Why the Berlin Wall fell remains a relevant question today

BERLIN – For millions, the opening of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago resulted in genuine and understandable euphoria.

There is an unceasing ballyhoo in the German media, however, weeks ahead of the anniversary. There are plans for 8,000 helium balloons lit by 67,000 batteries stretched along the 10-mile length of the former wall, to be released in the evening with triumphant trumpet blasts and the ringing of church bells. Angela Merkel, Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, Berlin’s departing mayor and other celebrities will be there casting their eyes gratefully heavenward.

That and a host of other issues lead me to a decidedly different viewpoint on the matter of the coming anniversary and celebrations.

After the Wall lost its barrier status on November 9, 1989, what soon fell in the months that followed was the 40-year-old institution calling itself the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. Did it fall because it was totally foul or was it given an outside push or two? And did that downfall represent simply the glorious revolution of a folk yearning for freedom – or is the matter more complicated? This remains relevant because many similar uprisings have since occurred – and are still occurring.

Why did the GDR go under?

Despite reams of bad publicity since its start after 1945, it was born largely of the hopes and dreams of a relatively small number of survivors of Hitler fascism, some in exile on many continents, others in Nazi camps and prisons. These men and women were determined to create a new Germany – or part of Germany at least – rejecting fascism and the powerful forces behind it: Bayer and BASF (of I.G. Farben), which built and helped run Auschwitz, Siemens, Krupp, and Flick, which misused hundreds of thousands of starved concentration camp prisoners and forced laborers from all over Europe – and the Deutsche Bank which helped finance every bloody step of the way.

Despite their defeat, for a second time, these forces never gave up plans for recuperation and renewed expansion and were already re-establishing themselves. But not in eastern Germany, where such plans were thwarted and their factories and property nationalized. It was this vitally crucial move by the GDR which was never forgiven, not to this day.

Those first activists, facing millions of widowed, orphaned, embittered, ideologically cynical people – some still strongly influenced by Nazism – invited the best exiled anti-fascist writers, artists, professors and theater and film experts to help alter these moods and prejudices, at least in eastern Germany. Among those responding were Bertoldt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, Anna Seghers, Ernst Busch, Arnold Zweig, and Heinrich Mann (who died just before his arrival). Others, like Hans Fallada, had remained in Germany but  had opposed fascism. These people, and those who learned from them, created progressive theater, music, film and literature to match any in the world. Here, too, fully contrary to developments in that other Germany across the Elbe, Nazis were ejected from schoolrooms, lecture halls, police stations and judge’s benches.

And though it started with a veritable pile of ruins, a wrecked industry which paid 95 percent of German war reparations and was increasingly discriminated against in world markets, the GDR toiled to build a remarkable new economy – one organized not for corporate profits but for meeting peoples’ needs. With an almost total lack of natural resources a new iron and steel industry was created along with factories for building ships, farm combines, cranes and machine tools. This extended to rural areas like Mecklenburg which, for centuries, was a feudal backwater. All of this happened with no Marshall Plan and with the loss of Nazi-tainted engineers and managers who fled to the West in droves.

More could be invested in consumer goods

Gradually, especially after a ceaseless, well-organized westward brain drain had been harshly stopped by that Berlin Wall, more could also be invested in consumer goods. By world comparisons a high living standard was achieved, as nearly every home had a fridge, a color TV and a washing machine. About half the families owned at least a small car, but cheap public transportation was stressed.

In 40 years, despite the worst of odds, the little GDR was able to solve many problems now troubling so many nations. For one small tax all medical care was completely covered. So was family planning including abortions, child care, summer camps, and cultural and sports activities for young and old. All education was free, scholarships covered basic living costs so no loans were needed, and post-graduation jobs were guaranteed. Women were enabled to work – at equal pay rates; well over 90 percent did. Best of all, there was no joblessness, evictions were strictly forbidden, no-one needed to fear the next day – or year. Lots still needed accomplishment, blunders were made, frequent shortages of one or the other commodity led to countless jokes – and lots of anger. And yet, poverty had been almost completely eradicated. Where else in the world had this been accomplished?

But the GDR had to compete with one of the world’s most prosperous economies, West Germany. It was never able to match the swift innovation pace of competing corporations whose ups and downs may have cost many tears in lost jobs and ruined plans but meant a constant stream of chic, modern products – above all good cars. Like people elsewhere, GDR citizens thrilled at enticing advertising. But that was West German TV – GDR-TV had no commercials. Envy was widespread. It was worsened by often old-fashioned tastes of the men ruling the roost – and rule it they did, almost to the end.

I think most of those aging anti-fascists retained their original hopes, their ideals based on socialism. But as they grew older, accustomed to central rule and constantly flattered by the careerist yes-men who always gather where power and perks are found, they increasingly lost touch with much of the population. Many freedoms were indeed curtailed, worst of all for the media which were, when political, dull, rigid, one-sided and self-laudatory. As for free speech, after the earlier years the fears and anxieties featured in many Stasi films had largely disappeared, at least on a private, every-day basis. People usually said what they thought – except in public meetings (or classes), where they often feared losing chances at a bonus, a promotion or a trip to visit relatives across the Wall if they were seen as too “pro-western.”

The GDR had wonderful theater, opera, ballet; for other tastes there were good beat groups. Most of the better Hollywood and other western films were shown. Yet life for many seemed drab, cut-and-dried, regulated. People felt locked-in, even after the number of those able to visit West Germany kept rising, reaching a few million by 1988. Seniors had long been able to travel westward for a month each year.

