For those who realised, as there had been arguably little media coverage of it, there’s an aspect of poignancy in the European headlines this week. Whilst the announcement was made earlier in the week that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union have reached a deal to form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party six months after its general election, this week also marks the point in history where the Berlin Wall has been down for longer than it stood, between 1961 and 1989.
Like many events and symbols of contemporary history, it’s easy to sometimes think of monoliths such as the Berlin Wall as being part of another world. What remaining 1316m of the concrete barrier which divided the German capital geographically, socially and politically stands today as the East Side Gallery, and is a part of the capital’s history which attracts countless tourists every day. In this respect, it is of another world – tourists who would not have been allowed to enter East Germany without a specific type of visa, take selfies and photos with devices which at the time would not have been invented as they pose in front of some of the gallery’s most well-known art and murals. Perhaps what is most significant, is that close access to this side of the Wall would have been unimaginable due to the close watch kept over it by armed guards along its length.
Erected overnight without warning, on 13 August 1961, the concrete border was a part of the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ which marked the staunch division between the capitalist West Germany and the communist East Germany. Merkel herself has said this is her first memory of politics, and debatably the twist in events in her life, from remembering the building of the Wall as a child whilst living in rural part of East Germany, to serving as the Chancellor of a reunified Germany, is perhaps a small-scale reflection of how far Berlin itself has come since the knocking down of its Wall and political barriers.
It might have led Germany to where it is today, but the Wall continues to evoke a mixture of emotions. In addition to its associations with division, many families were unexpectedly torn apart once it was built, and 173 East German lives were lost after attempts were made to flee into the West. Key figures of 20th century global politics spoke of their views towards the border, perhaps one of the most famous being then-president Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech, which featured the order of ‘tear down this wall!’. This week has seen social media posts adding yet more emotion to the memory of the Wall, with users posting images and stories with the hashtag #ohneMauerfall, meaning ‘without the fall of the Wall’ – sharing how much harder their lives would have been had the Wall not been knocked down.
Unthinkable during the time before ‘die Wende’, a term coined in the East and meaning the turning point in history which happened there between 1989 and 1990, the fall of the Wall has led the capital to make the recovery into the strong, attractive city it is today. Although some differences between the former East and West may still remain, some are more visible than others, such as the difference in the little men appearing on the traffic lights (those in the East wear little hats).
for Germans outside of Berlin, the city seems to evoke a reaction similar to Marmite, in that it’s either loved or strongly disliked.
The worries of Berlin’s natives have changed in recent years, with many now wondering what the state of their beloved city will be in decades to come, and worrying that modern trends and high tourism figures are driving out those who paved the way for Berlin to become what it is today. Indeed, for Germans outside of Berlin, the city seems to evoke a reaction similar to Marmite, in that it’s either loved or strongly disliked. One thing is for certain though, that as Berlin enters a new era, donned as ‘post-post Wall’, these anxieties are certainly about a city far from the East and West territories it was recognised as whilst the Wall was stood, and an example of how remarkably far a city brimming with history and social change can come in a few decades.