Tue, 09 Nov 1999

Two parties in Berlin

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): "What did you do in the Cold War, Daddy?"

"Well, dear, I went to Berlin for the end of it, and I got you a piece of the Wall."

This week's party in Berlin to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, like the street party that erupted when the East German Communists opened the border crossings on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, is an oddly one-sided affair. The exultant West Germans (Wessis) float by on oceans of champagne, while the East Germans (Ossis), too poor for that kind of excess, wander around looking wistful, wan and a little lost.

Only at the last minute did the organizers of the celebrations at the Reichstag (parliament) agree to let a former East German dissident, Joachim Gauck, share the limelight with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his predecessor, Helmut Kohl (both Wessis). The non-violent demonstrations that brought down the East German regime and showed the rest of Eastern

Europe how to dump their Communists were an entirely Ossi affair, but this week's celebration, like East Germany itself, has essentially been taken over by the West.

According to a recent survey by the Hans Boeckler Foundation, two-thirds of the 16 million Ossis feel better off than they were a decade ago. But that means one-third don't, which is not surprising when unemployment is twice as high in former East Germany as in old West Germany -- and would be far higher if not for the "solidarity surcharge" that still transfers around US$100 billion a year (over $2000 per wage-earner) from the west to the east.

Those who have fallen furthest are those who were the elite under Communist rule: the industrial working class whose rusted- out factories have been closed down, and the lawyers, doctors, teachers and civil servants who have not prospered in the new Germany because their jobs once virtually forced them to become informers for the Stasi, the Communist secret police. Given the amount of bitterness around, it's surprising that only one Ossi in five actually votes for the Party of Democratic Socialism, the reformed Communists.

This eccentric voting behavior, together with a xenophobic right-wing extremism that is almost part of mainstream culture in former East Germany -- the vast majority of racist attacks on foreigners occur in the east, though it has only one-fifth of united Germany's people -- confirms the prejudices of those who believe the Ossis are an indigestible, permanent burden on the more prosperous and enlightened western parts of Germany.

Reality is more nuanced. East Germans, like all Eastern Europeans, tend to harbor the racist opinions and use the racist vocabulary of 50 years ago, mainly because the Communists never admitted that this problem that extended beyond "capitalist" societies. They never allowed the open debate that has gradually confined these notions to a marginalized "redneck" discourse in the West, so well educated Russians, Poles, or East Germans will regularly stun you with the casual viciousness of their racial prejudice.

But time and education will heal this problem, and probably faster in Germany than elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Germany's east-west economic differences will also narrow with time, and 20 years from now may be no greater than they were on the eve of the World War I. So is all well that ends well? In this case, I think yes.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's lifelong distrust of German reunification made her refuse an invitation to join the other main leaders of 1989, America's George Bush and Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev, at this week's Berlin ceremonies, but by now history has shown that she was totally wrong. Eighty million Germans, far from being a threat to Europe, are the engine of European unification; they have even voluntarily given up the mighty deutschmark.

I confess that I wasn't so sure at the time, standing there in the raw November night in 1989. The "anti-fascist defense wall", as the East German regime called it, was a hateful structure where hundreds of people had been killed for the crime of wanting to move to a different part of their own city, but there were six foreign armies and thousands of nuclear weapons stacked up on the soil of divided Germany. Could we really re-unite the greatest state of Central Europe, the focus of two world wars, without triggering an avalanche?

Of course we could. We -- or rather, the people who lived there, for foreigners had little to do with it -- showed that the Communists' boasts and threats were as hollow as George Orwell's fears, and swept all those post-Stalinist regimes away with no further ado. The argument that began in France in 1789 effectively ended in Berlin in 1989: democracy, yes; populist dictatorship, no.

So I collected a piece of the Wall for my daughter (a large bit, with some nice spray-paint graffiti on it), and went off to Poland for a few days before driving down to Prague for the next revolution.

"So where is my piece of the wall, Daddy?"

Alas, just before I left Warsaw, while I was parked right outside the Ministry of Culture to interview some fading Polish actress who was minister at the time, somebody broke into my car and stole my suitcase. They got all the tapes, my interviewing- presidents suit and two left dress shoes (I had packed in a hurry), and also your piece of the Wall.

I reckon it was because the car had German plates.