Touted by the East German leadership as a barrier against “fascist provocation,” the Wall was really an attempt to stop waves of skilled workers and educated people leaving a repressive state. Around 3 million fled between 1945 and 1961, when the Wall went up. In time, it became etched in the Western consciousness as a symbol of inhumanity. More than 100 people were picked off by border guards while trying to escape; dozens of others were killed by mines.
However, by November 9, 1989, deep political shifts had prepared the ground for an earthquake. Leader Erich Honecker had been forced to resign and 4 million people had demonstrated for democracy. On that momentous day, the government’s spokesman Guenther Schabowski announced that East Germans could go to West Germany if they applied for a visa.
Within minutes, people swarmed around the wall’s border posts in what amounted to a siege. At midnight, they broke through to West Germany. That sounded the death knell for the Cold War and set the stage for German reunification a little more than a year later. But 15 years on, a very different kind of mass mobilisation took place. The demonstrations in Leipzig this August highlighted the economic plight of the former East German regions, where unemployment is double that of the western part.
When the old regime collapsed, many skilled workers found themselves on the wrong side of supply-and-demand economics. Many of those who had the right know-how, like journalist Rosemarie Gratz, sought work abroad.
“People in the east have seen their social benefits disappear and their dreams of the ‘Golden West’ vanish,” she said. Instead of fearing ‘security’ – as the secret service was called – they now fear the lack of social security. And they’ve realised that the brotherly love of West Germans doesn’t extend to the job market.” The divisions are not just economic. The cultural gap remains enormous, as Western-born journalist Mark Rohde explains:
“What really annoys the West Germans is the way Easterners whinge and whine. They have this nostalgia for East Germany, as if life there was really great. They even suggest their products were better than Western ones.”
All but a few bits of the Wall have been removed since 1989, sometimes disappointing tourists – but anyone searching for the psychological relics of the Cold War divide do not need to look far.