The continuing partition of Berlin

Reparlez-moi des roses de Gottingen
qui m’accompagnent
dans l’autre Allemagne
? l’heure o? colombes et vautours s’?loignent.
De quel c?t? du mur, la fronti?re vous rassure…

Tell me again about the roses in Gottingen
that come with me
into the other Germany
when the doves and vultures part ways.
From whichever side of the wall, the border comforts you…

– Patricia Kaas, D’Allemagne

Today is the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and as Tobias notes, political unification has not created the single, new Germany its authors so fervently hoped for.

Fifteen years ago today, I watched the news from my dorm in Strasbourg, having, only the day before, decided to cancel my planned trip to Berlin that weekend. Otherwise, I would have had a valid train ticket to the street party of the century. By the time the wall came down, it was impossible to get train fare or a room anywhere in the city, and going was simply out of the question.


On Sunday morning, I saw my first Trabant, parked in a motorcycle space in front of the McDonald’s on Place Kleber in the centre of Strasbourg. The driver and his girlfriend were on their way to Paris in a Trabi.

I visited Berlin a few weeks later, going out of my way to cross at the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. By then, the Wall was already a joke. Torn down left and right, the West German government had put up a weak fence, not so much to restore the partition but to force people to use monitored crossing points. When I paid my five marks to enter East Berlin, I saw the East German customs official awkwardly pocket the cash. I exchanged Westmarks for Ostmarks at four to one with a Russian army sergeant on the steps of the Staatsbank off Unter den Linden. He wanted to sell me some Soviet military paraphanalia as part of the exchange.

The contrast between the two cities was enormous. West Berlin in the old days was the San Francisco of Europe. It was a city of punk hairdos, sex shops, Turks and open advocacy of alternative lifestyles. The first boutique condom shop I ever saw was across the street from my hotel. The East, however, wasn’t nearly as bland as I had expected. On that day at least, it was a very active city.

There was an enormous bookstore downtown, selling Landau & Lipshitz’ famous physics texts – in English translation – for something like 30 Ostmarks for the whole set. Now, the lot goes for $300 on Amazon if you can find it at all. I stocked up on items that I expected I could would never find again, and in hindsight I wish I had taken more advantage of it rather than less.

The tension and codependence of the two Berlins created something strange. Even in the few days I was there, I could see that. Berlin was the archtype edge city, caught in a sort of twilight between two very different conceptions of the world. This was highlighted by the first person I met in Berlin. After getting off the train at Zoo Garten (the main train station in the West) and entering the arrivals hall, I was buttonholed by a young Japanese man, asking if I could speak English. He explained that he had just spent a week in transit by train from Hong Kong and was on his way to Paris, and that after suffering through the Chinese and Soviet train systems, he was desperate for something normal to eat, and everything at the station was closed. I took him by the shoulders and pointed him to the nearest exit. Through the glass doors, you could see a Burger King.

I will never forget the look of joy on his face.

There was something odd about the Aeroflot offices in West Berlin, with their giant hammer-and-sickle logo, being on the Ku’damm, across the street from a Burger King and a McDonald’s. It was the image of the conflict that had divided the city for all those years. The bombed out ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Ged?chnis Kirche formed a sort of symbol of the joint, tarnished past of the two Germanies, the well-worn common trunk of a nation that had split into two different and highly unequal branches. That image, in that time and place, symbolised Berlin and its place in the world.

Leaving Berlin also highlighted the border and its unusual social properties. I left Berlin by train, bound for Copenhagen. This meant recrossing East German customs at Freidrichsstrasse Bahnhof. The last odd experience I had in Berlin was after boarding the train at Zoo Garten. My travelling companion and I had settled into an empty compartment when, five minutes before departure, a large blackman threw open the door to the compartment, looked around, crossed to the window, threw it open, and yelled something incomprehensible down the track. A minute later, another guy – black and bespectacled and even larger in size – pulled up to the window with a baggage cart stacked full of cardboard boxes and began tossing them into the compartment. It took them just over a minute to move all the boxes into the train, where they were stacked floor to ceiling on one side of this coach class space. The boxes were for TVs, VCRs, stereos, blank video and audio tapes. After the other man had settled in, I realised that they were speaking French. So asked them what they were up to.

They were students from Africa – one from Gabon the other from Senegal – studying engineering in Kiev. They had gone to Paris for spring break, and were planning to earn some spending money by selling cheap western electronics in Kiev for exorbitant ruble markups. They took the train through the inspection at Friedrichstrasse and got off at the old East Berlin Hauptbahnhof to catch the long distance train to Kiev.

