One Germany

Fifteenth Anniversary of the Berlin Wall's Fall

January 1999 cover of World Press Review magazine

The fall of the Berlin Wall was World Press Review magazine's cover story in its January 1999 issue.

Fifteen years ago, Berliners took to the streets in a spontaneous explosion of disbelief and jubilation as they realized that the wall that had divided their city for 28 years had crashed to the ground literally and figuratively. The event came to symbolize the fall of Eastern European communist rule.

As Germany marked the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall today, the country's politicians took stock of the state of the nation -- and concluded that East-West discrepancies are still cleaving the country.

No big celebrations, parades or fireworks recalled November 9, 1989, the day East Germany’s communist regime opened the wall almost by accident and set off national euphoria that peaked with German reunification 11 months later.

The anniversary is weighed down by high unemployment in the formerly communist East and a sense that in people’s hearts the nation has not yet fully reunited.

East Germans were welcomed with open arms by the West in 1989, but relations these days are characterized by animosity and mutual resentment. Often dubbed the most joyous day in German history, November 9 is now an anniversary overshadowed by what came after.

As time has passed, Germans have focused on the staggering cost of rebuilding the East, not the peaceful revolution that toppled the wall and the Stalinist rulers who built it.

As politicians such as Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit, Social Democrat leader Franz Müntefering and Angela Merkel laid wreaths at one of the last existing stretches of wall in Berlin, others expressed mixed feelings about the direction Germany has taken over the last 15 years and regretted the nation's ignorance of what November 9 stands for.

Mayor Wowereit played down the continuing East-West divisions, saying that "15 years after reunification I think we're in a better condition to plan our future in a democratic way, a way of unity".

He noted that a generation of Germans had now grown up in a democratic system, but "for people in their 50’s it's not so easy to forget the past".

“As far as I'm concerned, November 9, 1989, is a key date in world history," insisted Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse, who comes from the eastern state of Thuringen. "It's even more significant then 9/11," he said in an interview on Deutschland Radio.

The East German authorities constructed the wall, a 97-mile reinforced concrete barrier in 1961, in response to the growing numbers of citizens fleeing into West Berlin. More than 1,000 East Germans were killed during the Cold War while trying to slip through the heavily fortified border to West Germany. East German soldiers following shoot-to-kill orders killed many innocent people and the wall became the most potent symbol of the Cold War.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder paid tribute to the peaceful revolution against the communist regime that culminated in the wall's destruction.
"November 9 is a day marking the triumph of freedom and democracy. The people of East Germany broke down the wall 15 years ago and conquered a cynical dictatorship," he said.

Speaking in Berlin's "Tränenpalast," a former border crossing point named in memory of the many tears shed by friends and families forced to say goodbye on the Friedrichstrasse, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl expressed sadness at Germany's dwindling awareness of this chapter in its past. Often described as "the architect of unity" for his role in bringing the divided country together, he cited surveys that show one in three Germans no longer have any idea what actually happened on November 9, 1989.

Fifteen years on, memories are dimming of a cold November night when the impossible happened. East Berliners were suddenly free to cross into the West – and they joyously did so in the thousands.

Opening the wall was a moment in history that finally led to German re-unification. But it is an uneasy unity today, with the former east still lagging behind the west economically, and the situation is causing simmering resentment in both halves of Germany.

Kohl, the man who famously predicted that Germany would evolve into a "flourishing landscape" admitted his forecasts for economic growth had been well off the mark. "I'm angry at myself for mistakes made," he told the audience.

He was also keen to overturn the widespread perception of "Ossis," or eastern Germans, as whining poor relations with a victim complex, instead laying blame with profiteering West Germans. "I was bitterly disappointed by some western managers," he observed. "They saw 17 million East Germans as consumers, not as manufacturers. They sold cars, furniture and shoes there but didn't want to produce there. I didn't think that was possible."

Wolfgang Thierse lent weight to Kohl's criticism Wednesday, telling the Financial Times Deutschland that western Germany no longer spearheads the country. While the enormous cost of reunification -- $1.61 trillion in public funds invested in the East since 1990 -- have left many westerners bitter over the sacrifices they have made, Thierse insisted it was time to overhaul Germany's prevailing mentality.

"The days when the East looks to the West as an example are long gone," he said. "For fifteen years the basic principle was that all the changes have to occur in the East, and the West can stay as it is. Now it's time the whole country changed."