30 Years Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall: A Tainted Legacy

The 9th of November marks the completion of thirty years since that autumn afternoon, when the Berlin communist authorities announced the lifting of travel restrictions for the citizens of the German Democratic Republic, signalling the beginning of the end of the socialist regime a few months later.

Thousands of people flocked in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the most distinctive point of the divided German capital, bursting with excitement in the face of the apparent access restoration to freedom. People’s dreams and hopes for a better life seemed to already come true with the detachment of the first 15-kilometre-long wall’s piece.

One generation afterwards, the first truly free in name and essence, the first without the memories of the socialist ideal, the nightmare of surveillance and the shortages of basic goods, the question about whether the expectations created by the reunification of a nation (and with it of a whole continent) were fully met remains unanswered.

History has repeatedly shown that it disregards any human prediction, let alone when it hastens to prejudge its end. History is a narrative, and that of the present era may not have condemned the socialist past with the uttermost certainty that one would expect three decades ago.

In today’s united Germany of exemplary social and economic planning, the contradictions remain alive: freedom and uncertainty, perspective and inequality, new and old, us and others. The euphoria of reunification was succeeded by the burden of reconstruction, the re-establishment of institutions and nation-wide convergence. Nowhere is this dual character of the present-day German state more characteristically reflected than its vibrant capital, where politics and art, development and poverty, cosmopolitanism and social exclusion compose an extremely dynamic portrait on a canvas of unparalleled cultural diversity.

For contemporary German youth, the notions of socialism, two German states and Stasi are not much more than demonized terms of a seemingly recent but empirically alien and ultimately incomprehensible historical period. For the elders, who have either lived in full or in part the most successful application of real socialism, an unexpected feeling of nostalgia shakes the coveted capitalist dream. Weren’t things finally what we imagined? Did the perpetual human feeling of dissatisfaction or incessant propaganda finally overshadow the self-evident conquests of the era that today seem utopian, such as universal employment, free housing, and education? Have the phenomena of secret surveillance, human rights violations, doping, party favouritism disappeared in our free society? Were we too quick to celebrate the end of illusions?

30 years after the wall fell, an invisible barrier remains between east and west, as large numbers of East Germans feel like second-class citizens. Two million people, mainly youngsters and women, have left the region since reunification in 1990, while the east is still lagging in terms of employment and income. This sense of insecurity and inferiority provides fertile ground for extreme parties, such as the far-right AfD and the far-left Die Linke.

The city of Berlin is fervently preparing for the anniversary celebrations. Among different events, an aquatic light installation will draw borderlines on the Spree River as numerous flashing rescue lamps will be used to symbolize a borderline between Kreuzberg (formerly West Berlin) and Friedrichshain (formerly East Berlin), a bright reminder of a dark past at a time when seemingly forgotten ghosts seem to revive. The message they send is more timely than ever: in man’s struggle for freedom, the greatest enemy is ourselves.