I would later regale German friends with this anecdote, with the aim of letting some of the air out of their post-Reunification bicycle tyres. Did I say Reunification? Unification implies that there was something to unify, buying into the notion of nationhood as a reality waiting to happen, rather than the product of politics: the world is full of nation-states with more than one language and culture, and languages and cultures with more than one nation-state. In the light of the more-or-less wholesale adoption and/or imposition of the West German political and economic system in Eastern Germany, the term ‘Democratically Legitimated Annexation’ might give another take on the events of 1989/1990. Couched in the mythology of a single nation, those events could just as well be seen as the history of two separate states, and two cultures.
But perhaps Bristol University students were not the only ones whose interest in current events was less keen than might have been expected. Twenty years later in an interview with the Guardian-ish Tageszeitung, Walter Momper, Mayor of West Berlin in 1989, detailed some of the actions of his administration in the run-up to and during November 1989. On the night of the 9th, in order to get news of the events at the border out to the rest of East Germany, the main West Berlin TV station, Sender Freies Berlin, broadcast, at Momper’s behest, live coverage from its transmitters along the border with East Germany. But not from the rest of its transmitters, which continued to broadcast the scheduled programme to West Berlin. Coverage of games from the last sixteen in that year's West German League Cup.
The final whistle blew, and the great redrafting began. A year later, with the official act of Whatever It Really Was, the jagged line of a border would disappear and two colours would turn into one on the map behind the newsreader.
How has Berlin changed since the Fall of the Wall? My usual reaction to being asked this question approximates to how I would feel on being presented with an exam paper on which the first question is ‘How has the solar system changed in the last twenty years?’ There isn’t enough space on the paper to answer the question fully, but if I continue my answer on a separate sheet, I imagine the external examiner getting bored or annoyed. Indisputably, the city has changed, but different areas – and this can’t be reduced to simply the former eastern and western Berlins – have changed to quite differing degrees and in very different ways.
It can also be hard to separate out what has changed in Berlin specifically rather than in Germany, Europe or on the rest of Planet Earth since the late eighties. Recent years in Berlin have seen large numbers of people beginning to use mobile phone technology, for instance, making meeting up a matter of five phone calls rather than one. When the fifteenth new and indistinguishable mall goes up, this is change both on a municipal and on a planetary level. I propose, nevertheless, to take you to the top of the Berlin Fernsehturm, the ‘far-seeing’ or TV Tower, which we will treat as a kind of Hubble space telescope situated close to the centre of the solar system of Berlin. There are a number of interesting sights in the November sky. What with the speed of light, we will of course be seeing them more or less in the past.
Out on the edges of the solar system, the seasons take a long time to change. The wide boulevards leading into the city in Spandau in the north and ex-West, or in Höhenschönhausen in the north and ex-East of the city are still lined by kilometres of ten-floor tower blocks. In Winter, winds sweep over them at temperatures far below zero. A sudden geological event around 1989/1990 did, however, cause a set of changes to occur in a very short space of time in the Eastern areas. These include a set of suburbs that arc round from north to south – Karow, Höhenschönhausen, Marzahn, Lichtenberg, Treptow. The old state-run shops metamorphosed into supermarkets of the same chains as in the West. For driving along those cold, windy avenues, the Trabis and Wartburgs changed into Opels and Audis. Sediments of bright advertising settled everywhere. And out of the igneous vents came the mass closure of Eastern enterprises and large-scale unemployment, the argument being that the soil left behind would be fertile.
If you’ll just twist your head round a little further, off to the south but now in the former West, you can also make out the huge gas giant of Neukölln. Great storms of social conflict play out across its surface. Historically, it was known as Rixdorf, a name which in the wake of nineteenth century industrialization became synonymous with high unemployment, low incomes, crowded housing conditions, drunkenness on the street and diverse social misery. In 1920, astronomers renamed it ‘Neukölln’ in a bid to improve its image. In the wake of late twentieth century de-industrialization, however, ‘Neukölln’ has become synonymous with high unemployment, low incomes, crowded housing conditions, drunkenness on the street and diverse social misery. It made German national headlines in 2006 when the entire teaching staff of a secondary school were reported as having threatened to resign en masse, citing irreconcilable differences between themselves and the pupils: it’s hard to teach when a kid is throwing a waste-paper basket at you. (In fact, the teachers’ letter to the Berlin Senate had simply called attention to the alarming situation at the school and proposed its radical restructuring and a redistribution of the pupils).
