yet another of the 7,000
Communist-era flats that were completed in the year the Wall fell. They are
all now being demolished, and despite the water jets that play constantly on
the smashed living rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms from the bulldozers, the
dust is everywhere.
Eisenhüttenstadt is the opposite of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg, but its
predicament is shared by hundreds of similar towns and communities in the
former Communist East. The town is literally dying on its feet. Before the
fall of the Wall, Eisenhüttenstadt was home to a population of close on
60,000. Today, the number has fallen to nearly half that figure and is still
falling year by year. An unemployment rate of around 20 per cent has meant
that the town’s young people have simply upped sticks and gone west in
search of work.
Steffi Schultz now survives on a state pension. Under Communism she had a job
in a waste-recycling factory which she says she enjoyed, but she was made
redundant not long after unification. Fields of flattened weed-choked rubble
have taken the place of the Communist-era flats that surrounded her tower
block a few years ago. A few concrete table-tennis tables stand in a
deserted playground ? but the children that used to play on them have long
since disappeared. Like many of the other remaining residents in her street,
Steffi Schulz is not convinced that Germany’s reunification has amounted to
much. “In the old days there was a real community round here,” she
said. “But if it goes on like this there will be nothing but pensioners
left in the east,” she added.
Eisenhüttenstadt’s fall from grace could hardly have been steeper. It was
dubbed “East Germany’s First Socialist City” in 1950, when it was
built from nothing by Communist “Heroes of Labour” to house the
workforce and families of a giant steelworks. “Stalin City” was
the name bestowed on the town in honour of the Soviet leader. Some 13,000
people worked at the steelworks during its peak years, when it supplied much
of the Eastern Bloc. Today, a mere 2,700 are still employed by the works,
which is now owned by the ArcelorMittal group. However, the economic crisis
means that most of those have been on short-time since last year. The
management is due to decide later this summer whether the steelwork’s main
oven should be shut down ? a decision which could seal the foundry’s fate
Vast swathes of the former East Germany have turned into a Teutonic
Mezzogiorno ? the term used to describe Italy’s impoverished south ? and it
has suffered from chronic unemployment almost since the day the Berlin Wall
fell. Hundreds of factories and state-run collective farms were simply shut
down after German reunification in 1990. The unemployed either went west or
were given low-paid token employment under state-funded job-creation schemes
which managed to hide a real jobless figure of around 60 per cent. One of
the chief reasons cited for the economic failure that still blights much of
Germany’s east was Helmut Kohl’s decision to bow to massive popular pressure
and give the east Germans the Deutschmark at a one-to-one conversion rate.
The move made east-German exports 400 per cent more expensive, destroying
the region’s economic base at a stroke. The dilemma was exacerbated by the
government’s Treuhand agency, which was given the job of privatising all of
east Germany’s state-owned industry. The upshot was a mass sell-off of
east-German business to the west, which in many cases simply meant mass
closures. West Germany’s powerful trade unions, which took over in the east
after the Wall fell, compounded the problem by insisting that their fellow
workers in the east obtain equal pay.
Of course, east Germany is not without its success stories. In the south of
the country, Leipzig and Dresden have emerged like phoenixes since the fall
of the Wall. They have become thriving regional centres in their own right.
The same can be said of many of the towns and former Hanseatic cities on
east-Germany’s Baltic coast. Many have been carefully restored after the
years of neglect they suffered under Communism and now benefit from an
expanding tourist trade. For the east too, the economic crisis has been less
severe than in the west of Germany because its industry is not so dependent
on exports. But a drive through the east-German countryside on back roads
soon reveals the scale of the problem: in village after village, where the
streets are cobbled or sometimes made of sand as they were before the Great
War, there is often no one to be seen. Their inhabitants have either gone
west, or are jobless, poor and glued to the television. Nearly two million
have fled the region in search of jobs since the fall of the Wall and
current projections show that at least the same amount again will leave over
the next 20 years. It comes as little surprise that voters in the east opt
increasingly for Germany’s far-right, neo-Nazi, National Democratic Party or
the successor to the former Communists’ Socialist Unity Party, Die Linke or
left party. The neo-Nazis have seats in two eastern states and recently
gained a host of new seats on eastern borough councils.
Many east Germans appear to derive some comfort from the fact that their
Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is an “Ossi”, or an easterner. However,
in the view of several leading experts on the east, the country’s main
political parties have largely failed the region. “The politicians
appear to be as clueless as they were on the day the Wall fell,” says
Klaus-Peter Schmidt, an economic analyst. “It is as if they have learnt
nothing from the errors that were made after reunification,” he adds.
Even Wolfgang Tiefensee, the government minister responsible for eastern
Germany admits that although the gap between east and west is slowly
closing, it is still much too wide.
The wall may have almost completely disappeared from Berlin, but it is in
better shape than ever in Mödlareuth. The village is nicknamed “Little
Berlin” and for most of the Cold War it was split in two by the heavily
fortified border that ran between the two Germanys. From 1952 onwards, its
50 inhabitants could only make contact by waving at each other over a wooden
fence and (subsequently) the walls, watchtowers, barbed wire and armed
border guards that separated them. If the Westerners wanted to visit their
Eastern neighbours on the other side of the street, they had to apply months
in advance and make a detour of some 30 miles to get there.
Mödlareuth has retained all of its border fortifications and serves as a
permanent reminder of what the Cold War was about. It also serves as a sort
of Iron Curtain theme park, one of Germany’s few museums dedicated to
explaining the history of the country’s division. Its chief guide is a
former East German border guard.
When the Berlin Wall fell, Ingolf Hermann was an officer in a crack East
German army unit that used to patrol up and down the Iron Curtain. His men
had orders to shoot would-be escapers on sight and were expected to uphold
the regimental maxim “Nobody shall pass”, a perverse adaptation of
the famous left-wing Spanish Civil War slogan “No Pasaran”. He
realised that something was wrong with his Kremlin-controlled world while on
a Communist-sponsored trip to Moscow in the months preceding the fall of the
Wall. The shock came when he asked for a beer in his hotel. “When the
woman behind the bar asked me to pay in US dollars, I was stunned ? this is
not what I expected from the country we were supposed to think of a our
model big brother,” he says.
Unlike most east Germans, Ingolf did not rush to visit the west after the Wall
fell. He waited a week or so because he was worried that he might be
arrested by the west Germans. He then visited covertly, in his relatives’
car, making sure he left his uniform at home. In the years that followed
German reunification, he tried his hand at business, but had little success.
Then he was given his job as chief guide at the Mödlareuth museum, because
the west German official in charge thought an easterner should be involved.
Now, Ingolf Hermann’s working life is spent explaining the intricate history
of the division he helped to sustain, to tourists and groups of
schoolchildren. He does it with a degree of impartiality that perhaps only a
former border guard from a system conquered by westerners is capable of. His
other task is sorting out the piles of Communist-era uniforms, garages full
of discarded East German military vehicles, and documents and guns that have
been bequeathed to the museum for posterity. In more than one sense he is
chief refuse-disposal officer for what was once acclaimed as the “First
Worker and Peasant State on German soil”.
Like many east Germans, who consider themselves to have been more than
adequately punished for their country’s 20th-century history, Ingolf is
ambivalent about the Berlin Wall and Germany’s division. “I often ask
myself what would have happened if the West had agreed to accept Stalin’s
demands to keep Germany demilitarised. There would have been no Iron Curtain
and we might have ended up like Austria,” he says.
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