German Unity Day The Wall did not fall

Palace of the Republic
Palace of the Republic | Photo: Sven Werk, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via flickr

What West Germans simply don’t understand is that East Germans were robbed of their identity and their personal history. Some second thoughts in hindsight about the Day of German Unity.

The Wall was not a decrepit structure that silently crumbled to the ground. Its disappearance was not politically inevitable, but the culmination of a protest movement in Eastern Europe that was brimming with ideas and initiatives. The “fall of the Wall” sounds passive, like a collapse, an industrial accident, that ultimately led to “reunification”. But German reunification initially played no part in East Germany’s revolution – it was not the goal.

As in the other nations of the Eastern Bloc, the democratic Wende, or “turnaround”, in the German Democratic Republic began with oppositionists calling for something new, something between capitalism and socialism, which was vaguely termed “the Third Way” at the time. It was not until associated demands for free elections and freedom of travel led to the opening of the Wall in the autumn of 1989 that the uprising became an annexation; after a visit to the other side, many East Germans wanted their new happiness now, and it wasn’t long before the reigning West German parties brought their agenda to bear on the political process in the now open GDR. The subsequent political developments were no longer shaped by Wende activists, but by the people carrying signs that said “Keine Experimente!”, “NO EXPERIMENTS!”

The “the Wall fell” is a West German perception that became a catchword and remains to this day the mainstream view of the events at the time. Jürgen Habermas dubbed the historical transformation in 1990 East Germany the “nachholende Revolution”, i.e. the “catch-up revolution”. In this interpretation, it did not produce any innovations, but culminated, after various stages of “democracy-learning”, in adopting the West German status quo. Protesters in East Germany, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia, however, had not taken to the streets merely to undergo re-education.

In his essay Zonen des Übergangs (“Zones of Transition”), Austrian philosopher of culture Boris Buden pointed out that the drivers of the democratic revolution of the Wende were not the same as those of the catch-up revolution of reunification. Posterity still heaps laurels on Helmut Kohl (for achieving reunification), but not on the dissidents who, at great risk to themselves, took the revolution in East Germany to the streets and to the people in 1989. There is a Stasi Records Agency and a Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship, but no official Archives of the Peaceful Revolution, no Library of the Ideas of ’89.

Recently, when I was invited to an International Women’s Day event at the Chancellor’s Office advocating a higher women’s quota in the top echelons of media and business management, it occurred to me that for decades women enjoyed de facto full employment in East Germany, with all the attendant infrastructures: day care, kindergarten, summer camps for employees’ children and a paid day off each month for housekeeping chores. No one wants the GDR back for that, at least I don’t, but it would have made sense to at least point out these things that particular day at the Chancellor’s Office. Later, at an SPD (Social Democrats) event, a leading politician told me that unfortunately we still can’t extol those GDR attainments because “many people simply think that would be roughly tantamount to praising Nazi Germany for the autobahns”. Does that mean that growing up in East Germany, I grew up in something like the Third Reich?

Almost thirty years after the revolution in East Germany, reunification might gradually have ceased to be an issue for many of us. We Germans were reunited in 1989 with so much more than just ourselves. We lost our fixation with Hitler and the Holocaust, though without forgetting either of them. East and West Germany were answers to the Third Reich, defined by going opposite directions from Hitler, but also as each half-nation’s alternative to the other. After the border disappeared, reunified Germany suddenly gave itself back to Europe and has since begun taking its history as a colonial power seriously and regarding our present as that of a culturally and religiously diverse country of immigration. So why talk about ’89 anymore? Why remind ourselves that the Wall didn’t fall the way snow falls and that the Wende in East Germany was not the same thing as reunification?

Today, despite everything that has been achieved in the interim, I think reunification has also given rise to a culture of resentment that is closely linked to the emergence of a new nationalism, xenophobia and what political scientist Wendy Brown calls “apocalyptic populism”. How could people who were dancing on the Wall, who occupied their secret service headquarters and articulated the idea of forming a different society at Round Table discussions and in new newspapers and parties, become “Jammerossis”, “Eastern whiners”? The people who now feel left behind and denigrated in their personal and collective histories were part of that society in upheaval at the time too. Nobody says “wir sind ein Volk”, “we are one nation”, anymore nowadays.

Welcome to paradise

There is a liberal colonialism that has so far not been perceived as such in intra-German history. We talk about reunification today, but perhaps nothing has divided Germans more than the opening of the Wall. At any rate, the opposition between “Ossi” and “Wessi” did not arise until after 1989. The phrase often employed by West German politicians “our brothers and sisters in the East”, which always had a paternalistic ring to it, morphed into welcoming “sons and daughters” who were now finally allowed to take a seat at the lavishly laid family table. The new citizens were treated to Begrüßungsgeld (“welcome money”), retraining programmes and new management. Newcomers from the ex-GDR were treated no differently from ethnic German immigrants from Romania or the Volga. Welcome to paradise. But hadn’t we just toppled a dictatorship in East Germany in 1989? “It couldn’t have come any worse,” writes Austrian philosopher Boris Buden. “Not only were those who brought about the democratic revolutions robbed of their victory and turned into losers. They were also placed under tutelage and condemned to blindly imitate their guardians in the ridiculous belief that they would learn autonomy in that way.” Buden regards this repressive infantilization of societies breaking away from socialism as the characteristic political feature of a transitional society that is heading back to the old established order.

Now, after the latest Bundestag elections, the party with the biggest increase in voters happens to be the one leading back to the old order, but most of those new voters did not espouse the platform of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), but were merely giving expression to a desire to take revenge on the “establishment”. Statistics show that most of them are not staunch right-wing nationalists, so the democratic parties have a chance and an obligation to woo these voters back to a political spectrum that takes the experience of loss seriously in a more mature way. The 2017 elections were won through debates not about justice, but about cultural and identity issues.

