25 years after fall of the Berlin Wall, divisions in Germany remain

Ostalgie poster. Berlin, 2008. [Ningfeng Zhang/Flickr]

“Would you like to know more about the history of former East Germany?” 54% of German citizens answered “No” to this question in a recent survey ahead of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, while 6 in 10 Germans were in favour of looking ahead rather than reflecting on GDR history. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Only 38% of German citizens wish to find out more about the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and German division. And over half of the German population (54%) does not want any more information on East Germany’s history.

These are among the results of a nationwide, representative study conducted by Infratest Dimap on behalf of the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship. The survey was conducted ahead of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, on 9 November.

But younger citizens seem to be the exception to the rule, with the survey showing 58% of this demographic is interested in more information about GDR history. Among respondents 14-29 years of age, a majority said they would like to find out more about the history of the communist East German state and German division.

“The study’s results confirmed previous surveys and our own observations: although young people may not know much about the history of German division and the second dictatorship, they are interested and would like to learn more,” explained Anna Kaminsky, managing director of the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship.

The survey also shows that 9 November 1989 is widely known as the most distinctive date in the Peaceful Revolution: 69% of respondents in eastern and western Germany know that border crossings at the Berlin Wall were opened on the night before 10 November 1989 – in former East Germany, 81% were aware of this fact.

Asked about the most important reasons for the collapse of the GDR, citizens in eastern and western Germany mostly agreed: Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies were the most common response (33%), followed by the poor condition of the GDR’s economy (22%). The third most important cause cited by respondents was the wave of GDR citizens flooding out of the communist state (16%).

Meanwhile, the opposition movement in East Germany (10%) and Western policies of the time (11%) were ranked comparatively low in significance by those surveyed.

“Without Gorbachev, the opposition movement in the GDR would most likely have failed,” said Rainer Eppelmann, chairman of the board at the Reappraisal Foundation. But it is also obvious, he said, that the Wall did not fall because the eyes of leaders in the GDR were suddenly opened. Borders were forced open by citizens in churches and on the streets. Without them, there would never have been the 9th of November as we experienced it.”

“Wende” or “Peaceful Revolution”?

Results in the survey also show how the events in autumn 1989 are described differently in general speech. While the majority of those surveyed in western Germany spoke of the “Wende” (43%), meaning the ”change” or “turn”. In the eastern regions the term “Peaceful Revolution” was the most common (41%).

For Lothar de Maizière, the last minister president of the GDR, reunification was definitely not a “Wende”. “That was the word [Egon] Krenz used on the evening of 18 October, when [Erich] Honecker stepped down, he said: ‘Now a ‘Wende’ will come’”, de Maizière told Deutschlandfunk radio on Sunday (2 November). “But by that he meant within the system, not surmounting the system itself,” said de Maizière.

The entire term “Fall of the Wall” is not accurate in de Maizière’s view: “The Wall did not fall. The Wall was staved in. It was destroyed by demonstrations: in Leipzig, in Plauen, in Berlin on 4 November [1989].”

But colloquial descriptions are not the only issue that reveals stark differences between east and west.

A feature published by Zeit Online clearly illustrates how the borders of former East Germany are still visible in certain statistical analyses. Issue areas like income, farm size, gun ownership, the number of recreational vehicles (RVs) per 10,000 residents and the prevalence of the name “Ronny” among Facebook users all show starkly visible differences.

Eberhard Diepgen, who hails from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) served as mayor of Berlin from 1984 to 1989. After the city’s first election as a whole, Diepgen took office again in 1991 under a grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and helped design Berlin’s reunification.

25 years after the Fall of the Wall, Diepgen indicated in Berlin last week that reunification cannot be “completed”, as many claim.

It is more of a natural process that takes time, he said. “People still exist today, who see themselves as losers in the ‘Wende’. This will take at least two generations to overcome,” the former Berlin mayor stated.

7 November marks the start of a three-day anniversary celebration in Berlin. Until 9 November, 8,000 glowing white balloons will indicate where the Wall used to run.

The 15-kilometre-long “light wall” is intended to convey a sense of the Wall’s dimension and resemble the candles that became a symbol of nonviolence during the Peaceful Revolution.

During a revolutionary wave that swept across the Eastern bloc, on 9 November 1989 an East German government official announced after a misunderstanding that all citizens of East Germany (GDR) could visit West Berlin and West Germany freely. Tens of thousands of East Germans immediately swarmed to the border crossings. The East German border guards did not oppose them. 

Crowds of East Germans climbed onto the wall, crossed it, and were soon joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, parts of the Wall were destroyed. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for Germany's reunification, which was formally concluded on 3 October 1990.

>>Read: The journalist question that fractured the Wall

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