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Walls in the Head: Ostalgia and the Berlin Wall Three Decades Later

Walls have always served a dual purpose: they keep people in, and others out. The mentality of the wall is one of imprisonment and exclusion. Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we see such infrastructure, both symbolically and in actuality, potent.

On August 13, 1961, the German Democratic Republic began construction of the structure officially dubbed the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall ostensibly to keep fascism at bay. More astute observers felt that this was a survival strategy, one initiated to halt the flow of GDR residents to the West to prevent the disintegration of the state. It seemed, to use Neal Ascherson’s words, “a piece of sadism in concrete”, but possessed a certain cruel logic arising out of great power constipation to come to a solution without conflict. It was also very much a statement of GDR general secretary Erich Honecker’s own view that socialism and capitalism were essentially irreconcilable opposites, as fire and water.

According to Frederick Taylor, who visited Berlin in 1965 as a school boy, the wall and the state that created it were expressions of power, pure and simple. “East Germany, I realised, might pretend to be the workers’ paradise, but when you came down to it and put to one side the free nursery-school places… the place was about power. Unrestrained, unmitigated power. The kind of power that could build a wall to keep 17 million people captive.”

The captives, in turn, did what asylum seekers and refugees do now: pay for flight; seek sponsorship for illegal exits; speculate about how best to tunnel under the infrastructure of death. The fatalities during the period of the Wall’s standing is put at 140, though this figure also takes into account the deaths of eight East German border guards and those who, despite not intending to flee, also suffered death.

Eventually, history proved its own corrosive agent, making apertures in the foundation that led to the opening of the barrier on November 9, 1989. The previous month, the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was attending festivities in East Berlin commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the GDR’s foundation. “As I stood on the nostrum, greeting the columns of participants in the parade,” he reflected, “I felt almost physically the people’s discontent.” Not even a handpicked parade could dispel that sense.

Few then would forget the press conference in East Berlin presided over by the Socialist Unity Party media spokesman Günter Schabowski. It was one riddled with uncertainty, given the increasing number of East Germans who had been fleeing to the West that summer. What, for instance, did he mean by the making of permanent exit applications that might be done immediately? It brought forth a media storm, and eventually, the words of a functionary became the wisdom of permissive movement, with media outlets such as Reuters and Associated Press deducing that the borders between the GDR the Federal Republic had been opened. With the Soviet Union keeping its soldiers in barracks, despite pleas for interference from the GDR leadership, the process for the dissolution of both the wall and the state commenced.

The removal of such barriers served a structural purpose, but did not result in total catharsis; psychic disturbances gnawed and remained. East Germans had lost their sense of home, the ridding of their Heimat as a biographical aberration; West Germans had to shoulder their poorer cousins, something done with mixed generosity. As an East German dissident remarked on the GDR’s absorption into the Federal Republic, “Yes, West Germany has swallowed us, but soon it will be having indigestion.” Novelist Peter Schneider described the condition in exemplary fashion as “the wall within the head.”

It did not take much time for some form of nostalgia, born of disaffection, to take root. West German firms preferred to focus to their patch, feeling little obligation to invest in the east. Besides, East German labour could be called upon to swell their ranks. The ill-regarded Treuhandanstalt, or Handover Agency, was tasked with the mass privatisation of enterprises, a cumbersome legalistic process that consumed viable concerns while also embedding corruption. This left a telling legacy: no notable companies have their headquarters in the East.

In 2001, then president of the German parliament and deputy leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Wolfgang Thierse warned that, “Any honest appraisal must establish that East Germany’s social and economic situation is approaching the brink.” Its de-industrialisation and underdevelopment had led to the region moving from one “in transition” to becoming a “second rate [area] in perpetuity.” The former GDR had become, essentially, an internalised colony.

East Germans came to be seen as a drain. Productivity fell in agriculture, machine production and textiles. Unemployment rose, as did emigration. (In 2018, the average unemployment in the former GDR was 6.9 percent; in the West, 4.8 percent). The political conditions were duly created for a spike in nationalist sentiment. Resentment found, and continues to find voice, at the polling booth. In 2017, the right wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) stormed onto the German political scene by winning 94 seats in the Bundestag. It also succeeded in pushing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives into third place in regional elections in Thuringia. But gains have also been made by the left party, Die Linke.