Thirty years after the Wende, Germany is building a Humboldt Forum with a view to associating Humboldt’s measurement of the world with German colonial history. For this purpose the Palace of the Republic was torn down, and there’s nothing there now to commemorate what was once the seat of the East German parliament. What are we to make of this brand of domestic colonialism? Of this nutty national notion that there is nothing left to bother ourselves about in the history of the GDR other than the history of the Stasi and those killed trying to get past the Wall? What remains of the GDR is a commemoration of culprits and victims, of injustice and failure, and the misconception that this is the whole truth.

In the aftermath of East Germany’s peaceful self-dissolution, it now seems well-nigh unreal that a country that nationalized industry and collectivized agriculture after 1949 actually existed for over forty years in the middle of Europe, on German soil; what emerged was a system of so-called Volkseigentum (“public ownership”), a politically controlled economy, an artificial currency and Socialist state doctrine. Nobody wants this system back, at least I don’t, but its history is rich in alternative paradigms and forms of production, it created a different form of culture that was as heavily influenced by classical education and aesthetic experiments as by aspects of ideological conformism. We must be allowed to remember that – just as we remember our childhoods without having to fear the knee-jerk reaction of being branded retrogrades.

If wreath-laying ceremonies have become a political ritual to commemorate, in connection with reunification, those who died at the Wall, why not commemorate those who helped bring down the Wall too? There are no streets named after them. Why not draw strength from the fact that East Germany reconstructed itself after the war without any Marshall Plan and industrialized just as effectively as wide swaths of the region are now being painfully deindustrialized?

Perhaps the root of our “national nuttiness” lies in the fact that the East German revolution is seen merely as a catch-up movement rather than as a trove of difference, which is particularly odd given West Germany’s history of left-wing utopias. Where memories of the ex-GDR are stripped of any such appreciation, history is written entirely by the “victors”.

People still remember the “polyclinics” at East German medical centres, but when thinking back on the reform of our healthcare system, it’s as though they never even existed. Not that they’d be the solution, but they’re an inspiring part of our history. When remembering full employment, recycling or centralized school-leaving exams in the former East Germany is immediately conflated with justifying the deaths at the Wall or the Socialist Party dictatorship, the upshot is, as political scientist Wolfgang Merkel calls it, a “gap in representation” which is still growing inside our political system.

What has become of the Round Tables?

If there was initially a sort of East German bitterness about this selective historical blindness in the West and the denigration of whole realms of experience in the East, this crisis of representation not only led to the creation of Die Linke (“The Left Party”) and its hard-earned acceptance within the political spectrum. More importantly, cosmopolitical liberalism in the wake of reunification gave rise to a climate of resentment, which increasingly spread through both sides of Germany, an alliance of those who’ve lost out in the modernization process, who feel left behind and discounted. Belgian political scientist Chantal Mouffe called the resulting society a “two-thirds democracy”, whose casualties are not so much the economic as the cultural losers.

Interestingly enough, the New Right, which has made itself the mouthpiece of these “modernization losers” who no longer feel represented by the political system, is not currently debating equal opportunity and reining in the markets, but issues like identity and nativism, in other words culture in the broadest sense. The “rank and file” it represents may well include professors. So it seems to me that, in view of this populist menace, the big challenge facing our democratic system is to detach the debate about values from knee-jerk accusations of conservatism and from the debate about cultural identity. Values are not the same thing as a Leitkultur (“dominant culture”): unshackled from identity issues, operative values become the expression of a concern for legal fair play and ethical standards.

Even if their material welfare improved, some of the Eastern Germans who felt left behind began to feel their own life stories had been lost or devalued. These people are not even a problem anymore, for they are overlooked, like the personnel in a hotel. The refugees, on the other hand, have become quite present and conspicuous in recent years, and widespread envy of their visibility in politics and society led to the Pegida protests and the disgraceful electoral success of the AfD. Chancellor “Mutti” (“Mummy”) Merkel took in new destitute children in the autumn of 2015, overlooking those who had long been feeling neglected in her household. They were not deprived of anything because new refugees had come. And yet an invidious struggle ensued, led by people asking, “How come they’re getting money and housing and we aren’t?” But material concerns are not the real issue: in my opinion, the ones fulminating at Merkel have been deprived of something else: pride and biography.

But many of the 22 million who have long since ceased to be Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) and are now German citizens of different origins, skin colour and religion, also feel they are not present and represented in the political system. Here, too, a culture of resentment has grown up in our midst, pushing plenty of new recruits from towns like Dinslaken (in North Rhine-Westphalia) into the arms of ISIS. This, too, is a long-term effect of the political legacy of 1989. And here, too, the old cosmopolitical West ignored the basic experiences of a large part of the electorate, who had to cope with very different consequences of deregulation and globalization.

The profound effects of the culture of resentment that arose after 1989, contemporaneous with what was supposed to be “the end of history”, began with the “fall of the Wall”. How would West German students feel if, after the Wende, their Abitur marks were multiplied by a factor of 1.2 and hence downgraded, as mine were in the early ’90s because scholastic standards were substantially lower in Eastern Germany? It was no big deal, life got over it smiling, but I still can’t forget it.

When talking about decolonialization, how come we don’t talk about how the two German states came together? What became of the Round Tables? Wasn’t the Grundgesetz (“Basic Law”, West Germany’s constitution) a makeshift solution to be replaced by a constitution as soon as Germany was united? The Wall didn’t “fall”, even if it might have felt that way in the West. It’s time to give other sides of the story a hearing and to consider the history of Germany from the perspective of the latecomers, the failures and losers – not in a gesture of pity, but because it enriches us.