The bloodless revolution came from East Germany, but it was West Berlin which demolished the wall. From November 9 to 11, West Berliners clambered on to the Wall, leapt down onto East German soil. East Berliners, men and women, meanwhile, formed orderly queues at the Bernholmer Strasse checkpoint at Prenzlauer Berg, clutching their passports issued by the East German government. The checkpoint was opened before midnight on November 9, 1989 by the East German police, following which passports were displayed, and entry gained into West Berlin. No hammers or crowbars in sight, at least in my sight. Forget about breaking down the Wall. Post-midnight, four more checkpoints opened their gates. East Berliners walked into West Berlin. West Berliners walked into East Berlin too. Without passports.
Read in Bangla: বার্লিন প্রাচীর, ত্রিশ বছর পর আজও বর্তমান
The Berlin Wall measured 161 km. Not that all of it was wall; rivers and forests were lined with barbed wire. The police presence was all pervasive, though. A watchtower every half a kilometre, no telling who was in it. Not a single East German or East Berlin artist contributed to the graffiti on the Berlin Wall. On the eastern face, that is. On the western side, there was graffiti by artists from West Berlin, West Germany, Western Europe, and elsewhere in the world. A sort of “draw as you like”: Politics, landscapes, faces, even male and female nudes; in every possible colour and size; all kinds of comments, writings, all anonymous. On one section of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz, a major tourist attraction today, I saw, in huge black Bengali letters, the word “sala”.
I found refuge in West Berlin a few years before the fall of the Wall. No one from West Berlin had any problems travelling to East Berlin. Anyone from East Germany aged 65 or more, and holding a passport, was entitled to a day’s visit to any city in the west. In some cases, a week’s visit was permitted.
For those of us who saw the fall of the Wall, the history of the fall is not yet in the past, the 30 years in between seem like yesterday because the Wall still exists. The fall isn’t complete. This wall is made of politics, economics, discrimination. For tourists to Berlin, there’s still a few metres of the “real” Wall standing at one designated spot. The area previously covered by the Wall is marked by signposts that read “Mauer (wall) 1961-89”. Bits of the Wall are still sold to visitors from abroad, complete with government authentication. But after 30 years, the “pieces of the Wall” business is floundering.
Those who are 35 have no memories of the Wall, those who are 30 don’t even know what it means. School textbooks devote plenty of space to it (particularly to the misrule of the East German government and East European Communists, not even Hitler and the Nazis, or World War II command as much attention). The current generation do not agonise over the Wall, or East-West Berlin. They are simply not interested. Their problems are rooted in today’s Germany. Unemployment is on the rise, living spaces increasingly scarce, the youth are headed abroad. The political establishment is seemingly indifferent, and the right-wing is exploiting the situation.
We are watching as the right-wing support-base increases at a dizzying rate. Who would have imagined that the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany (October 3, 1991) would have caused even greater turmoil? Germany is now the smoke in the European Union’s eye. The two Germanys have united to become the EU bully. A large, unified nation, economically dominant, politically monopolistic, crooking its finger at random EU nations, monitoring their every move, with no room for manoeuvre, paying lip service to the “oneness of shared democratic values”.
In the past three decades, Germany has become a critical factor not just within the EU, but in the world. The richest nation in the EU, fourth in the world, is nonetheless plagued by its own internal politics, if one were to study the political map of the last decade.
The two major political parties, CDU (Christian Democratic Party) and SDP (Social Democratic Party) are increasingly disconnected from the people, who are not giving them an electoral majority. The smaller parties, such as the ultra-right AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland), are gaining strength. They are the second largest party in the Thuringen provincial elections and have sent several representatives to the Central Parliament, where they are the principal opposition party. As Tagore wrote, “The shadows descend on the forest/ thunder growls through the clouds…”
To mark the 30th year of the fall of the Wall, the government has been making loud noises about “Freiheit” (freedom). Everywhere, the information and publicity ministry has been putting up a giant, colourful poster of a nude woman, inscribed with the word “Freiheit”. The thing is, as the Bengali proverb has it, “Once you start dancing, it is a matter of time before the mask falls off.”
We had thought the collapse of the Wall would ring the death knell for Communism (including the Soviet Union and other East European Communist countries). But what do we see today? Communists forming the government in Thuringen.
In the past 30 years, no major new industry has come to East Germany. The government and large industrial companies are not interested. East Germans now openly question what they have gained from the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The Communists at least put food on our tables, gave us houses, now we’re crying for food and homes. Were we so very badly off? What has Freiheit given us?”
Close on the heels of the German reunification, the government announced, “The East must look as good as the West. And the money will come from West Germans.” And so West Germans began contributing to the “Solidarity Fund”, their contributions to be deducted from the income from jobs or businesses, from two to 25 per cent. The contribution would be returned in five years, with interest. Of course, the unemployed, or those on government dole, and East Germans, were exempt, but pensioners were not. We were all swept away in a tide of brotherly love. Since 1991, the government has been promising to return the Solidarity Fund (geld) contribution — principal plus interest — “after the next budget”. The contributors have given up.
Another serious issue has emerged since 2015 — 1.5 million refugees from Syria and the Middle East. Taxes have risen, accommodation has become scarce, essential commodities cost five times of what they used to. Water, electricity, gas, public transport, all cost three times as much now.
Say a West German citizen earns 100 euros for work done. An East German will earn 80 euros for the same job. There’s a further twist to this discrimination. Prices in East Germany are 20 per cent lower than those in the west, but on their daily visits to the west, East Germans are not entitled to any discounts on public transport fares or any kind of shopping. No discounts on plane fares while travelling abroad either.
Particularly significant is the fact that since the reunification, only two central ministers have come from East Germany, under pressure of strong criticism, only to be discarded later. As of now, all ministers are from West Germany. East Germany doesn’t count. Chancellor Angela Merkel is also from the west (Hamburg). Her father, a priest from East Germany, was stuck there following his retirement.
The Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1991, but the collapse had begun earlier. In a move that was almost certainly pre-planned, more than 100 East Germans (mostly youth) on a trip to Hungary breached the barbed wire fence to enter Austria on August 20, 1989. Then West German external affairs minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, rushed to the aid of a bewildered Austrian government. Having exerted immense pressure on Austria to grant shelter to the East German deserters, he brought them back to West Germany. The incident received huge coverage in the West German media, and snippets reached the east too. An inspired East German populace was ready for revolution. The government was forced to open multiple Berlin checkpoints and Gunter Schabowski of the Communist Party’s politburo read out an incomplete announcement from a scrap of paper and the evening of November 9 arrived.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 9, 2019 under the title ‘Revisiting the Wall’. Haider, a Bangladeshi poet, lived in political exile in Kolkata before moving to Berlin. Translated from Bengali by Yajnaseni Chakraborty.