The Berlin wall was a monstrosity, a concrete snake of 150 kilometers that constricted in its coils some Western parts of Berlin while its venomous fangs killed hundreds of East German citizens who tried to cross over into that isolated area of freedom and prosperity. Hope for change was only inspired when Mikhail Gorbachev began reforming the Soviet Union and when Chinese students were allowed to demonstrate for democratic reforms in China. The East German government, however, did not intend to follow these trends. First, it banned the circulation of the Soviet magazine “Sputnik” and when Chinese tanks murdered the students on Peking’s Tian’anmen Square in June 1989, the East German government called it a defense against “a counter-revolutionary rebellion by an extremist minority”.
When the East German government showed no signs to allow substantial reforms, it disappointed the hopes of its citizens. In August and September 1989, thousands of East Germans escaped via Eastern Europe to West Germany. This brain drain left universities, companies, administrations without their most qualified staff. The lack of reforms also outraged the civil rights movement and in October that same year, demonstrations started. An unprecedented number of 50,000 people took to the streets in Leipzig. Change was now “in the air”, and when people became aware of it, they abandoned the regime and took events to the famous “tipping point” where history is made. Within two weeks, the number of demonstrators that withstood the danger of brutal state retaliation swelled to 250,000. In November, the government stepped down and on 9th November the wall fell.
Meanwhile in West Berlin people were growing excited by the news. It was the talk of the town, everywhere people carried their little radios to check whether history was made a few kilometers eastwards. Finally, on that cold autumn day when the wall came down, they welcomed millions of East Germans who poured into West Berlin, heading mostly towards the main shopping streets.
Differences between the two people became obvious the moment they mixed. West Berlin, due to its isolated position, had grown into a haven for artists and was home to a highly individualistic population that somewhat accepted people from other cultures. Having lived under a repressive regime with no room for individual freedom, a number of East Germans could not help but resent immediately the Turkish population who had found employment and established their culture in West Berlin. Many Easterners found it difficult to accept sharing prosperity with culturally-different people who sought a better life in Germany. While this antipathy also existed amongst some economically-disadvantaged groups in West Germany, the East German resentment against minorities from other cultures was fierce and stemmed from the lack of individual freedom and economic depravity of the socialist system. East German xenophobia dominated headlines following reunification. This has since declined although it remains a problem until today.
When only few East Germans had made it across the border, the West German government invented the so-called “welcome money”, a little handout of 100 Deutschmarks for subway tickets and some snacks and drinks. Suddenly, with the fall of the wall, when millions came to claim it, the banks were largely unprepared and large crowds gathered to receive their entitlements. Braving the chilly autumn nights, they queued in front of the banks to receive the little amount that is nowadays worth 50 Euro.
Some West Berliners who came down at night to offer hot coffee and chocolates but were saddened to observe how the first in the queue grabbed all the goods for themselves and shared nothing with others behind them. Years of socialist rule had trained people to care mostly for their own needs; solidarity was a concept rendered meaningless by its coercive application under the socialist system. When the wall came down, some rejoiced for their new-found civil rights and individual freedom, while the general population enjoyed reunification as the long desired access to prosperity.
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that reunification led to the bankruptcy of the state-owned and highly inefficient economy of East Germany. Not only did this increase unemployment and the dependency on state welfare funds, it also wiped out the achievements of many who grew up, studied, trained, and worked in the socialist system. Many saw their past rendered meaningless in a competitive work environment. Increasingly, they resented promises made by Western politicians and turned to vote for the very socialist party that had oppressed them earlier.
Indeed, the former ruling socialist party is now the most popular or at least the second most popular political party in the states of former East Germany. Even in some Western parts of Germany, where the party is generally insignificant, it has made an impressive debut in this year’s parliamentary elections. But it appears there are three reasons why it may be too early for them to celebrate victory.
First of all, while the elections on 27 September 2009 showed the growing strength of the socialist party, their voters are mostly either unemployed or blue-collar workers. With unemployment reduced and economic development favoring the service sector over manufacturing, these groups are shrinking in importance. Secondly, the socialist party’s largest group of supporters is aged between 45 and 59, i.e. those who have suffered from reunification and the difficult transition to a competitive market economy. Over time, these voters will have to be replaced by younger ones. Thirdly, there is a remarkable trend indicating that young voters in the Eastern parts of Germany are showing a strong desire for freedom, even more so than the Western youth. Surveys are pointing to a generational gap between the younger generation’s desire for freedom and the discomfort of older Eastern Germans with their individual liberties.
The conflict of the East German youth with a frustrated parent generation has been picked up by the German art scene. The bestselling novel “Zonenkinder” is the autobiography of a young girl who grew up in a free society, yet has to deal with parents who cannot adapt to the new way of life. The famous German movie “Good Bye, Lenin” tells the hilarious story of a young man who recreates images of the surviving socialist system in order to please and relax his sick mother.
In 2009, the liberal Free Democratic Party and the conservative Christian Democratic Union achieved the biggest increase of votes in Eastern Germany compared to all other parties. The Christian Democrats have now reached equal strength in all states regardless whether they are in the East or the West. The liberal FDP surpassed all other parties in its increase of young voters aged between 18 and 34. The youths that had grown up in a free and democratic society are now willing to defend their liberty with their votes. It was always assumed that it would take at least a generation to unify both parts of Germany. Now, a generation later, we see significant progress but also realize it will indeed take more time to accomplish true reunification.