It is 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, what Germans call the Mauerfall. Thirty years since Günter Schabowski flubbed his lines in the press conference, the world rubbed its eyes, and suddenly the people of both Germanys were dancing on the streets as the Iron Curtain’s most brutal manifestation fell to pieces—was smashed to pieces, rather, by ordinary people and heroes, in front of border guards who refused commands to stop them.
Those scenes of joy—families and friends reunited, the freedom to travel restored—were beamed around the globe, one of the happiest moments of the dramatic twentieth century. It seemed, for a time, as if anything were possible: as if the people of Berlin, of Germany, of Europe might finally unite to enjoy the fruits of peace. There are many walls worth bringing down, declares a cheery artwork on the Wall. If the bloody Berlin Wall could suddenly crumble, who knew what else we might accomplish.
At the end of cold war comes cold peace. Here in East Berlin, where a week-long festival of remembrance is taking place, the Mauerfall anniversary is being marked as a time for celebration—but also for earnest reflection. It is hard to avoid a sense of disappointment at the way things have gone since 1989. Illiberal populism and xenophobia have taken hold in East and Central Europe. In Germany’s eastern states, the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), voters have turned away from the centrist parties towards the post-Communist Left and, much more troublingly, the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland. The German media speaks of the Mauer im kopf, the Wall in the head—the lingering bafflement and mistrust between the former East and West.
I am living in the neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, just a few blocks from the Wall’s original path. In the 1980s this neglected working-class area became the counter-cultural heart of East Berlin, home to all manner of asocial elements: punks and hippies, political dissidents, church-basement zine-makers, and a vibrant literary underground. Yet Prenzlauer Berg now is almost unrecognisable from that bohemia in no-man’s-land. Here, as in neighbouring Mitte, Berlin has touted its aesthetic of emptiness and grunge – the chance to start anew in no-man’s-land, to play in the ruins of others’ disasters. The spaces left open by history have been given over to young, exciting, cosmopolitan people: rejuvenation has worked, perhaps too well. Now inner East Berlin is packed with strollers, English-language boutiques, and luxury apartments; music venues have closed as start-ups have opened. Older residents complain about the rent, and furtively sublet their spare rooms to people like me. What else can they do?
Today I walk down Oderbergerstraße, a street that—until 1989—was blocked off by the Wall on one end. An observation deck was set up on the Western side, where people could wave to loved ones: the Communist regime tried to block the line of sight. I stop at an Australian café, which serves magnificent cappuccinos within familiar white-tiled walls. (Like all the young Australians in Berlin, I cringe whenever I hear our accent.) Across the street stands a consignment store dedicated to Eastern kitsch: plastic egg-cups, vintage flags, dorky records from the olden days. Apparently demand ran hot for GDR flags in the early 1990s, not long after the majority of easterners voted to be integrated (or annexed, depending who you ask) into West Germany. Nowadays Communist tchotchkes are flogged at flea markets, dodgy Trabant cars are lovingly restored and shown off at marquees, and online forums discuss how to source authentic eastern products—punk music from Prenzlauer Berg, gherkins from the Spreewald. That is the curse of objects, writes John Hughes, and their beauty I suppose: they keep the past alive and they guarantee the future, straddling the present like a bridge.
If the Mauer im kopf is hardly to be seen in inner Berlin, this is partly because so many original residents have been priced out. Across Germany, meanwhile, certain divisions have proven intractable. Many in the East report—fairly or unfairly—being made to feel second-class citizens; now, to the great frustration of westerners and other easterners, a large proportion claim to have preferred life back in the GDR, or see reunification as a mistake. This is nothing new: opinion polls found widespread regret among much of the eastern population already in the mid-1990s. The old story goes that people cheerily crossed the border to visit friends and buy bananas, jeans, and porn—and then returned. The hasty reunification process saw eastern businesses restructured and sold off, bringing (initially) widespread unemployment and mass emigration from GDR cities. A popular joke in the Eastern bloc ran: Everything the Communists told us about Communism was a lie, and everything they told us about capitalism was true.