I haven’t been back to Berlin since. I’d like to go, and one of these days I will. I’m terrified that the German government’s move there has torn out the counterculture. West Berlin was where the Germans who didn’t fit in the Bundesrepublik could carve out a niche for themselves. Somehow, I doubt that the tolerance that came with its ambiguous status fits the shiny new German capital or the shiny new Germany Helmut Kohl wanted to build. Certainly, that same sense of being at the contact point between two very different realms must be gone. As I understand it, Checkpoint Charlie is now an ugly Silicon Valley-style office building that houses Oracle’s offices.

According to Reuters (hat tip to Crooked Timber), even if the partition is no longer marked on the ground, it seems alive and well in the minds of Germans:

Little east-west romance 15 years after Berlin Wall

Only two percent of the marriages each year in Berlin are between easterners and those across town in the west. It is a rate that reflects the lingering dislike that east and west Germans still have for each other. The euphoria which accompanied the breach of the wall on November 9, 1989 soon dissipated.

“I’ve had girlfriends from countries around the world but never west Berlin,” said east Berlin student Stefan Rosche, 23. “West Berlin women are too difficult. They’re demanding, pushy and materialistic. Everything about them is so commercial.”

While streets, bridges and train lines severed for three decades by the Berlin Wall were re-connected shortly after its spectacular collapse exactly 15 years ago, there was no emotional rapprochement after the joy wore off. The Cold War has been replaced by the cold shoulder. For amore read animosity. Little passion, lots of prejudice — and separate beds. […]

Sociologists who have studied the unique polarisation in Berlin say that under normal circumstances a third to a half of the couples in a city of its size and infrastructure would be east-west pairings. Yet according to the state statistics office, Berliners are 12 times more likely to marry foreigners than settle down with a partner from the other side of town.

Borders are strange things. They create barriers but they also become gateways between worlds, where difference fosters diversity, and diversity fosters creativity. It seems very unfortunate to me that the vibrancy of the border might be replaced by a dull, stupifying segregation. I have to wonder if unification hasn’t given Berliners the worst of both worlds rather than the construction of something new.

14 thoughts on “The continuing partition of Berlin

  1. “I have to wonder if unification hasn?t given Berliners the worst of both worlds rather than the construction of something new.”

    Yes, because having a third of your neighbors reporting on you to the Stasi was such a great experience. Not being able to leave your country unless you could weasel permission out of the government was such a great situation.

    The East Berliners are better off, even if they don’t always believe it. That’s why there is no movement to split Germany apart. The only goal is to better manage their lives.

    I don’t wonder at all if Berliners have the worst of both worlds, and I’m pretty surprised that you would even say this. What possible basis do you have for saying that the current situation (a peaceful united Germany with secure borders) is worse than the previous situation where East Germans were in a prison, West Berlin was sort of a prison in a prison, and Soviet tanks were poised to flatten West Germany and only held back by the threat of nuclear response strikes on German soil by NATO?

  2. Well, because the evidence suggests Germany isn’t that united. Because people will put up with a lot for full employment.

    No, no one wants the Soviets or the Stasi back, but I suspect quite a few would like their jobs back. I suspect quite a few prefered West Berlin as the outsider’s haven instead of the capital of Germany.

    Berlin was something different – for worse but also for better. And, it might have turned out better in the end too. That is all I am suggesting.

  3. “I have to wonder if unification hasn?t given Berliners the worst of both worlds rather than the construction of something new.”

    “And, it might have turned out better in the end too. That is all I am suggesting.”

    No, you are wondering if unification hasn’t given Berliners “the worst of both worlds”. This is a ridiculous statement on its face, and that’s why I called you on it.

    I don’t care if you don’t like how Berlin has changed, but please don’t say ridiculous things. Also, please note that West Berlin was always heavily subsidized and basically a ghetto, and so of course you got a different feel there.

    Anything that needs overwhelming repression and state coercion to survive isn’t worth mourning. That’s why I don’t shed a tear for the old East Germany or the wall or “full employment”, because they were all based on secret police, foreign occupation, and deception.

    Berlin didn’t disappear, and West Berlin’s function is not to serve as some kind of far-out cultural zone for tourists to visit and enjoy, then flee back to their pleasant apartments in Western Europe. Get over it.

  4. Thanks for a great post.

    Without wanting to get into a fight — east-nostalgia is a very present phenonmenon. I know lots of East Germans who complain that things were better in the old days. I don’t think they were, on the whole, and I don’t think they’d agree if they were magically transported back.
    However, quite a few achievements of the East were not incorporated into the unified Germany and those are sorely missed. Good childcare, cheap health care, real emancipation. Not all was bad. Not all was worth leaving behind.

  5. And don’t forget: being allowed to make a right turn at a red light.

    The CSU were very set against adopting this in the West. It was volkseigen, or something, and therefore Bad.

  6. Look, I know about Ostalgie and I’ve seen Goodbye Lenin just like everyone else. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have mixed feelings after a great change, and I don’t argue that reunification proceeded in some mystical perfect way that avoided all mistakes.

