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In unified Germany, a split over the past

This November marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Washington Post Editor Marc Fisher, who served as The Post's Berlin correspondent in 1989, remembers the jubilation on the streets and reflects on the lasting legacy of the fall of the wall.

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 5, 2009

EISENHUETTENSTADT, GERMANY -- In this fading factory town, built more than a half-century ago to honor Stalin, the former East German dictatorship still generates fond memories.

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As Germans prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall -- a spontaneous burst of freedom that led to the collapse of communism in Europe -- the country remains divided in its memories of the old days.

Many residents of the former East Germany resent what they say is an unfair characterization of their country as a "criminal state" by their counterparts in the west. Instead, they say, the German Democratic Republic was a well-intentioned, if flawed, experiment in socialism that denounced the evils of the Nazis.

In a survey commissioned by the federal government to assess how Germans feel today about the events of 1989, 57 percent of those in the eastern half of the country said life under communist rule was, on balance, more positive than negative.

"What people really are saying is, 'I didn't do everything wrong, I didn't live in vain,' " said Gabriele Haubold, an architect and city planner in Eisenhuettenstadt, which was founded as a model socialist city but has suffered since 1989, losing more than one-third of its population.

"People think back to how it was in the GDR, how it was different, how we had work, how there was a safety net so you didn't have to worry about things," she said. "But, of course, you also have to remember that there was a price to pay for all this."

People who held senior jobs in the former East German government or who worked for the Stasi, its notorious secret police, were prosecuted or shunned after Germany's unification in 1990. But as time has passed, such affiliations have lost some of their stigma.

In Berlin, scores of international dignitaries and thousands of others will gather Monday to commemorate the demise of the Wall. The highlight will come when an order is given to topple a row of eight-foot-tall foam dominoes stretching for a mile along the old dividing line in the heart of the city.

In contrast, nothing special is planned Monday in Eisenhuettenstadt, a town of 32,000 near the Polish border.

Burnishing memories

Eisenhuettenstadt was built starting in 1950 to house thousands of workers for giant steel mills. Intended to showcase East Germany's socialist economy, it was called Stalinstadt until 1961, when the name was changed to reflect the Soviet leader's posthumous fall from grace.

Today, the city looks like a mothballed version of a forgotten era. The workers' barracks -- boxlike monoliths that dominate the city center -- have been spruced up since unification but sit largely empty. Unemployment has hit 20 percent in recent years, and prospects for growth are few.

Andreas Ludwig, an urban historian, is one of the few west Germans who have moved here. In 1993, he opened the Documentation Center for Everyday Culture of the German Democratic Republic.


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