There is however a large and mysterious green spot in Neukölln called the Böhmische Viertel. Literally the Bohemian Quarter, only the Bohemians were real Bohemians: Protestant asylum-seekers from the Counter-Reformation. Data from recent missions suggest that both here and elsewhere in Neukölln some forms of life might just be possible: cafés and bars with acceptable standards of beer have been observed. Many recent immigrants to Berlin from other parts of Germany and Europe seem to be landing here. And now that Tempelhof Airport – or Zentraler Flughafen as its builders, the Nazis, called it – has been closed, rents will surely rise in the adjacent areas where the planes used to drop their excess fuel while preparing to land.
Difficult to see with the naked eye, but nevertheless there, is a kind of fragmented asteroid belt a little further inwards, mostly within the former West. Jerking your head back north you’ll find, for example, the Afrikanische Viertel. In recent years, the ‘African Quarter’ has, as it happens, become the home of Berlin’s biggest community of diaspora Africans and their descendants. But the name pre-dates their arrival. Many of the individual streets – Kamerunerstrasse, Togostrasse, Sansibarstrasse etc. – are named after places where the Germans, late starters in colonialism trying to catch up with the Brits and the rest, made giant steps for Germankind and plonked their Reichsflagge.
Another asteroid off to the north and just within the former West is the Soldiner Kiez: statistically the most socially deprived area of the city, and where statistically the highest number of Bristol University ex-students of Russian history, sorry, civilization, live. At one end of it is the Bösebrücke, which is where the first border crossing to be opened was, and where the first TV pictures of crowds streaming through were taken.
An astronomical digression, regarding the name of this area: Kiez, which now means a Berlin neighbourhood, is an old Slavic word for fishing village. It’s the light left over from what was once the key local industry in the swamps that would later become Berlin. Soldin, as so often with street names in Berlin, is an echo of a much earlier wave of space exploration: it’s the German name for a town in eastern Brandenburg, an area settled by German-speakers in the late middle ages. They stayed there till 1945, when the centuries-long game between Slavs and Germans was resolved with a late penalty shoot-out, as Stalin moved both the eastern and western borders of Poland westwards, together with their respective populations. It took till around 1970 for West Germany under Willi Brandt to recognize these borders with the Ostverträge, the Eastern Agreements. The demands of the irredentist and violent far-right – one really needn’t bother with the ‘Neo-‘, they’re simply Nazis – still include the annulment of these agreements. Meanwhile, the new astronomers in Poland have long since redesignated Soldin Myœlibórz.
Let’s now look at the group of inner planets, smaller than the outer gas giants, but about which more is known. Their gravitational pull tends to bring the young and hip into orbit around them. Not so very long ago, being young and hip in Berlin involved having arms strong enough to haul up buckets of coal from the cellar. Large parts of affordable real estate in Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and Friedrichshain, in the former East, but also tenement areas such as Neukölln in the former West, were still heated by coal-burning stoves. The coal was drawn from the huge open-cast mines to the south of Berlin in the Lausitz (what’s left behind there really does look like an uninhabitable planet). Technological advances have resulted in wide-spread central heating since then.
Prenzlauer Berg is a kind of Mars. We can see that there was once water there, and guess that there was once life, but it’s now quite, quite dead. An area of tenements more or less left to rot away after the War, it became the centre of counter-culture in the later GDR period: writers, artists, dissidents, punks, lesbians and gays, anyone not quite towing the party or social line might end up there. With the Fall of the Wall, an influx of Westerners joined the locals in setting up squat bars, cinemas, avant-garde music venues, political cafés with racks full of badly designed radical publications etc. It was great.
The late nineties saw further boatloads of colonists wash up in Prenzlauer Berg from the coolness-deprived provinces of Western Germany, this time with people wearing the same fashions as ten years previously, but costing twice as much. Kollwitzplatz, where revellers at the annual Walpurgisnacht (a kind of Halloween in the springtime) were getting baton-charged and water-cannoned by the police in 1995, is now the site of a weekly organic market, frequented by the Social Democrat and Green Party members who live round here now. Major industries also include graphic design, psychotherapy, and interior furnishings retail outlets. A few years ago, the German political establishment introduced the term Parallelgesellschaft, or parallel society, to describe social milieux whose members are poorly integrated into wider society. Although usually applied to people with non-German-looking surnames, the term’s realization par excellence is in fact here in one of the most ethnically and socially homogenous areas of Berlin.
The icecaps of gentrification still seem to be expanding in Prenzlauer Berg. Yet another wave of explorers has arrived, with the same fashions as twenty years ago but now five times as expensive. They have enough money left over though to purchase designer-designed properties on empty plots such as the homely sounding and thoroughly invented Marthashof (Martha’s Yard), an ‘Urban Village’: Creative Architecture. Progressive Design. Covered in Wisteria. The slogan at the showroom is ‘No Compromises’.