In less belligerent and political form, nostalgia became Ostalgia for products from the GDR and their consumption: mustard from Bautzen, Spreewald gherkins, ClubCola, and Rotkäppchen sparkling wine from Freyburg. The marketization of such products has become capitalism’s great rebuke: the system in that form, at least, has won, and reduces all opposition and contradiction by way of a consumerist act. Memories can be purchased; historical re-enactments can be rented.

Beyond the market system lies ideology as concrete and barriers: the state keen to control the movement of populations; the state niggled by fears of losing control of borders. Walls are torn down, but also have a lingering habit of remaining in mind and material. The Berlin Wall is gone, but Germany, and Europe, is in the process of erecting new ones.

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  1. New England Cocky

    Funny how any elite will use every available asset to maintain its privileged position relative to “the mob” regardless of the adverse effects that such strategies generate in response.

    We see it in Vietnam, where McNamara realised that the USA (United States of Apartheid) could not win by November 1965 … yet the war continued until 1975 with enormous casualties and injuries to both sides because the ruling racist American elite could not countenance “defeat” by a minor Asian nation.

    But the American NE military industrial complex was contented because they made huge profits from Agent Orange and military materiels.

  2. Josephus

    Beautifully written and well researched.
    May I add a few memories of a visit to Leipzig /ex East Berlin in 1991?

    1 Academic colleague (Leipzig University) observing a group of suited men in a cafe, says: ‘There sit those who are colonising my country’.
    2 I enter a bus in Berlin with my ticket. All passengers show their pass to the others , in an act of universal surveillance that I refuse . Why doesn’t anyone reproach me? Because they wear cheap crimplene, while I wear smart Western clothes.
    3 Visiting the Stasi HQ, now Museum, in Berlin. I ask the woman at the desk if she resents my coming and ogling the there displayed horrors of spying and control. She does not mind foreigners like me coming she says, but does dislike the ‘Wessies’, who sneer and gloat as though their birthplace made them somehow superior.
    4 An engineer in Leipzig complains of the Elbow Society (ie selfish individualism) of the new dispensation, adding that she also hates the new, Wessie consumer magazines she sees on the stands. All display made-up blonde women with pearly grins, mere sexy show ponies. At least in the GDR, she remarks, we women could shout at men, and divorce when we felt like it, as we all got the same(low) pay; it was equality at a shabby but real level. Now we are exorted to prance about, simper and smile and not raise our voices, she says.

    ( I think of this years later, observing how in Australia small girls are adorned with headbands and tutus, or are made up and grinning in those awful girls ‘ choirs that capitalism has spawned, pinkly clad in their expensive, cutesy sweatshirts.)

  3. mark delmege

    Berlin was of course 180 km east of the West/East German border (an enclave) and a centre for western aggression against East Germany – from propaganda broadcasts to more importantly sabotage missions – unsurprisingly this is rarely mentioned. It was a World War II leftover anomaly.

  4. Roswell

    The fall of the Wall was one of those rare moments in time that you’ll always remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard the news.

    The shooting of JFK; the moon landing; the shooting of John Lennon; the fall of the Berlin Wall are standouts.

  5. Miriam English

    It is strange, isn’t it, that the Berlin Wall is universally reviled and condemned, yet in USA an orange illiterate halfwit wants to build another wall. And here in Australia our foolish PM and his wannabe Stasi Dutton want to use the seas as another wall to keep people out.

    The only thing we learn from history is that people never learn from history.

  6. johno

    Funny that Roswell, can’t remember where I was when the wall came down. Sure was happy about it though.

  7. Andreas

    Miriam, did you forget to mention the wall across Palestine?

  8. Miriam English

    Andreas, yes, I’d forgotten it. Oops. It’s another perfect example of awful walls used to do horrible things. Glad you reminded me. I’m sure there are other examples too.

    I’ve long felt that all national borders are absurd and should be ended. Whenever I say that, people always say, “But how else can we keep undesirables out?” My answer is to ask if they mean like a border to keep undesirables out of QLD from the rest of Australia, or a border around Sydney to keep undesirables out of that city. It doesn’t make any sense.

    All borders do is to make it so that the more wealthy people (us) don’t have to help the poorer people (them). If we honestly don’t want “them” to flee to the safety of our country then we should be using some of our entitlement to improve their part of the world so that they don’t feel the need to come here. We shouldn’t be fighting illegal and unjust wars on top of them, and we shouldn’t be plundering and stealing their wealth. And we especially shouldn’t then be turning around and saying, “Screw you. Live and die in the shitty hell-hole we created.”

    All humans are so closely related it makes no sense to divide us apart like that.

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