An Inside Look at How Germany Has Rebuilt Itself

By Anna Porter
Maclean’s, October 1, 2010

It’s been two decades since the Berlin wall came down

The Second World War did not end in the summer of 1945 as we had assumed, but on Oct. 3, 1990. The process had begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, and continued with the determination of West German politicians to have, once more, a single Germany. The “two plus four” treaty, so named after the four great powers and the two Germanys, was signed on Sept. 12, 1990, by secretary of state James Baker on behalf of the United States, Her Majesty’s foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, his French counterpart Roland Dumas, and also by Eduard Shevardnadze of the Soviet Union. There were some tense moments, according to state archivist Herbert Karbach, with everyone hoping the U.S.S.R. would not collapse before that all-important signature. With the signing, full sovereignty was restored to Germany, and the rights of the four wartime Allied powers ended. Reunification followed, in early October.

The treaty, complete with the flashy red seals of all the nations, is kept in the massive Foreign Office buildings in Berlin, which used to be the Reichsbank under Hitler’s National Socialists, and then the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Socialist (read Communist) Unity Party of East Germany.

Upstairs, you can see Erich Honecker’s formerly spartan office, now occupied by the rather more flamboyant Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. The German papers have reported that Westerwelle has just married his long-term partner.

Honecker, the last strongman of the German Democratic Republic, resigned on Oct. 18, 1989. The entire politburo followed suit on Nov. 8, a day before the wall fell.

There is an exhibition in the hall of the ministry celebrating the process of reunification. Christian Pauls, a former German ambassador to Canada, was one of the participants. “I kept the records, summed up what happened,” he says. “After 12 hours of talks [each day of the negotiations], it was tough to keep track of what had been agreed and what was still to be determined.” He was surprised by how fast it all unfolded.

Everyone assumed it would take at least two years and there would be time to iron out all the differences.

There was no sense of urgency from the British; in fact, it was clear that prime minister Margaret Thatcher remained apprehensive about a united Germany. The French were equally nervous but somewhat pacified after the Polish-German border was ratified. Only the United States and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl kept pushing the timetable. The United States was sure Germany would become a useful ally and Kohl had an election to win—which he accomplished by a landslide after reunification.

On Oct. 2, 1990, thousands of people crowded into the long avenue of the Unter den Linden, formerly in East Berlin, marching toward the Brandenburg Gate. On Oct. 3, the day of official reunification, the German flag was unfurled for the first time in front of the Reichstag.

The members of the GDR’s state security, the Stasi, seemed to have melted away. Their headquarters on Ruschestrasse is a museum for armies of schoolchildren, and their once secret files are virtually open to the public. They were almost destroyed by an angry mob occupying the building in January 1990, while the new government was trying to decide what to do with the mountains of information on at least four million East Germans, and two million West Germans. There are also guided tours to the Stasi prison where thousands were incarcerated for years.

What, I wondered, has happened to all those operatives and their thousands of informers? Not much, says Stefan Aust, former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, the No. 1 German newsmagazine. Aust has covered many sensitive topics during his varied career, and he has aimed at some powerful targets, not the least of which are former Stasi and their informers.

Among them has been Gregor Gysi, a lawyer and parliamentarian, member of the former Democratic Socialists and then Die Linke—meaning the Left. And left they are. Judging by their literature, there is not much difference between the party’s platform and the old Marxist-Leninist one about ousting capitalism and ending globalization. In the mid ’90s, Aust’s magazine outed Gysi as a Stasi collaborator. “The Stasi was always underestimated by the West,” says Aust. “There were at least 85,000 of them and that’s just the formal staff.” Most of them have found good jobs, including some in the spy service of the united Germany. News that some 17,000 former Stasi agents are still working in the government bureaucracy does not surprise Aust. “They have infiltrated every political party,” he says. They know one another, and how to “influence the system. After reunification, they were in place to make sure their old comrades were taken care of.”