These colonists tend to be happy that their kids share kindergartens with French, Italian, Spanish and especially English-speaking kids, and worried when the same kids have to start school with Turkish and Arabic-speaking kids on the adjacent asteroid of the Brunnenviertel, where post-war planners really got the chance to plan big-time, knocking down what was left of the tenements where communists had shot at and been shot at by the police in the Weimar Republic, to replace them with mostly five, six-storey social housing. But for all the fears of the New Gentry of Prenzlauer Berg, the police really don’t get shot at round here any more.
Also within the inner solar system is a small, pleasant planet, not too hot, not too cold, where the conditions are just right for life. Something of a miracle that it exists at all. Planet Kreuzberg, former West, off to the south of the centre. In the 1970s and 80s it had probably the greatest mass of counter-culture in Western Europe. In the 1990s, large numbers of its inhabitants also went over to colonize Prenzlauer Berg, but the wise knew that the terraforming of Mars would fail and stayed put. They’re the ones who still have affordable rents now, and can go for daily walks along the very pleasant Landwehrkanal. The latest generation of young people gravitate here, playing guitars and tabla drums on the Admiralsbrücke till the early hours and annoying the neighbours, who twenty years ago used to play their guitars and tabla drums on the same bridge till the early hours, annoying the neighbours.
Kreuzberg has a small satellite, recently dubbed Kreuzkölln (a part of Neukölln adjacent to Kreuzberg), that it has pulled into its orbit and where cool bars have been established. Kreuzberg also has its own twin planet, Charlottenburg, further off to the west. In the 1970s there were actually squats there, which is now hard to imagine, as it has long since developed into an area of expensive restaurants and rents. It is now far too pricey to be habitable. If you actually stood on its surface and tried to pay the rent, the pressure would crush you instantly.
And there at the very centre is the constant nuclear fusion of politics and economics. The Regierungsviertel: loosely, the Central Government District (yes, Government, not Business, which is all still in the bank towers of Frankfurt, those great bar charts rising into the sky). Until twenty years ago – star formation has been fast – most of this area was a kind of molecular cloud. The only buildings here to survive the Battle of Berlin were the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, and a small pub that looks a bit like a Tudor house and has a bowling alley. The rest of the area was either wasteland or occupied by border fortifications: two walls with, unusually, a very substantial area of land between them, thoroughly under surveillance by the border guards with machine guns in the watch towers.
The dust and gas have since formed into the mall and offices of Potsdamer Platz, whose cinemas now host the annual Berlinale film festival, which began as one part of political efforts in the early Cold War to make West Berlin a viable administrative and cultural entity. Other structures that have coalesced out of the dust cloud include the Chancellor’s Office: initiated by Helmut Kohl and similarly proportioned, it would not look out of place in a Mars colony. Also visible are the roomy-looking offices, likewise very space age, of the members of the Bundestag, of whom there were none in Berlin in 1989 and 622 following the elections in September 2009. The slightly naff DNA dystopia Aeon Flux (2005), set five hundred years into the future, was filmed around here. The gigantic new multi-floor main railway station has connections to Copenhagen, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Budapest, Kiev and Novosibirsk. It also has an underground line that currently goes two stops.
Walter Momper, Mayor of Berlin (West) as the West officially called itself, knew what was going to be important in November 1989. As well as having West Berlin television broadcast to the East what was going on at the border (while the West continued watching the footy), he also had hundreds of thousands of extra copies of rail maps printed up in expectation of a surge in public transport use. Both the Momper maps as well as the GDR-produced maps that the Eastern crowds would have been using, or at least mentally following, before they got to the border crossings, were graphic representations of the official perceptions of the East and the West vis-à-vis one another hitherto. The same stars were being looked at by two different civilizations that had devised their own constellations.
The Eastern map showed the over- and underground train lines of East Berlin in a couple of shades of green. As well as several straight lines, bending as necessary, there was a big schematic circle that showed the outer ring line, situated within East German territory, that looped around West Berlin. Inside that ring line, West Berlin collapsed into a kind of elongated white dwarf. Not a single station or line was marked within the blank space. A slight orthographical trick reduced the semiotic presence of West Berlin still further. On the Eastern map, the name of the Western enclave was written as one word: Westberlin. Knocking the capital letter off the ‘Berlin’ in ‘West Berlin’ seemed to emphasize that this was not, and never would be, a capital. To be contrasted with ‘Berlin, Hauptstadt der DDR’: not East Berlin, just Berlin. Capital of the GDR.
