German Unity Day: The Wall Has Not Fallen
What the West just doesn’t seem to understand is that the East Germans were robbed of their

identities and life histories. A few requests on German Unity Day.

by Thomas Oberender
27 September 2017, 17:01 edited on 3 October 2017, 7:56 DIE ZEIT Nr. 40/2017, 28 September 2017

The Wall has not Fallen

The Wall was not an old construction that sank silently to the ground. It was not simply political fate that it disappeared, but instead it was the culmination of a protest movement inEastern Europe that was overflowing with ideas and initiatives. »Fall of the Wall” sounds passive, like a collapse, an accident at work that eventually led to »reunification”. Yet Germanreunification at first did not play a role at all for the revolution in the East – that was simply not its goal.

The historic turning point towards democracy in the GDR began just like it did in otherEastern Bloc countries: as the opposition’s demand for something new, something betweencapitalism and socialism, which at the time was vaguely referred to as the »Third Way”. Onlywhen the associated demands for free elections and freedom to travel led to the opening of the Wall in the autumn of 1989 that upheaval transformed into annexation; after a visit to the other side many East Germans immediately wanted their piece of the new good fortune, and the political processes in the now open GDR were rapidly also determined by the WestGerman governing parties’ agenda. From now on, political developments ceased to be shapedby the activists fighting for democratic change, but by those bearing signs calling for: »No experiments!”

That »the Wall fell” describes a West German perception that became a phrase and continuesto this day to serve as the standard perspective of the events of the time. Jürgen Habermas termed the historic changes in the East in 1990, or the Wende, the »nachholende Revolution”(the rectifying revolution). According to this interpretation it does not bring about any innovations but eventually flows into the status quo of what already exists in the West aftertraversing a number of »learning about democracy” stepping stones. The opposition members in Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia, however, had not started out with the idea of simply retraining.

In his Wende essay »Zone des Übergangs” (Zone of Transition), Austrian cultural philosopherBoris Buden pointed out that the subject of the democratic revolution during the Wende and the subject of the rectifying revolution of reunification are not the same thing. In fact, - unlike for Helmut Kohl – no one lays wreaths anymore for the members of the opposition who, under gravely dangerous conditions, brought the revolution to the streets and among the people in 1989. There is a records agency for the State Security Service (Stasi) and a federal foundation for the study of communist dictatorship in East Germany, but no archive for the peaceful revolution, no library housing the ideas of 1989 activists.

I was recently invited to an event at the German Federal Chancellery to promote raising the quota for women in the management bodies of the media and private sector, where I recalled that the GDR had already instated virtually full employment for women for decades with all the relevant infrastructures in place – kindergarten, daycare, vacation camps offered by

employing companies, and the free »household day” once a month at full pay. No one wouldwant the GDR back for those purposes, at least I wouldn’t, but it would have been an appropriate gesture to at least mention it at the Chancellery event. At an SPD event at a later date a leading politician told me that one could still unfortunately not praise such aspects ofthe GDR because »simply a lot of people think that it would be akin to praising Nazi Germanybecause of the autobahn”. Could my GDR childhood therefore be referred to as growing up insomething like the Third Reich?

Almost thirty years after the revolution in the East, we could slowly be a bit indifferent to the subject of reunification. We Germans were reunified with so much more than just ourselves in 1989. We lost our fixation on Hitler and the Holocaust, without forgetting either. The GDR and the Federal Republic were answers to the »Third Reich” and defined themselves throughthis opposition to Hitler but also as an alternative of one half state to the other. Once the border vanished Europe suddenly became reunified Germany’s reference point. Germanygave itself back to Europe and has since begun to take its history as a colonial power seriously and view our present time as that of a culturally and religiously diverse immigrant country. So why still talk about 1989? Why remember that the Wall never fell, like snow falls, and theWende in the East is not the same thing as reunification?

Today I think that, in addition to all the successes, our inner-German convergence has also led to a culture of resentment that is closely connected to a new nationalism, fear of foreigners and a dystopian populism as defined by political scientist Wendy Brown. How could the people who danced on the Wall, occupied their secret service headquarters and articulated the idea of another society at round tables, in new newspapers and political parties become the»Jammerossis” (whiny East Germans). Those people, too, who see themselves as left behindand feel their personal biographies have been devalued were once part of a society in transition. Today, no one still says: Wir sind ein Volk (We are one people).

Welcome to Paradise

There is a colonialism of the liberal that has yet to be recognized as such in inner German history. Today, we speak of reunification but perhaps nothing divided the Germans more thanthe opening of the Wall. The dichotomy »Ossi” and »Wessi”, at least, only emerged after 1989. The West German politicians’ phrase of the »brothers and sisters in the East”, whichalways seemed paternalistic, gave way to welcoming the »sons and daughters” finally allowedto take their places at the abundantly set family table. Welcome money, retraining courses and new superiors awaited the new citizens. The former GDR citizens were not received any differently than the Romanians or the Volga Germans. But hadn’t we just overthrown a dictatorship in the East in 1989? »It can’t really get any worse than this”, writes Boris Buden. »Not only have the actors of the democratic revolutions been robbed of their victory andturned into losers. At the same time, they have been incapacitated and condemned to be blind imitators of their guardians in the ridiculous belief that this would teach them to becomeautonomous”. For Boris Buden, this repressive infantilization of societies freeing themselvesof socialism is the main political characteristic of a transitional society that leads right back to the old system.