    But, at least in my case and Scott Martens, we aren’t East Germans or West Berliners. We have essentially no nostalgia to get over. We all know the history, oppression, lies, and constant informing that East Germany was all about.

    So it ill behooves us to make ridiculous comments about how after unification “Berlin has the worst of both worlds”. What exactly would the worst of both worlds be: rampant drug abuse and the Stasi? Joint Soviet-Allied occupation? It doesn’t make sense, and it shows a certain lack of critical and historical thinking which is surprising.

    I’m all for Berlin becoming a normal city. If you ask me, for the last hundred and fifty years, the Germans have had alltogether too much excitement and history.

    If you want good childcare and health care, there is nothing stopping you from fighting for it in the united Germany, and I would support you. That’s what living in a democracy is all about, and that’s what the East Germans chose. But having good child care is not worth living in a police state for.

    Making a right turn at a red light is not something I would give up my right to travel for, for example.

  7. “the vibrancy of the border”
    “torn out the counterculture”
    “stupifying segregation”
    “the worst of both worlds”

    Sorry Scott, but you’re full of cr@p. Having lived for a short while in walled-in Berlin and a long while in post-wall Berlin I can attest that currently Berlin is one of the most affordable, vibrant and tolerant places in Europe to live in. Walled-in West-Berlin might have spawned some good Bowie albums and the sight of mostly Swabian dimwits rehearsing the revolution in Kreuzberg was quite amusing at times but for the most part, beneath the thin veneer of Frontstadt-aesthetics it was an utterly provincial and rather unexciting place.

  8. I’ve only seen post-unification Berlin, which I think is one of the most comfortable and dynamic cities I’ve ever seen. The former-Ossis I’ve met had some resentment that Wessis had swarmed in and gobbled up all the best districts for themselves (Mitte, Prenzlauerberg), but they mostly seemed to feel that they were better off for the change.

    I think they should have left more of the wall in situ, though.

  9. I think they should have left more of the wall in situ, though.

    Having visited Berlin only twice, once East and West, once unified, I shouldn’t have any opinion about it but…

    From what I experienced the Berliners weren’t exactly the Cold Warriors like the politicians from the US/USSR were. And from that perspective I would have expected the Wall to be removed completely with the exception of some pieces in a museum somewhere, and places like the quit WWII memorial where some parts were still standing.

    What does surprise me is the destruction of the ugly “volkspalast” or whatever it was called. It looked to me much more defining for the culture of East Berlin.

  10. Hey guys, be civil, yes? Scott wrote a post in which he expressed his thoughts. Whether or not you agree, one can at least ask for a polite tone. No reason at all to get all worked up and call names.

    FWIW, Berlin used to be the place where all those young men went who wanted to avoid the draft, back before there was a choice. Berlin was a place where “unusual” people liked to move to. That alone illustrates that Berlin had a special status, a certain culture. That culture is undoubtedly gone. Berlin of today is full of diplomats and politicians. Do you really think this had no influence at all? Berlin has been transformed, that was Scotts point, and it is a valid one. Whether you like the Berlin of today better, is really not the question here.

    Don’t make me poke you.

  11. Ond onderlasset Se bittschee di Schwobebelaidigong. Des m?get mir fai net, gell.

    If it continues, I shall have no choice but to post a very good Swabian joke that I found on alt.aeffle.und.pferdle.

  12. Sorry for expressing my anger, but when people lacking any knowledge or experience of the subject matter make sweeping and wrong assumptions with morally dubious undertones I tend to get wound up a little. I’m sure that Scott is a nice and intelligent guy, he just blew it on this one.


    avoid the draft, back before there was a choice

    There has been a choice to perform a civil service instead of the military service for more than 30 years now, indeed people perfomed that civil service as early as 1960 and the whole process was formalized in 1973. You had to make a bit of an effort to get accepted in the early days and you still have to lay out your reasons for refusing to serve in the military, granted, but saying there was no choice is, it pains me to say, wrong.

  13. >Sorry for expressing my anger, but when people
    >lacking any knowledge or experience of the subject
    >matter make sweeping and wrong assumptions with
    >morally dubious undertones I tend to get wound up >a little.

    Novakant, the only way one really blow expressing one’s opinions is lack of manners. As Claudia mentioned already, I think it’s obvious that the old cool Berlin is gone and has been replaced by a new one. And despite Berlin being a vibrant place, if you listen to complaints of people living in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, I wonder if there isn’t indeed a little truth to Scott’s wondering…

  14. Most people marry people within 16 blocks of where they grew up.

    Most of each Berlin is closer to itself than to the other.

    Similarly, family networks are well established on each side, far less well so across.

    The “author” who penned ” It is a rate that reflects the lingering dislike that east and west Germans still have for each other.” is a small minded bigot.

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