The Western map showed a brightly coloured tangled knot of over- and underground lines, converging on the Zoo, centre of either Berlin (West) or Westberlin, depending on which side of the Wall you approached it from. Off to the Eastern side of the map, across what was marked as the sector boundary, were a number of thinner lines in black, often ending in arrows pointing off into the unknown. The routes were there but it was unclear how they were actually divided up into specific lines. The West was a free country, and officially one wanted those lines back, but they weren’t, on a day-to-day level, particularly important.
They had to be there on the map though. One of the arguments that the Western Allies had used to give international legitimacy to the status of West Berlin during the Cold War was that both West and East Berlin were still de jure under the four-power administration of the US, UK, France and the Soviet Union, as agreed upon in the Potsdam Accords following the Second World War. So the Western map showed the thick bright lines of West Berlin as well as the thin black lines of East Berlin, but not that outer ring line within the GDR proper, which did not come under four-power administration.
On the Western maps, there were a couple of exceptions to this opposition of brightly coloured Western lines and dark Eastern lines. There was a brightly coloured overground line from the Zoo in the West over to the Friedrichstrasse station in the East, which doubled up as a border crossing (pre-figured in a far more light-hearted way in the 1949 Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico). And there were two underground lines which began and ended in the West but traversed the East (their construction pre-dated both War and Wall). These lines were marked in colour but showed a series of nameless stops: the ghost stations where the Western trains slowed down to trundle alongside dimly-lit, pale-tiled, vacant platforms, without stopping.
Jetzt wächst zusammen, was zusammengehört: What belongs together is now growing together. In the early 1970s, Willi Brandt had signed the Eastern Agreements that recognized de facto the growing apart of the two Germanies. These now – reputedly, but disputedly – were the words he spoke to the crowd on 10th November 1989 in Berlin. And one of the markers of change in the period that then followed was the gradual opening up of those ghost stations and the reappearance of their names on the map, reducing travel times and hassle between West and East. (The names were sometimes, controversially, new names to replace those deemed too GDR-ish). And through the nineties the outer bits of West Berlin gradually reconnected with that outer ring line that had looped round its territory, bringing new lines on the ground and on the maps. A huge road and rail tunnel got built under the Tiergarten, a major prestige project of Unification.
But a number of lines or sections of lines that had completely ceased operation during the Wall period took many years to be reopened, and many journeys within the city which are now quick and easy were still a pain in the proverbial because of the missing links in the lines. It was as if for both sides the other was a kind of South London into which one ventured, in public transport terms, at ones peril. Late into the nineties, one could still encounter taxi drivers who moaned if they had to go north or south of the river as it were. And the planners and builders are still at it. That two-stop line from the main station is designed to link up, in the year 2020, with a line that has hitherto lain completely within the East.
In the mid- to late nineties, public transport experts began noting a wave of nostalgia for life in the GDR. To describe, or perhaps construct this phenomenon, they cunningly knocked the N off Nostalgie to coin the term Ostalgie. Some East Germans and fellow-underground-travelling Westerners sought to show that, for the people regularly travelling along them, the thin black lines of East Berlin on West Berlin maps had actually been brightly coloured lines, or at least green lines in a couple of shades. Life in the GDR had not, at least not for everyone and in all of the forty years of its history, been a constant and ubiquitous totalitarian nightmare. Instead, it had often been an arrangement with existing power structures, with its own joys, pleasures, and perhaps – and this is where it got really controversial – freedoms. And thus, in this view, not quite such a polar opposite of the West as some had maintained: the latter also had its own guilty secrets and less-than-perfectly democratic power structures.
Attempts at more complex and nuanced analyses frequently call down a meteor shower of accusations of relativism. The terrain of whether something, nothing or far more rarely everything might be salvaged from the GDR is still fought over. On one side of the equation are the perceived gains in freedom of speech, press, assembly and travel plus improved access to better-quality consumer goods, as well as less obviously ruthless exploitation of the environment on home ground (as opposed to other continents, where European Capitalism seems to have less qualms). On the other side are perceptions of an increase in work discipline and increased social and material insecurity. The latter expressed itself not least in the legal battles of the early nineties over the ‘return’ to West Germans of property in East Germany, where, inconveniently, East Germans were now living. One noble wanted his town back.
