The mutual mistrust between East and West Germans that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall is diminishing and the social values of the East are being given greater credit.
It has taken a long time for Willy Brandt’s prediction to come true.
After the fall of the Wall, the former West German chancellor famously declared: “What belongs together is growing together.” But now, if you stand at the Brandenburg Gate, which was built in 1791 to represent peace, and look eastwards down the wide avenue of Unter den Linden, you can see that in Berlin it has become a reality. The pulsating heart of the city has moved away from the staid old West to the luxury shops and cafes of the newly-developed East and the entertainment centres of Alexanderplatz, in what used to be the dark, Communist side of the city.
One of the East’s new cultural heroes is a novelist born in Dresden, Ingo Schulze, who accuses the West of acting “as if freedom were its gift to us.”
Some of his arguments are seen as heresy but they are gaining a wide audience. He says that, for many people, the basics of life under the now-reviled socialism of East Germany — like work and social welfare — were better than what followed and that freedom without social justice is no freedom at all.
He is challenging the united Germany to hold that debate now, because it never happened 20 years ago. The East is answering back. The influence of the East is already changing Germany in ways that are only slowly becoming clear.
Angela Merkel, the newly re-elected chancellor, is the daughter of a Protestant pastor from a backward part of the old East Germany which has still not recovered from the shock of unification — the forced privatisation of state enterprises which all but killed off some whole communities. And the political map after the elections a month ago shows East Berlin and the surrounding area in purple, the colour of the Left Party, which is the voice of those who were left discontented by the shotgun reunification of the two halves of Germany.
One man who symbolises the East German revolution is Jens Reich, a leader of the peaceful civic movement that eventually toppled the police state.
I met him at the scene of some of the most significant anti-communist protests, the Zion church in east Berlin.
“There were half a million people,” he recalled of the dramatic events back then. “A sea of faces stretching to the horizon, and the sound from the loudspeakers was coming back at me from three sides.
“I had no idea how loud or how fast I should speak, I just had this piece of paper with some notes.”
Jens Reich told that great crowd they must claim the freedom which the Communist Party had denied them. He was describing the mass rally at Alexanderplatz on 4 November 1989. By then the tide of popular rebellion had become irresistible. But he insists that outside forces alone — even the then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to let Eastern Europe go its own way — would not have caused the wall to fall. Grassroots dissent had grown up over many years in places like the Zion church.
It housed an “environmental library,” where local people documented the regime’s devastation of the land with toxic chemicals, cancer-causing uranium mines for Russian nuclear weapons and neglect of the architectural treasures of Dresden and East Berlin. And it had a samizdat (underground) printing press to fuel what became a people-power revolution.
In one bloody crackdown by the Stasi (The Ministry of State Security) secret police, dissidents were beaten up and arrested as they left the church. That was two full years before the Wall fell. But such clashes and the shows of defiance in many places across East Germany, finally brought millions of people out to risk their lives and bring down the one-party state with its brutal machinery of repression.
Today, aged 70, Jens is still, as he was then, a respected scientist. He is in a way still a dissident — like others in that people’s movement who wanted a slow and equal unification with the West, rather than the route that was taken, with East Germany being swallowed up by the laws and constitution of the Federal Republic. No wonder some memories of reunification are bitter-sweet: less than two years after the Wall fell, at least half the East Germans of working age (perhaps five million people) were out of proper work.
The health polyclinics and social clubs which were much valued in communist times were shut down. But the East had its freedom and the deutschmark.
Jens Reich is happy that the Wall fell, grateful that new generations, including his own children, are now citizens of the world, free to live where they choose, in Britain, Spain and America.
But winning the prize of freedom was not as sweet as he imagined.
“What followed should have been more positive. Now it’s a problem for a unified Germany.”