Sunday 25 October 2015

After the wall comes down - Berlin (The Cyprus Weekly, 23 October 2015)

Esra Aygin

BERLIN - I tearfully stand before the weathered remains of what used to be the mighty Berlin Wall – a wall that ripped a city apart for decades, tyrannized a nation and caused indescribable suffering and pain. Three large red letters printed on the shabby wall strike me, and in an instant, summarize all my thoughts in one word – WHY

Twenty-five years into the reunification, Berlin has transformed from a divided city into a united, vibrant, cosmopolitan capital. The area that used to be the hollow, soulless no-mans land along the wall is now bustling with modern buildings, cafes and shops in utter demonstration of the senselessness and artificiality of all divisions. Two independent cities of Berlin - with the west a symbol of the fight against communism, and the east, a capital of the communist system - have come together to find a new common identity.

Earlier this month, millions of Germans, from east, west, south and north, celebrated the 25th anniversary of the reunification of their country - widely defined as a ‘success story.’ A poll published by the newspaper Deutsche Welle, conducted among more than 1,000 Germans aged 18 and older about their attitude to unification, shows that west or east no longer shape people's identity in Germany and a feeling of unity prevails particular among the youth. Seventy-three per cent think the reunification of Germany has been an overall success. At the same time, 67 per cent believe it has not been completed yet.

Eberhard Diepgen - the man, who achieved what seemed to be impossible and literally reunited the city of Berlin as its governing mayor from 1991 till 2001, agrees with the results of the poll.

“Reunification is definitely a success story,” the veteran politician told a group of international journalists, who were in Germany to cover the 25th anniversary celebrations. “The division has largely been overcome and Germany today is much more unified than Spain or Belgium. But is it ever possible to complete a process of reunification? Reunification is a mentality; it is a way of socialisation, of social organisation. And it continues.”

After Berlin’s first election as a whole in 1991, Diepgen, who hails from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), took office as mayor and was faced with the challenge of physically reuniting effectively two independent cities. Talking about his vast experience, he said that the biggest challenge in overcoming the division was not the physical work that needed to be done, but the reconciliation of the people.

“When I came to my office, I had the thought that ‘we are all Berliners’ and therefore everything would be smooth and easy. I had to learn that it was not so difficult to bring together infrastructure, the administration, or to build a new system, but it was much more difficult to bring together the mentalities, the people,” he told us. “The mentalities of people become very different after a division of 40 years.”

As a result of the difference between the people, who had been exposed to different experiences; values; education systems; political, social and administrative processes for decades, the smallest of financial decisions could escalate into contentious, emotional questions of division, Diepgen said, giving an advise: “Political considerations should take precedence over economic concerns to provide for social peace and calm. As long as you can dig into your pockets, do it and leave aside economic considerations. Make the spending if it is going make people feel more comfortable. Don’t stop projects. Because these are not considered as questions of economic rationale that they are, but they become a question of people’s feelings. You must keep a very fine a balance.”

One of the first things Diepgen did after taking office, for example, was to move the municipality building from former west to the centre of the city, to ‘symbolise that Berlin is not governed by the west or from the west, but from the centre.’

Quarter of a century into reunification, besides the economic, social and political transformation, Berlin today is also going through a huge change architecturally. The city resembles a huge construction site with cranes operating on hundreds of new buildings, renovations and restorations.

Diepgen rightfully takes pride in the incredible transformation of Berlin, which involved difficult and, at times, controversial decisions.

“I was criticised for keeping some of the members of the system in the former east Germany in state positions,” the former mayor said. “Police for example. Police was a part of the Communist Party. What do you do? Do you fire all? Or teachers… Maybe not all were members of the Communist Party, but all were close to the system. Do you fire all? If all leading positions were occupied by west Germans, this would be a complete takeover, not unification. It isn’t possible to push aside a system, which has been around for more than 40 years.”

The now 74-year-old Diepgen, who lived in west Berlin all his life and always “dreamt of a city without borders, walls or checkpoints” before reunification, is living his dream. The Berlin wall is no longer the overpowering scene of the city, but has been reduced to small sections kept as a collective memorial, a symbolic line on the side of an asphalt road, or pieces of concrete sold as souvenirs. And Checkpoint Charlie - the famous Berlin Wall crossing point that had come to symbolize the Cold War, now merely exists as an attraction for millions of tourists each year, who form queues to take pictures with the young man dressed as an American soldier guarding the border.

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