Longing for the Wall

By Edward A. Gargan
Sunday, May 28, 2006

In most parts of Berlin today, one has to look hard to find the double strand of bricks embedded in sidewalks, across roadways, snaking into still-deserted lots, a brick serpentine reminding visitors of the round-topped cement wall and adjoining "death strip" that sundered this city for nearly three decades. Traffic moves sedately, and obliviously, down formerly amputated streets, from the bourgeois neighborhoods of the old west to the hip districts of the former east.

Among the world's multitude of borders, the Berlin Wall was one of the most visible, despised, politically and ideologically charged boundaries on earth. It was also the quintessence of an unnatural border, one drawn not by nature, language, ethnicity or colonial hubris, but an artificial, man-made and deliberate cleaving of a culturally and linguistically homogenous society. While it was the admixture of Cold War politics and communist brutality that led to the sudden walling off of western sectors of Berlin from the surrounding east on Aug. 13, 1961, it stunned much of the non-communist world because, very simply, no major world city had been cleaved in half so abruptly and violently.

Very quickly Berlin became a flash point between East and West, as well as stark evidence of the nature of the East bloc regime. But behind the Wall, lives went on, children were born, people went to work. At the same time, the relentlessly paranoid and profoundly insecure communist state built an apparatus of surveillance and control through the secret police known as the Stasi and a vast network of informers. This system of internal spying permeated every facet of East German life, rupturing friendships, ruining marriages, turning children against parents.

After the Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, West Germany sought to overwhelm and bury that past. But for those in the East, the stain of the Stasi state turned out to be a difference not so easily obliterated. For many Germans, easterners and westerners, the great task of unifying two states has not effaced deeply rooted differences in the two societies, differences until recently lodged comfortably only in the economic indices of east-west disparities.

What happened in East Germany, many Germans are slowly realizing, was not an easily dismissed historical oddity. Although now formally united for 15 years, many Berliners insist that the east-west divide remains stark and palpable today. The Wall is gone, but a wall remains.

Monika Maron, a leading German novelist raised in East Germany who has written often about the psychic toll of living in the Stasi-controlled state and the nature of the German divide, says the habits of the Cold War era are not easily erased, or abandoned. "You sit in your car and you watch people walking by and you say, 'Yes, that's the east,' " says Maron, referring to Pankow, a district of Berlin north and east of the Brandenburg Gate, the symbolic heart of the capital that stands just to the east of where the Wall ran. "The men don't walk around with long coats, but walk around in jackets. If you see a man in a long coat, you can be sure he's a man from the west."

Even for younger Germans, there is something distinctive about being from "over there." Jana Hensel, who was 13 on that day in 1989 when the Wall was breached by thousands of jubilant East Berliners and several years ago wrote a fabulously successful book about growing up in the east, maintains that even after its destruction, the Wall continues to shape German identity. "There is an east German culture, or east German identity," says Hensel. "The problem that people have these days is they expect to be moving closer together, east and west, but in some ways things are moving closer together and in other ways moving farther apart, like a wave. We lived two completely different lives."

For some, half a generation away from the Wall's shadow, there remains a lingering, in some ways inexplicable, mix of nostalgia, resentment and retribution that has coalesced into a longing for its resurrection. A recent survey of 2,000 Germans by the Free University of Berlin found that just shy of a quarter of Germans who live in the west want the wall re-erected; even more startlingly, 12 percent of Germans who live in what used to be the German Democratic Republic also want the barrier rebuilt.

Some of this yearning for the definitively discredited horror of a wall that imprisoned and largely silenced an entire population bespeaks rather forcefully an acknowledgment that easterners and westerners, while united by history, culture and for the most part language, are still different peoples in many respects. In a somewhat benign but not unpassionate exercise of difference, many eastern Germans decried plans by the Berlin city government to raze the former East German parliament building, the decrepit steel and brown glass Palast der Republik that sat for 30 years like a decaying carcass in the heart of the capital; in January, the jackhammers and bulldozers moved in. More ominously of late, former officers of the Stasi have started vigorously defending themselves in public, attacking films that besmirch the reputation of the security service and even publishing lighthearted accounts of their work ("exciting, funny and enlightening" is how a publisher touted one such memoir).

Hensel argues that a kind of bonding has occurred in the east, largely the result of feeling colonized and excoriated by the west. "All the process of finding out who was guilty of what was done by the west," she says. "There's a strange result that comes out of this, and that is that the whole country, the east, finds itself in solidarity with one another instead of finding out what happened."

Apart from the snaking, embedded brick markers, there remain, inevitably, physical reminders of where the Wall sawed its way through Berlin: The city's yellow streetcars trundle around the east side of town, the tracks turning away just as they approach the space where the Wall used to run; more buildings in the east bear the scars of World War II, or of communist neglect; the "walk/don't walk" lights are different. Yet less physically, but more profoundly, there also remains a troubling sense that the Wall is still embedded in the very soul of Berlin.

Edward A. Gargan, author of "The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong" (Alfred A. Knopf), is working on a book on borderlands.

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