30 years ago this week the Berlin Wall fell. Germans are reflecting on this pivotal event which paved the way for German reunification, coming to symbolise the end of the Cold War and the division of Europe into East and West.
Although the fall of the Wall had been a surprise, following a mistaken televised announcement that citizens could move freely across the border between East and West Berlin, a series of protests in the East and across the Soviet Union more widely had taken place, shedding light on popular discontent with the Communist regime. The night of 9 November 1989 has since gone down in history, marked by Germans climbing, dancing and jumping over the concrete wall which had divided Berlin since 1961.
The Soviets had built the Berlin Wall to stop the increasing number of East Germans fleeing to West Germany, following the division of the country after the Second World War. Its fall in 1989 set the scene for reunification less than a year later.
Events are taking place across Berlin this week to mark the 30th anniversary, including exhibitions, a music festival, and an app which uses augmented reality technology to simulate life in a divided Berlin for younger generations. One of the highlights is the installation at the Brandenburg Gate, titled ‘Visions in Motion’, which features 30,000 messages written by the public.
As Germans participate in events to celebrate, the anniversary also brings to light conflicting perspectives on this momentous occasion and its consequences. While the fall of the Wall brought free speech, free travel and the end of the surveillance state in East Germany and was widely viewed in the West as a good thing, it was also a period of great and disorientating change for East Germans as reintegration began, bringing higher costs of living, unemployment and a rapid introduction to the unknown capitalist world.
These conflicting experiences reverberate in Germany 30 years later. Although it is catching up, economically the east still lags behind the west, and two million people have left the region since reunification. A recent report also found that nearly 60% of eastern residents feel like second-class citizens, and only 38% view reunification as a success. This pessimistic public opinion in the east is translating into political differences, with extremist parties such as the far-right Alternative für Deutschland much more popular in this half of the country than the west. At the end of last month, the AfD doubled its vote in the state election in Thuringia, finishing above Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU. The party has also made significant gains in two other eastern states, Brandenburg and Saxony.
With three decades now having passed since the fall of the Wall itself, debate is strong in Germany about the legacies left behind by the division of the country.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself from the east, remarked that unity is a “continual process” and a “constant mission that affects all Germans”.
“A lot has been achieved in the past 29 years. In the west as well as in the east, people are all in all happier with their lives than at any other moment since reunification. But we also know that this is not the whole truth,” Merkel said last month in Kiel, commemorating German reunification.
“We must all learn to understand why reunification for many people in eastern states is not only a positive experience,” she added.
While Germany marks this historic occasion, underlying political, social and economic divisions are still present despite formal reunification. Even 30 years later, the Berlin Wall continues to leave a mark on German society.