“Mauer im Kopf”: Ghosts of the Berlin Wall

A lot of Berlin is like any other capital city. But take a walk down Bernauer Straße and you’ll find yourself confronted with Berlin’s recent past – by one of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall. This imposing and equally hideous structure powerfully symbolises Germany’s difficult, 45-year-long post-war period when the nation became the frontline of the clash between
two superpowers and their ideologies.

Germany was divided between the Allied powers in 1945 – the USA, Britain, France, and the USSR. Berlin, being the capital and largest city, was similarly divided up, although it was in the middle of the Soviet zone of the country. As the West-USSR relationship cooled and froze into the Cold War, Germany became more deeply divided and in 1949 two states were founded: the Western-backed Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), and the Soviet satellite German Democratic Republic (GDR). West Berlin became a Western enclave within the GDR.

East Germans, however, were soon fed up with the East’s repressive regime and slow recovery from the war, especially compared to West Germany’s exceptional post-war development. With a better life easily available over the border, many East Germans left. The GDR government closed the GDR/FRG border in 1952, but, as the East/West Berlin border remained open, this had little effect. Between 1945 and 1961, 3.65 million mostly East Germans – 19% of the country’s entire population – emigrated. This today would be the equivalent of 12.5 million Brits or 61 million Americans leaving their homeland.

Finally, in 1961, the GDR government decided enough was enough. Berliners waking up on the 13th August 1961 were stunned to find their city cut in half by barbed wire of the Berlin Wall. Later, concrete panels were installed and a 100-metre-wide “death strip” on the eastern side of the wall was cleared. For the next 28 years, the border was virtually impenetrable for East Germans.

Exploring Berlin makes for an interesting look at the (once-) divided city. In many parts of the city centre, you can hardly tell the wall was ever there, let alone which side of it you’re on. The “death strip”, a blank canvas for property developers after the wall fell, has been almost entirely covered with new buildings leaving just a line of cobblestones to mark the former border; while older buildings in the East have been cleaned and renovated, and are now as valuable as any in the West. Even the trams, withdrawn in West Berlin to make way for cars, cross the old border once again. But travel out of the city centre and the difference becomes far more obvious.

Much of the two Berlins’ post-war suburban development reflects their dominant powers’ ideologies. Thus, in Steglitz (West Berlin), the A103 Autobahn – a “freeway”, if you will – cuts an ugly and very American line through the middle of otherwise typically German suburbs. All this to enable the free passage of the car, long held in the western world, particularly the USA, as an embodiment of democracy and freedom – after all, you as the driver have your own choice of where and when you travel.

In Friedrichshain (East Berlin), meanwhile, is Karl-Marx-Allee – an impressive boulevard 90 metres wide and nearly 2 kilometres long, in carbon-copy Stalinist style. In fact, it was even named Stalinallee and boasted a statue of the Soviet leader when it was first built. East Germany’s communist philosophy can also be seen in the East’s post-war housing,
such as in the Marzahn housing estate: monolithic, prefabricated tower blocks, providing all inhabitants with equal space and facilities. However uninspiring, though, they offered their first residents a massive improvement in living conditions over older inner-city housing.

But it’s not just what you see that varies – it’s what you think. The physical Berlin Wall might be gone, but the “Mauer im Kopf” – the “wall in the mind” – persists. A majority of both East and West Germans believe that differences between the two Germanies outweigh the similarities. Even among Germans born after the wall fell, 44% of Easterners and 30% of Westerners see more differences. The gap is closing, but slowly; opinions of each other are often still coloured by the derogatory labels of “Jammer-Ossi” (“whining Easterner”) and “Besser-Wessi” (“better Westerner”, a play on the German “Besserwisser” – “know-it-all”). Will Berlin – and Germany – ever be truly reunified? Who knows, but it is certainly still an unfinished process.

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