Although this system never conformed to most ideals of democracy, it was never absolute. There was a constant response to people’s needs, reacting to wishes and demands funneled upward from the big grass-roots membership of over two million in the ruling party, from constant reports by the state security apparatus or Stasi (one of its more positive functions) and in full mailbags with personal complaints and requests.

Increasingly, however, young people especially took all advantages, especially economic security, quite for granted. So many loved Donald Duck, admired handsome Marlboro cowboys or lovely Hollywood celebrities and dreamed of crossing the Golden Gate or even feasting under a Golden Arch, without knowing or really caring about the conditions of those serving the big Whoppers.

Dissatisfaction increased in the 1980’s as the economy slowed, hit by the desperate need to build, without outside help, an electronics industry, a giant housing program and heavy investment in armed forces trying to match those in the West.

On top of that rulers who grew up politically in the years of Stalin never learned how to counteract such envy or dissatisfaction and feared glasnost à la Gorbachev, recalling that Hitler had taken power with open elections and noting, not incorrectly, that the West was quick to use any openings to push for “regime change.” By 1989, when this had succeeded in Hungary and Poland, soon largely “westernized,” the dissatisfaction boiled over, and people started to demonstrate, in Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden and elsewhere.  

At first, when the Wall opened up, people demanded an improved GDR, with new freedoms. But when Kohl, Brandt and many others moved in, waving well-packaged products, well-phrased promises and above all well-printed, enticing West German D-Marks, the GDR went down the drain.

What role in the pushing was played by Vernon Walters, sent as ambassador to West Germany by George H.W.Bush in April 1989 with the job of “going whole hog over there?” The morning after the Wall opened up he organized a flight for Chancellor Kohl to Berlin to inspect the area from a helicopter, then descend to “get into the act.” Later, speaking proudly of the fall of the GDR, he said, “We got here because we were strong. We got here because we were determined, and we got here because we defended the free choice of people to choose their own destiny.” Walters, a key player with Reagan and Pope John Paul in achieving regime change in Poland, had “been involved directly or indirectly in the overthrow of more governments than any other official of the U.S. government.” These included, among others, Iran in 1953, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973 and even Fiji in 1987. As for people’s free choice, in his view the war in Vietnam was “one of the noblest and most unselfish wars” in U.S. history.

Plenty has changed

Plenty has changed in East Germany in 25 years. It’s a mix. Travel and consumer goods involve no other problems than their prices. Bright advertisements and commercials brighten TV programs, the streets, new cafes, even the sides of buses and streetcars.

 GDR industry was soon destroyed, both worn old factories and very modern newer ones were pawned off and closed down. Millions moved west, but with Germany now the strongest economy in Europe there has been a partial recovery; perhaps a third of the East Germans are doing better than before, about a third are holding their ground.

The other third has had bad luck. Medical coverage, though better than in the U.S., is hit by jumps in price, as are fares and rent. Private schools are blossoming everywhere for those with enough money. Higher education is increasingly for the well-to-do. The Daimlers and the Deutsche Bank ride high.

The GDR did change many people to a degree. Egotism, jealousy, even greed could hardly be eliminated entirely. There was only a small gap between the more and the less prosperous. No one could become wealthy by exploiting others. There were opportunities for women to find jobs and professions permitting far less subservience to husbands or bosses. No group was played off against others due to differences in age or background and the feeling of economic security meant, as polls then found, that eastern citizens were on average friendlier and closer to family and workmates.

The freedoms now achieved are appreciated today. But a lack of response by leading parties to the needs of those with half-time, temporary and other insecure jobs, or none at all, has often caused new cynicism. Many stay home instead of voting; in recent state elections only half the citizens went to the polls. Others have indeed voted, to hit out at “the foreigners” a truly dangerous trend. About ten percent, largely in eastern Germany, defy all media taboos to choose what they hope is a better alternative, the Left Party.

But in view of today’s economic doldrums in Europe and the threat of a hard, belt-tightening future, some East Germans are wondering if, in believing all the promises and rejecting everything the GDR had offered, they may have made a partial blunder 25 years ago.

Does all this matter?

I think the case can be made that it does.  Fat Cheshire cats are grinning as they corner ever more of the world’s wealth, damage the planet irreparably and gain control of every phone call, email or Sunday trip to the country with an efficiency Stasi officers would have envied. While the “dangers” of communism or socialism seem abolished, they aim at preventing any reconsideration of their possibilities, while squelching by intrigue or by force all signs of independence, progressive or not, in every country.

That is also certainly true in Germany, where many corporations and their politician friends still recall with a shudder an era when there was an eastern barrier beyond which they could not stack up their gigantic fortunes and indulge limitlessly their economic and strategic ambitions. We see the glee of these forces today, however, in the German school curricula, tireless TV broadcasts, exhibitions, frequent ceremonies and plans for new monuments.

Nothing can bring back or put together the GDR again. But among the corporations and the lawmaker who do their bidding today there remains an almost panicky fear that the remnants, recollections of past accomplishments, might some day go into cooking up a healthy new soufflé – though not one to their taste. This, I am convinced, is the main reason for the fancy white balloons and the unceasing hullaballoo over the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Photo: Crowd climbing atop the Berlin Wall when the border between West Berlin and Berlin, the capital of the GDR, was opened. AP


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His books available in English: Crossing the River. A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, reasons for the fall of socialism, and importance of today's struggles.