One of Aust’s early TV specials was on the destruction of the wall. Today you can visit wall memorials throughout Berlin. There is one in Potsdamer Platz, complete with an actor in uniform who offers to stamp your fake passport. Each slab of the wall tells a story. But no story could be more astounding than to compare how Potsdamer Platz looked 20 years ago to how it looks now. It had been a wasteland demarcated by the wall and barbed wire. Now it is the commercial heart of the capital, featuring the Sony Center with its slanted roof, cone-like centre and fountains, restaurants, boutiques and endless traffic.

There is another, more extensive memorial along Bernauer Strasse, with photographs and videos of those killed while trying to escape from the East. The Chapel of Reconciliation stands in the place of the old neo-Gothic church destroyed by the East German government. It has daily prayer services for the victims of what Berliners used to call “the death strip.”

Throughout the city, there are stones embedded in the sidewalk indicating where the wall used to be and, by comparison, drawing attention to the freedoms of today. But there can be no more powerful symbol of the new, reunited Germany than the 116-year-old Reichstag, straight out of newsreels, with the massive letters on the front declaring its dedication to the German people (Dem Deutschen Volke, cast in bronze by a Jewish family, many of whom didn’t survive the Holocaust), and its more modern giant glass cupola (architect Norman Foster’s contribution to the city). You can walk around the dome and up its spiral ramp to enjoy an all-around panorama of Berlin in all its splendour: Potsdamer Platz, Frank Gehry’s sandstone DZ Bank building, Museum Island, Alexanderplatz (where there is another large-scale exhibition honouring reunification) and more.

For Germany, the years since Oct. 30. 1990, have turned out relatively well, even during the tough economic times of the immediate past. It has not suffered as much as other countries, and is universally regarded as the engine of Europe. Yet within Germany there are dissenting voices. A 2008 survey indicated that 80 per cent of eastern Germans feel like second-class citizens. Hans-Joachim Grimm, a former interpreter and translator from East Berlin who speaks some nine languages, told me that when he started to look for work after the magic days of 1990, he was told he would be paid less than his western colleagues. “ ‘We know where you come from,’ they told me.” He lives in a tiny apartment off Karl-Marx-Allee, an area of the city strangely unaffected by change. “For me,” he says bitterly, “capitalism and fascism are much the same.”

There is, in some places, a nostalgia for the past. Ingo Schulze, one of Germany’s most talented writers, says that the East was “colonized” by the West. Yet it was the East that made the wall disappear, he told me. The West joined in only when the battles were won. In the heady days before the wall fell, there were 70,000 people in Leipzig alone, singing The Internationale and shouting they no longer wished to leave for the West — they wanted change at home. Schulze wrote about those six months leading up to the destruction of the wall in his novel, New Lives. Now, he laments, “Our communities have less and less to do with the important things in life, such as education, social justice and poverty. Our politicians are not interested. The word for easterners is verlierer, or loser, with its finite meaning. It seems to mean we have no chance.”

Reunification cost West Germany $1.7 trillion, and many on the other side grumble that easterners are ungrateful for the changes wrought in their lives. But these days, the issue is no longer front and centre.

Instead of jubilant crowds of well-wishers for unification, there was a massive demonstration of some 40,000 people in Berlin on Sept. 18, demanding an end to nuclear power. And the really big story is not how the East was won, but a book by Thilo Sarrazin with a title that can be translated as “Germany abolishes itself.”

Sarrazin, a member of the centre-left Social Democrats, attacks Germany’s immigration rules and, in particular, Muslim immigrants who, he writes, plunder the German welfare system as they “multiply.” Germany must, he says, invite highly qualified people, not those who desire to live in isolation from the rest of society.

Sarazzin has been forced from his position on the board of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, even as his party is considering expelling him. Chancellor Angela Merkel has reprimanded him, while his former colleagues have rushed to distance themselves. Meanwhile, the book, a German bestseller, has sold some 65,000 copies in a couple of weeks—an indication that, 20 years after reunification, many Germans are preoccupied by different concerns.