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Marton Radkai

After collapse, jubilation, fear, and uncertainty

By Marton Radkai
November 9, 2009

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ANYONE WHO experienced the opening of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, close up will probably never forget the overwhelming emotion it triggered. Within a few hours, West German towns and cities along the border, especially Berlin, were teeming with hundreds of thousands of revelers from East Germany. Suddenly, the sputtering, two-stroke-driven Trabant and Wartburg cars from the East became a familiar and comforting sight in the West - their blue exhaust had the smell of freedom. The nightmare was over.

The former West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, caught the moment with an immortal quote, “Now, what is growing together, belongs together.’’ But his idea of organic convergence was not what then Chancellor Helmut Kohl had in mind. Having secured the lukewarm support of the NATO allies, he set about ramming East and West together before anyone could have second thoughts. It was an epic task that required, among other things, privatizing around 8,000 out-of-date, even decrepit companies. From roads to railways, from telecommunications networks to housing projects, everything needed to be restored, renovated, sanitized, or rebuilt.

Economists who casually criticize Germany’s somewhat sluggish economy often fail to remember the phenomenal sums that were spent in the former East Germany. Estimates go as high as $ 2.3 trillion. Though uneven, the effect overall was positive. Bitterfeld-Wolfen, for instance, once a gray-black environmental disaster area, has become a glittering hub of solar technology. However, no amount of money could prevent the massive layoffs that followed reunification. The high unemployment rate, over 20 percent in some parts of East Germany, rapidly drained the euphoria of unification and fostered political extremism, notably on the right.

As the bulldozers tore down the real wall, a new wall started rising in people’s minds. Germany became divided into “Ossis,’’ the naive Easterners with their pokey habits and hokey dialects, and arrogant “Wessis,’’ who knew everything better and had lots of cash. The Ossis grew tired of being condescended to, and the Wessis felt they were footing the bill for people who were never satisfied.

Of course, the last thing East Germany had done was prepare its citizens for the economic rigors of a capitalist society. Overnight, literally, they were faced with the opportunity of buying on credit and often failed to do the math properly. This led to a drop in the prices on Germany’s used car market when it became swamped with repossessed cars. Smooth-talking carpetbaggers began roaming the East making a fast deutschmark on the innocent and gullible. Former landowners or their descendants showed up to reclaim houses they had never even seen, much less kept up. And for years, the hunt for “informal employees’’ of the East German secret police (Stasi) broke up old friendships and even ruined families. Easterners became profoundly suspicious of their Western compatriots and the feeling was mutual.

This was one of the “walls in the mind’’ that Chancellor Angela Merkel, an Easterner herself, mentioned in her recent speech before Congress. Dismantling it has proven a tough task. As with economic recovery, though, it’s just a matter of patience.

The wall remains a vivid symbol of what cruelty resides in human beings when they become addicted to power and how illusory power really is. In 1989, ordinary - extraordinary! - people walked up to the men guarding the concrete monster and said no to a tyrannical system and no to the constant blackmail of nuclear war. The flags proclaiming “We are one people’’ were meant for the whole world. In the end, we are all human beings with families, friends, and daily routines. Whatever our differences, they are subtle and make our coexistence more interesting. A nice picket fence is all we might need, not a huge ugly wall.

On Nov. 12, 1989, I was in the East German city of Potsdam looking for the Cecilienhof Hotel, where Truman, Churchill, and Stalin had met on Aug. 2, 1945, and sealed the fate of Europe for the next 44 years. I asked a young woman for directions. We conversed briefly about the events. She then asked me where I was from. “The USA,’’ I answered. She suddenly reached out and hugged me. We both shed a few tears in the cold dusky air before going our own way. Like millions of people at the time, we were just feeling and sharing the incredible lightness of freedom.

Marton Radkai is a journalist and translator living in Germany.

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