I had originally intended to publish this post to time in with the 25 year Fall of the Berlin Wall celebrations on 9 November. Yet I held off. I wanted to include some of the fascinating conversations I had the last few weeks with friends, colleagues and students from my English workshops about what “it” all meant…
“It gave us more freedom, especially to travel and to work, but I feel that a lot of our social ties, things like loyalty to our family and friends, got broken too” – Dieter*, mid 50s, IT expert, originally from Dresden
“I feel it’s my duty to tell the stories of what I experienced in my work and travels, post 1990. I need to do this for my parents, who have basically not gone anywhere. It was my dream to be an actress so I enrolled in film school in London in the mid ’90s after leaving Mitte and then worked in Los Angeles.I’ve now returned to Berlin” – Sara*, early 40s, Actress/Screenwriter, originally from Mitte (Berlin)
“I did not feel anything changed for me personally, because I was born and grew up in West Germany, and stayed there my whole life. I have no reason to go the former East. I think the fall of the Wall was important for people whose lives were directly affected by it, like the families in Berlin whose houses were directly halved right down the middle where the wall was erected” – Katherine*, mid 40s, language teacher, originally from North Rhine Westfalia
“I was born in what later became East Berlin. Under a special family reunion programme between East Germany and West Germany in the 1970s, my family and I were able to leave East Berlin and settle in a town close to Mannheim, where we had relatives. Basically West Germany paid money to the GDR government for us to leave the GDR, as though we were objects at an auction. We stayed in the West for about 10 years, then my father was relocated back East and that is where I have lived ever since”. Marta*, 50-something Administration Manager at a Berlin university, originally from Friedichshagen (near Berlin)
When I first came to Berlin in 2009, we lived in Prenzlauer Berg (in the former East), without really planning to.
It was a kind of apartment-accident, as my sister-in-law was moving to Cologne for work at the time and we sub-leased her place because we had no where else to stay. I remember the days when there were still punks begging outside the local Sparkasse with their bulky,smelly dogs, when there was poop smeared over the sidewalk and lots of very un-Banksy worthy graffiti.
The era of Prenzlauer Berg’s dirty, undiscovered, edginess was pretty much already over.
We moved in when it was already gentrified. And over-recognised, no thanks to endless Lonely Planet books during the 1990s heralding its coolness: even my mum’s friends, urbane 60-something doctors and architects in Sydney knew about “Prenzlauer Berg” or its other tongue-in-cheek name “Pregnant Berg” for all the bugaboos and kids in the suburb.
It was not always so gentrified and arty farty.
A suburb in the former eastern part of the city, once the Wall fell down many of the locals moved out lured by jobs in the West, a few stayed including some artists. Irish and Danish real estate prospectors started skulking around looking to buy huge 100 year old buildings for a song, to renovate them and then on-sell them to investors.But then around 10-15 years ago, the artists started to ship out as rents became too high for them. Even the students could not afford it anymore and live instead in more-blue collar suburbs like Wedding or Neukölln. Or the students got real jobs, had kids and mortgages and stayed on. Or asked their parents in southern Germany to help them with living costs (the vitriol hurled at Southern Germans “Schwabenhass” for taking over the area is really a post all on its own)
In the last few years,start-ups like airbnb have profiteered from the availability of short-term rental accommodations in the suburb because it ticks all the tourist boxes – high ceilings, close to museums, cafés, and the X factor. So much so, that recently the Berlin Senate issued an ordinance banning short-term rentals to foreigners, as high priced rents for foreigners have a flow-on effect which makes landlords want to increase rents for normal citizens.
Then, as soon as I found out I was pregnant, we started looking for a place in the west of the city. “But why?” everyone asked “Don’t you want to stay in the area where there’s so many other parents here? ” And I was like “That is exactly the reason we want to leave. I don’t want to be a Prenzlauer Berg macchiato mama”. So we ended up in Schöneberg. Old school West Berlin, bürgerlich (something like established) with a gay quarter, a blue collar quarter, a family quarter all curiously compressed into the same suburb. Albert Einstein was born and lived down the road from where we are, as did David Bowie when he was in Berlin in the ’70s.
Most people know the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989. Not many realise that German Unity Day (3 October) is chronologically in the calendar before the fall of the Berlin Wall anniversary because Germany was not officially reunified until 1990.The fall of the Wall is not a public holiday, for historical reasons as 9 November is also the fateful date of the Kristallnacht or “Night of Broken Glass” which was the deliberate burning down of jewish synagogues and businesses on 9 November 1938 as part of the Third Reich’s anti-semitic policies.
Reunification Day on 3 October is the day on which in 1990, the two Germanies signed the Reunifcation Treaty which basically stated that East Germany would be absorbed into West Germany and that East Germany would adopt the West German currency, legal system, social welfare infrastructure,amongst many other facets of life. On that day, West Berlin banks were offering 100 deutschmark “Begrüßungsgeld” or “welcome money” to their new German brothers and sisters. Urban legend has it that people were lining up in queues outside the various Sparkassen (banks) for days on end to access this money.
Spurred on in part by the Monday Demonstrations in the neighbouring city of Leipzig that started in the preceding year,and the protests in front of the Stasi Building in Berlin for people asking to see their files as well as similar peaceful meetings in churches around the city, the first people who crossed the Wall from the east side of Berlin did so because they saw a television news report stating that the border was officially open.
The story goes that this was not actually what the East German Government had communicated. Indeed the President of the GDR had apparently said no such thing – there had been some miscommunication between him and the news channel, so that the news reporter had been informed and then said live on TV that a border guard had let some people from the eastern side come through to the West. The then GDR- President, Erich Honecker had to eat his words and concede that the wall was in fact, open for all.
The actual chipping away of the Wall then started in the days that followed. That is when people like Bon Jovi and David Hasselhoff joined in.
Do you remember where you were on 9 November ?
*Names changed to protect the privacy of the people who spoke with me.