Sunday 9th November witnessed the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a pivotal moment in the 20th Century marking the end of the Cold War. David McQueen reports from Jena, a town in the former East Germany where he worked from 1986-88 and discusses how things have changed in the preceding quarter century.
Possibly the strangest moment going back to Berlin after twenty-six years was coming out from the U-Bahn at Brandenburger Tor and trying to orient myself. Facing the monumental gate, built in 1791 as a symbol of peace, I couldn’t place any of the buildings nearby. Obviously the Starbucks and tourist shops selling Berlin souvenirs were new, but I didn’t recognise anything as I walked towards the huge neo-classical pillars of the Brandenburg Gate marking the dividing line between the old East from West.
Then I remembered that at the end of Unter-den-Linden there had been a 500 metre security cordon around the gate and that these buildings hadn’t existed or were part of the extensive military complex that guarded the East German border from its own citizens trying to escape.
It is well known that hundreds died trying to get across that wall or attempting to leave the German Democratic Republic (GDR) by other means, such as swimming the treacherous strip of Baltic Sea to Denmark. Even as an English teacher on exchange in the late 1980s it was an unnerving experience entering or leaving the GDR.
The border crossing might take an hour or two as the train crawled with guards checking every inch for illegal items coming in (from an official list which seemed to include most things) and unauthorised East Germans coming out (which mostly meant non-Party members). In Berlin you could cross with the right visa through a series of heavy, steel security gates at Friedrichstrasse, a time portal connecting the deserted streets of the East, which seemed stuck in 1961, to the bright lights, garish advertising and rush of traffic in the West.
We were always struck by the contrast between the slow pace of life in the East and the more hectic consumerism of the West, between the relative equality of the east and the homelessness and drug problems of the west, between lack of freedoms on one side and lack of job security on the other.
Revisiting Germany and the city of Jena where I worked was a chance to catch up on twenty-five years of history with former colleagues and friends. Between meetings with friendly Jena University staff to discuss potential staff/student exchanges I was invited to talk to around twenty-five members of an informal politics society called the ‘Wohnung’ on Westbanhoffstrasse. Here in their small, but comfortable club they screened a digitised super-8 film I had shot whilst living in Jena which showed how much the city had been transformed (click link here to see it).
In place of a run-down museum of cobbled and slightly dilapidated 19th century streets, where you could see the stars at night, there was a brightly-lit, renovated town centre with the usual fast food stores, smart malls and boutiques. The film included shots of the May Day parade of 1988 and interviews with students who were quietly critical of the regime. For many of the audience who were very young, or not yet born, when the Wall came down it was a chance to see their town as their parents had known it and it provoked a long and interesting discussion.
Members of the club were interested to know how I felt Germany had changed and my main impression from the few days I was in Jena was that the people seemed happier, more confident and at ease with the changes around them. However, not everyone I met was so happy to see the end of full employment or the rising inequality of Germany today and the visible prosperity of Jena certainly does not extend to every town and city in the former GDR. One elderly couple we met walking in the hills above Jena grumbled about the changes to their old way of life.
The rise of Neo-Nazi groups in Jena and elsewhere, particularly in the 1990s, convinced a few diehards that the wall had been, in the words of one old English Stalinist I once met in Berlin, a ‘rampart against fascism’. Certainly the stresses of capitalism hit some in the former East harder than others, with unemployment rising rapidly after 1990. Whilst aspects of the GDR were missed by a few I met, the vast majority, unsurprisingly, did not want to turn the clock back.
Before 1988, amongst people we knew, the most that was hoped for was reform - Gorbachev-style and when we left nobody saw the end of the GDR in sight. The only attempts at protest in Jena in 1988 had been met by a massive security presence and arrests of the dozen or so brave, or foolish, enough to publicly oppose the regime.
Yet only a year later tens of thousands were in the streets following the closure of the Czech border and the last hope of leaving East Germany as other Eastern Bloc countries were opening to the west. The fall of the regime, in retrospect, appears inevitable given the pace of reforms in the Soviet Union, but it certainly didn’t seem so at the time. The largely bloodless revolution was miraculous given the regime’s history of violently suppressing dissent, particularly the 1953 ‘workers’ uprising’.
The peaceful end in November 1989 was at least in part due to the common sense of border guards who knew the game was up that Sunday when thousands demanded to be let through the Berlin Wall. The East German government was scrambling to keep pace with events and had promised freedom of travel ‘very soon’, but the communication got garbled at a press conference and the crowds on the streets heard freedom to travel ‘now’. In this way the iron curtain was shoved aside by an impatient population who had had enough of totalitarian rule and wanted out.
While many of those who led the opposition to the East German government wanted a ‘third way’ – a more humane socialist nation with the freedom of speech and to travel - the reality was that once the wall came down re-unification under West Germany’s terms was inevitable. The division was an artificial and insupportable one and the mighty economic weight of West Germany helped drag East Germany into the twenty-first century, although not without casualties or dissidents. The other lesson from 1988-89, for me, is that just when you think nothing can change, everything does. A year is a long time in politics and if enough people want change it can happen.
Today Jena is an excellent town with a long, fascinating history to explore, in the middle of still-unspoilt Thuringian countryside. Goethe, Schiller, Hegel and Fichte left their mark on intellectual life in the city and on the university which was founded in 1558. Few British tourists make it to this part of Germany but I would recommend it to everyone and hope that potential exchanges now being discussed with Friedrich Schiller University will enable Bournemouth students to see this part of the world for themselves.
To read an article in German in the local newspaper about the visit please see the following link.