Travelling around on the trains of the now unified Berlin public transport system, its map all brightly coloured and tangled, are the assumptions and oppositions that continue to play a role in private and public discourse in Germany. Daniela Dahn, an East German writer productively critical of Reunification/Democratically Legitimated Annexation, has formulated the basic antagonism thus (it’s debatable how universally held it is, but it certainly exists): Westerners think they gave Easterners everything (a massive financial bail-out, public and private investment post-1989, autobahns without bumps, nicely paved new pedestrian zones etc.); Easterners think the Westerners took everything (in the form of enterprises closed, changing of street-names, and insertion of Westerners into key political and economic positions). Or with still broader brushstrokes: Easterners are ungrateful, Westerners are arrogant.
Among the older and more politically conscious, too, must be the legacy of Cold War state ideologies. Both German states regarded themselves as the single legitimate German state and sought, especially in the early Cold War period, to discredit the other as, more or less, the perpetuator of Nazism. The West pointed to the GDR’s tight ideological control and quick resort to lethal force to resolve contradictions (vide the several hundred deaths both at the Berlin Wall and the border between the two Germanies, and in the suppression of GDR-wide political protests on 17th June 1953). The East pointed to the Federal Republic’s very half-hearted post-war de-Nazification: the Allies had taken care fairly rapidly of the most high-profile war criminals, but much of middle management was left intact and some of the high-profile war criminals were back being high profile in business within a few years (it has since emerged though that the East, too, wasn’t always in such a hurry to bang up Nazis). For all the talk of (and angst over) a rise in nationalism, there has been a loss of nationalism too – that of two semi-nation-states that defined themselves in part by what they weren’t, namely, the Other Germany.
Surveys of young people who were pre-pubescent, pre-school, or even pre-birth in 1989 have consistently pointed up continued stereotyping, mistrust and resentment in this age group, too, regarding the other bit of Germany. Clearly, this represents, at least partially, the transmission of attitudes from one generation to the next. But it’s also clear that the attitudes of adults as well are now as much, if not more based on discourse and experiences post rather than pre-1989. Current Eastern and Western identities are not continuations of old identities but new ones.
And also travelling around on those trains, and on bad days playing the role of the Other that the respective Germanies once played for each other, are the mass of people whose family origins lie outside Germany and who have various reasons for being in Berlin. In 1989, Vietnamese contract workers from the GDR were turned back from the border crossings being stormed by East Germans, and their GDR residence permits were not automatically recognized in the Federal Republic. The part of East German society in which sudden unemployment fused with latent and not-so-latent xenophobia made some stations into places where West Berliners of Turkish origin, for example, felt less than comfortable getting off at, not to mention making them their local stop.
Can We Have Our Wall Back Please? A cartoon from the mid-90s shows a tour guide pointing to the space where the Wall was and explaining that this was where a dreadful wall once divided a common nation. On each side of the empty space is a crowd of people, each looking the opposite way from the other. One part of the legacy of 1989 is a demonstration and reminder of how national identity is no primordial given but a thoroughly contested matter. Underground lines don’t get moved overnight, and some people from both West and East Berlin continue to travel principally along the same lines that they did pre-1989.
And what exactly are the changes on the map? From 1985 onwards, with Gorbachev’s conciliatory moves towards the West, there was a gradual reduction in the threat of global warming within about half-an-hour (Two Tribes; CND; Protect and Survive; it had all been alarmingly possible, if unlikely stuff). The old maps really began to seem out of date in 1989. At the same time, with the collapse of Really Existing Socialism – Pseudosocialism has also been proposed as a term – the latent pressure came off European Capitalism to concede a measure of job security to its workforce, as it had done since the immediate post-war era when there were widespread Socialist and Communist sympathies in Western Europe. And with a new consensus in the political practice of governmental elites – in Europe as well as elsewhere – that wealth creation was now to be largely decoupled from wealth distribution, while public spending directly beneficial to low-income groups was to be minimized where possible (other public spending, such as Helmut Kohl’s over-sized Chancellor’s Office, is perfectly fine), closer attention began to be paid to the regulation of labour flows into Europe as a whole.
The lava of closure and unemployment since then has solidified into another landscape. ‘No Compromises’ is the slogan, not only on the billboard for Marthashof in Prenzlauer Berg. One consequence of Schabowksi’s Note in November 1989 is that the generation of Bristol University students who watched the Extraordinary Scenes in Berlin, as well as subsequent telly watchers, are in a considerably more precarious economic situation than their parents were for most of their working lives. Another is the Fence down at Melilla, one of the two Spanish exclaves in Morocco where European Union territory meets Africa: at 6 metres high, it’s 2.5 metres higher than the Berlin Wall was. Something still seems to be moving around down there in the dustbin of history.
Copyright © Alistair Noon, 2009