In a few days it will have been twenty years since the Berlin Wall’s collapse. Who would have ever thought that it would go without a single shot being fired, paving the way to reunification, a quiet end to the Cold War.
In 1991, I stood at Checkpoint Charlie, one of the main arteries for crossing between the two halves of Berlin, the place where American and Soviet tanks had a stand off almost barrel to barrel.
Having seen the East six years prior, it was fascinating to watch the drastic change and activity- double decker buses loaded with tourists, bicyclists, Audi’s and Trabbis whizzed by while merchants, many of them foreigners, selling souvenirs of the German flag and remnants of the wall- splattered with graffiti, a symbol of the division that once was – the East and the West.
For me, I knew I was living through history with the sudden implosion of the Communist regime but despite the peace with the Exodus came social problems in lifestyle, wealth, political beliefs and other matters that caused a division between brothers. It seemed everywhere I turned the topic of conversation were tales of morose, pervaded by adult nostalgia, or freighted with spiritual disenchantment’s.
The Westerners who extended their hand in a humanitarian gesture and valued freedom expected that reunification would come with a price- and they bickered, rightly so, they were already heavily taxed and even higher taxes were placed on them to compensate for additional subsidies. And it would be a while, perhaps even a generation before the Easterners could adapt to a new way of living.
Based on my personal experiences, I witnessed Easterners with a different work ethic. Striving for accolades and incentives were unknown, what they valued was equality. With competition they would retreat into a fantasy world where they yearned for the past- the life they once knew. Despite the fact that suicide rates were high, in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), they knew what to expect, and there was a comfort zone.
The profound rift between the brothers made me think of Cain and Abel, born to the same parents yet split in their desires. After Cain kills Abel out of envy he is forever cursed with alienation. The distinctive note of his act is that alienation is largely a matter of cultural circumstance.
Author Günter Grass called the division of Germany a “punishment for Auschwitz” but I’d also add that no country ever had to live with so much dishonor. No country disappeared in such an orderly fashion as East Germany, but no divided country ever had such a hard time finding its identity. Lets’ hope these feuding brothers find their way back to each other and form a family where wealth is there for everybody. But they will have to work together to earn it.