Now, after the federal elections, the party with the most voter growth is precisely the one that, in turn, heads back in the direction of the old system yet owes its votes predominantly to thosewho do not support the AfD’s program but rather look to express revenge on the»establishment”. According to the statistics, the majority of them are not convinced right- wing nationalists, which means that the democratic parties therefore have the opportunity and task of winning these voters back for a political spectrum that takes experiences of loss seriously in a more mature way. The 2017 election campaign was not won through debates about justice but by asking questions about our culture and identity.

Thirty years after the fall of the Wall, Germany is building a Humboldt Forum in order to bring together Humboldt’ measuring of the world with German colonial history. In order to do so, the Palast der Republik was torn down, with no reminder today at that location that it ever existed. How does one reflect upon this inner German colonialism? This national property damage that there is nothing more to think about in regard to GDR history than those who died at the Wall and the Stasi?

What remains of the GDR is a memory of victims and perpetrators, of wrongdoing and failure and the fallacy that this is the entire truth.

When taking the peaceful dissolution of the GDR into account it seems almost unreal today that in the middle of Europe, on German soil, there existed a country for more than 40 years that nationalized its industry after 1949 and collectivized its agriculture; a system emerged of so-called people’s property, a politically controlled economy, an artificial currency and asocialist state doctrine. No one wants this system back, at least I certainly don’t, but its storyis rich in alternative ways of thinking and production forms, it created another form of culture that was characterized by traits of ideological conformism as well as classical education and aesthetic experiments. Remembering all of this must be permitted – just as you remember your childhood without having to worry about being thought of as regressive in a reflexive way.

If it has become a political ritual as part of reunification to lay a wreath in commemoration of the people who died trying to cross the Wall, why not for those who contributed to the fall of the Wall, too? No streets are named after them. Why not draw strength from the fact that East Germany rebuilt itself after the war without a Marshall Plan and industrialized itself as successfully as it is now in large parts very painfully being deindustrialized?

Perhaps our »national property damage” is rooted in the fact that the revolution in the East is seen merely as a catch-up effort rather than a treasure trove of difference. How strange this also is in view of a West German history of leftist utopias. Where the memories of the GDR are deprived of these esteeming aspects, a historiography of »winners” emerges.

The East German »doctors’ buildings” are a reminder of the former »polyclinics”, but inthinking about the reform of our healthcare system it is as if they had never existed. Not that they would be a solution, but they are an inspiring part of our history. If the memory of fullemployment, the recycling of scrap materials and the GDR’s central high school diplomaleads us right into the proximity of the justification of those who died at the Wall and the SED dictatorship, a »representational gap” emerges, as political scientist Wolfgang Merkel calls it,within our political system, that continues to grow.

What has Happened to the Round Tables?

If there was a kind of East German bitterness at the beginning that has to do with this partial historical ignorance in the West and the devaluation of entire daily lives in the East, this representational crisis not only led to the creation of Die Linke party and their hard-won acceptance in the political spectrum. Instead, cosmopolitan liberalism in the course of reunification also created a climate of resentment which increasingly became an all-German one, an alliance of modernization losers who felt left behind and ignored. Belgian political scientist Chantal Mouffe referred to a society emerging in this way as a two-thirds democracy, whose mass of loss includes less the economic losers than the cultural.

Interestingly, the new Right, which is the mouthpiece of those losers of modernization who no longer feel represented in the political system, has not initiated a debate about the distribution of livelihood opportunities and the containment of markets, but about issues such as identity, home, and in the broadest sense therefore about – culture. The »little people” it representsmight just be professors, too. In the face of this populist threat, the greatest challenge of our democratic system seems to me to lie in separating the debate about values from the reflex- like coupling with the reproach of the conservative, but also from the »cultural”. Values arenot synonymous with a mainstream culture, but operative values, free of the identitarian issue they are an expression of a concern about legal rules and ethical standards.

Even if material prosperity rose, groups of East Germans who felt left behind developed asense of loss and invalidation when it came to their own life histories. They aren’t even aproblem anymore, they are overlooked just like the staff at a hotel. In recent years, however,refugees have become present and visible, and feelings of envy of those »seen” by politics andsociety led to the Pegida uprising and the shameful election success of the AfD.

In autumn 2015, »Mommy” Chancellor Merkel took in new needy children and overlooked those who had already felt neglected in her household. No one had anything taken away from them just because new refugees arrived. Nonetheless, an envy struggle emerged that is led bypeople who ask: »Why do they get money and apartments and we don’t?” It seems to me thatit is not about the material; rather, those yelling at Merkel have had something else taken from them: pride and biography.

However, many of the 22 million fellow citizens who have long since ceased to be guest workers but are Germans of various origins, skin colors and religions also feel unpresent and unrepresented. Here, too, a culture of resentment arose among us that saw large numbers head to the IS in Dinslaken. This, too, is a distant effect of the political heritage of 1989. Here, too, the old cosmopolitan West ignored the basic experiences of most of its fellow citizens, who had to cope with quite different consequences of liberalization and globalization.

The deeper effects of the culture of resentment that emerged after 1989, at the same time asthe apparent »End of History”, have to do with the »fall of the Wall”. What would it havemeant if, after the Wende, the final marks of West German high school graduates had been multiplied by a factor of 1.2 and, in doing so, had been downgraded, as happened to me in the beginning of the 1990s apparently because proficiency levels were lower in the East? This is a little thing, life smiled and got over it, but I can’t forget it.

Why, when we talk about decolonialization, do we not also talk about the coming together of two German states? What has happened to the round tables? Wasn’t the Basic Law atemporary arrangement that was to be replaced by a constitution once Germany was united?

The Wall has not »fallen” even if it felt like it in the West. It is time to listen to other storiesand to look at the history of Germany from the perspective of those who arrived too late, those who failed and those who lost out – not with a gesture of compassion but because it enriches us.