Germany marked a subdued 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall today, weighed down by high unemployment in the formerly communist east and a sense that in people’s hearts the nation has not yet fully reunited.
No big celebrations, parades or fireworks recalled November 9, 1989, the day East Germany’s communist regime opened the wall almost by accident and set off national euphoria that peaked with German reunification 11 months later.
At a preserved wall section in central Berlin, Mayor Klaus Wowereit laid a wreath for more than 200 East Germans killed while trying to escape to the West during the barrier’s 28-year existence.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder issued a statement hailing November 9 as “a day of the triumph of freedom and democracy”, and praised east Germans for overthrowing communist rule peacefully.
But a former East German pro-democracy activist captured much of the eastern mood, saying he was “not so happy” because of the region’s mass unemployment.
“Many people no longer value the wonderful gift of freedom because they say: What use is freedom if they are shut out from jobs?” said Friedrich Schorlemmer, a Protestant minister.
As time has passed, Germans have focused on the staggering cost of rebuilding the east, not the peaceful revolution that toppled the Wall and the Stalinist rulers who had built it.
Architects of reunification, led by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, urged Germans to take pride in their achievements anyway.
“We have every reason to be proud,” Kohl said. “Of course, a lot remains to be done and major efforts are still needed in some places to create flowering landscapes. And we will make it.”
But critics often cite Kohl’s 1990 promise of “flowering landscapes” for the east as a reason for the disillusionment that followed when West German capitalism swept away eastern industry at the loss of several million jobs.
The east’s jobless rate – 17.5% – is more than twice that of the West. The disappointment shows in elections, when about one in five east Germans regularly votes for the successor party to the communists.
The Wall was brought down by the offhand remark of a communist official at a news conference.
Under pressure from nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations, East Germany’s regime was desperately looking for ways to contain the revolt.
Guenter Schabowski, the ruling Politburo’s spokesman, made the announcement: East Germany was lifting restrictions on travel across its heavily-fortified border with West Germany after nearly three decades of isolation.
Asked when the new regulation would take effect, Schabowski fumbled, then said “immediately, without delay.”
By 9pm, east Berliners were jamming the first crossing to West Berlin. In a dramatic moment that helped end the Cold War, armed East German border guards gave up and let them cross.
At the American sector’s Checkpoint Charlie, East Germans began driving their sputtering, smoke-belching Trabant cars across, joyously received by West Berliners. Later that night, Berliners danced on the Wall.
But the east’s economic problems and up to £1trillion in government subsidies to the region have fuelled resentment on both sides.
More than 1,000 East Germans were killed during the Cold War while trying to slip through the heavily-fortified border to West Germany or trying to get out through other communist countries such as Poland or Hungary.
About 230 died at the Wall, a 97-mile reinforced concrete barrier that ran through the centre of the capital and around then-West Berlin. Many were killed by East German soldiers following shoot-to-kill orders.
Though only very few pieces remain standing, the Wall and several museums dedicated to it remain tourist attractions.
Jewish leaders marked November 9 for another reason. It’s also the anniversary of the Nazis’ 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, or Night of Broken Glass, when synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany were attacked.
About 100 Jews were killed and thousands deported to concentration camps in a prelude to the Holocaust.
“It is a day of joy, but it is also a day of shame and reflection,” Schroeder said.