Celebrating What’s Risen Since the Berlin Wall Fell

They’re planning a big party in Germany this weekend to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with free concerts, a light show of 18,000 illuminated helium balloons and, of course, a speech by Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a daughter of the old East Germany.

The party is well-deserved. Germany and the world still have a lot to celebrate a quarter-century after the single event that epitomized the collapse of the broken political and economic communist system. It’s true that the end of communism soon unleashed the horror of the breakup of Yugoslavia and made possible the rise of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s would-be czar. Yet overall, the world is a much better place since jubilant East Germans rushed through the breach in the wall on the evening of November 9, 1989.

A once-dowdy city seemingly lost in limbo near the Polish border has been transformed into one of the world’s most dynamic, cosmopolitan metropolises, a magnet for artists, software designers and tourists.

Nowhere are the repercussions more evident than in Germany itself. It’s easy to forget now, but initially the fall of the wall caused considerable angst among many about the dangers of a reunified Germany. Margaret Thatcher resisted the idea of a united country, fearing the resurgence of a malevolent Germany. Guenther Grass, the great German writer, also opposed reunification, convinced that the continued division of his country would protect Germany from itself and serve as a perpetual punishment for the Holocaust.

They were both wrong. The reunified Germany that has emerged since 1990 (reunification came only a year after the fall of the wall) has turned into a mainstay of the European Union and a force for good in the world. It is a strong democracy that more than pulls its weight internationally, including in military engagements such as Afghanistan. The Greeks and the Spaniards may mumble complaints about German hegemony at the EU, but without Germany’s economy stability and deep pockets, the EU would probably have emerged more battered still from the recent Euro crisis.

At home, the fears that divisions between the affluent, arrogant ‘Wessis’ and their poorer, less sophisticated ‘Ossi’ cousins would persist indefinitely have largely dissipated.

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When I lived in Berlin in the late 1990s as the Globe and Mail’s European correspondent, those divisions were still manifest. They called it “the wall in the head” which still divided the two parts of the city. It was a strange time to be in the city. The initial euphoria of reunification had subsided and the capital was still in Bonn, with the great move to Berlin still around the corner.

The wall was down, but it was still possible to tell the difference between the two sides of the city. The East was greyer, many of its buildings were crumbling, and at times you could see Trabants, the much-derided East German cars that sounded like noisy lawnmowers, parked forlornly on side streets.

Much of Mitte, the traditional centre in the East, had been transformed into a giant construction site, preparing for the planned move of the capital. It was an impressive sight, but I remember wondering skeptically whether the move would actually work and whether West Germans would soon tire of shipping billions of Deutsche marks of cash a year into what was sure to become a money-pit.

Well, they never did stop the flow of money. In fact, a total of more than 2 trillion euros has been sent east over the 25 years since the wall fell, money invested in new highways, high-speed telecommunications and energy-efficient renovations to millions of homes. In Berlin, the result is magnificent. A once-dowdy city seemingly lost in limbo near the Polish border has been transformed into one of the world’s most dynamic, cosmopolitan metropolises, a magnet for artists, software designers and tourists.

The neighbourhood where I’m staying, Prenzlauer Berg, feels more like trendy Park Slope in Brooklyn or Paris’s Le Marais district than the depressed former home of DDR’s nomenklatura. Yoga studios, Italian cafes and organic food shops line tree-lined streets bustling with young hipster families and their omnipresent babies, so much so that the area has been dubbed by some as PramLauer Berg.

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That doesn’t mean that a reunited Germany still doesn’t face challenges. Outside of Berlin, particularly in rural and small-town Eastern Germany, the economic miracle is far from complete, with depopulation a major concern. Since reunification, Eastern Germany has seen its population drop by 13.5 per cent as 1.8 million residents, many of them young and educated, have moved for jobs and a rosier future in Western Germany. Unemployment in the East, at 10.3 per cent in 2013, was four percentage points higher in the West; but that’s still a huge improvement from the 18 per cent jobless level recorded in the East in 2005. Productivity and tax receipts also are markedly lower in the East.

But as investment bank KfW points out in a recent report, the economic revival of Eastern Germany still compares favorably to that of the West during the ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s and 1960s. As for regional inequality, the bank notes that all countries have differences between regions, even after generous financial transfers (something we in Canada are certainly aware of).

And most importantly, the ‘Wall in the head’, particularly for younger Germans, is fast disappearing.

So, when it comes to Germany, I’d say the cup is more than half full. And on the weekend, I’ll be pleased to lift a glass of Sekt and toast to the continued success of a united Germany.

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