The fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years on: is Germany divided again?

Saturday 23 November, 14:0015:30, University of Applied Sciences Europe, Dessauer Str. 3-5, 10963, BerlinBattle of Ideas Europe


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November marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of German partition. To mark the occasion, says the official Berlin tourism webpage: ‘For seven days, the city will be transformed into a unique open-air exhibition and event space.’ But even the best event organiser cannot hide the fact that little has remained of the enthusiasm of 1989. That enthusiasm was especially marked in the east, where thousands of people took to the streets, giving the one-party dictatorship of the GDR and its shortage economy the final death blow. Yet embarrassingly, reports earlier this year suggested the Interior Ministry had forgotten to budget for next year’s reunification celebrations and was forced to ask for an extra €61 million to pay for them, even describing the cost of marking such a major event in German history as ‘unplanned expenditure’.

Now, 30 years later, there is talk of how the old Cold War borderline is still separating mentalities and preferences. A commentary on the European elections in May 2019 asked: ‘Germany divided into two parts – still or again?’ The gains made by the Green Party in the west, and those of the populist AfD in the east, were widely seen as confirmation of the continuing divide. But compared to the events in 1989, the tone has changed: the people in the east are no longer praised for their bravery and love of freedom, but criticised for their apparent narrow-mindedness, which is expressed in their voting preferences. The result of the elections in the former east were deplorable, wrote a journalist in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, but it was to be hoped that those who were still striving for a free society would become more visible in the long term – even in the east.

What has gone wrong if, after three decades, there are still divisions in Germany? What kind of divide are we experiencing: a geographical one, between east and west, or between rural and urban areas? Alternatively, are the divisions social, economic or cultural?

A recent contribution to the debate has come from the former federal president, Joachim Gauck. In an interview, he spoke of the need for an ‘extended tolerance’. ‘We must distinguish between right-wing – in the sense of conservative – and right-wing extremist or right-wing radical’, he said, adding that it was counterproductive to exclude the AfD from democratic dialogue. As if to confirm his words, the interview met with heavy criticism – particularly from members of the German cultural elite. According to Jagoda Marinic, an author and playwright, this is not the right time for showing tolerance for the right.

Could it be that Gauck is right to see the solution to the divisions in more tolerance? Many liberals – in both east and west – point to the importance of taking a clear stand against the right. But it is often difficult to distinguish between a political stance and a positioning in the sense of one’s own identity.

How can we make sense of what is going on? Where does this leave the many voters who don’t see themselves as part of a wider cultural conflict? How do we account for the fact that although the AfD is strongest in the former east, it also has a substantial base of support in the west? Is there any chance that the deep divisions within society will be overcome in the next years? And can the enthusiasm for democracy and freedom which were once expressed so forcefully be revived?