So while the Wall stands for triumph, it also brings a note of nostalgia. Some of this nostalgia is utopian, and some is ironic. I have lost my country, wrote Prenzlauer Berg poet Uwe Kolbe, the most beautiful country on earth, self-evidently. Yet post-Wall Germany had little time for eastern wistfulness, with the tabloids eager to point out (not entirely unfairly) to anyone grumbling how it wasn’t all that bad that they must presumably want the Stasi back as well. Denied a place in the public sphere, easterners’ nostalgia has gone private. Instagram accounts and kitsch shops offer covert resistance to a socio-economic system that declares itself inevitable—or, to use (fellow easterner) Angela Merkel’s famous phrase, alternativlos. For the nostalgic, Mauerfall meant the death of a dream. Likely others see Western capitalism as the dream that died, for they had only known about an ideal form of it—and nothing is ever as good as how it looks on the packet.
If the hopes of ’89 did not entirely eventuate, then perhaps this was because everyone had different hopes. Dissidents against the regime surprised the West when they were not all pro-American liberals but regularly socialists, pacifists, environmentalists; they surprised each other when they found that, despite their common resistance, they had different ambitions for the country. (They also surprised each other when the Stasi archives were opened.) Prenzlauer Berg’s counter-culture, which flourished in the underground, was shocked and dissolved in capitalist sunlight. What united us, Uwe Kolbe would later reflect, was situation.
Throughout the 1990s, it seems, everyone was disappointing everyone. A degree of disappointment is natural, of course, especially after a revolution whose goal is normality. Because what is more disappointing than normal life? (The historian Timothy Garton Ash reflected on the melancholy of seeing Polish friends, after years of campaigning for the return of normal politics, begin to act like normal politicians.) You are never so happy as the day you gain your freedom, never so joyfully together as the moment of reunion. This does not make the thrill of the Mauerfall into a farce: it merely reminds us that day was the start of something long, and truly difficult.
Berlin is a city of monuments. The path of the Wall through Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte has been filled with rows of trees, public sculptures, and multimedia information plaques; Oderbergerstraße now opens onto the much-loved Mauerpark. What was a deathly border-zone has been relaid and relit, given over to healing and reflection. Yet there is something about monumentalising that runs the risk of avoiding conversation, of assuming a certain symbol means the same thing to everyone. ‘Monuments,’ argued the philosopher Avishai Margalit, ‘even those located in salient places, become “invisible” or illegible with the passage of time.’ Every major global paper is marking the Mauerfall; tourists flock to touch the Wall, or buy it (two-thirds by mass has ended up inside the United States). But what does the Berlin Wall stand for, internationally? Simply that things had been bad, but got better? That the inevitable triumph occurred, that the cultivated Germans reunited and—of course—returned to normal liberalism (alternativlos!)?
It is not just in eastern Germany that end-of-history thinking is on the retreat. The Inner-German Border, a phantom monument in traces and clues, cuts through land where the presence of the past is divisive. No longer a caesura in space, it remembers a division in time, internalised by those who had been them-there but now are us-here. Perhaps the Berlin Wall is a symbol for the trauma of change—for the difficulty of stitching together a life that spans systems and worldviews, heroic defeats and Pyrrhic victories.
Where the Wall meets Gartenstraße stands a visitors’ centre, which is packed today with schoolchildren. For the anniversary, East Berlin photographer Jürgen Hohmuth is exhibiting a series of his images of the border strips, taken during the months it all came down. I step up into the quiet of the gallery space. At first you see the Wall, the way it traumatised the landscape. Then there’s a woman leaning curiously through a gap in the cement. Then there are easterners openly painting, kids on bikes exploring areas so recently forbidden. Normal life returns in the city. And the monument grows faint, as every monument does. But the absence of a boundary is only a start. It is one thing—a truly magical thing—to turn a barrier into space. It is another thing entirely to make, from this, togetherness.
Perhaps it just takes time. Or perhaps it takes radical, alternative thinking. Berlin has just announced a general freeze on rent increases. Eastern neighbourhoods have tried restrictions on luxury renovations, and there is talk of socialising the housing supply. Here in the Mauerpark, meanwhile, in a no-man’s-land given over to the people, there are tractors and workmen abuzz. Being from Sydney, I panic, swear, and check for condo advertisements—but all they are doing is expanding the park.
This year’s Mauerfall commemorations are more diverse than ever, drawing voices from East and West into art installations, concerts, guided tours, and conversations. Memory interweaves with monument. All week on Alexanderplatz there has been a video installation, showing footage from what they now call the peaceful revolution. Former citizens and activists spoke, and were profiled, in all their difficulty and power. I stood in the square with a large crowd, last night, and we watched, and I wept, for this hope, which we need.
Alexander Wells is a freelance writer and history researcher based in Berlin. His work has been published by History Today, the Mekong Review, The Lifted Brow and The Harvard Advocate among others.