An article I read recently made me realize how the Berlin of today is being defined by its ex-pat residents more than its indigenous population. The author attempts to explain ‘native’ Berliners’ inability to accept criticism about themselves or their city. Throughout the article she continuously explains the nature of the ‘locals’ without once addressing the very real issue of the two cities (East and West) and the people who were born and raised here. She does once use the phrase ‘new Berliners’ but it does seem irresponsible of her to completely ignore the opinion of the real locals. I have been living in here for over 13 years yet I would not call myself a Berliner. I did not grow up in a divided city and divided nation. I did not witness the euphoria of the Wall coming down. Nor did I experience the trepidation of unification and the subsequent difficulties of having to readjust to being a united and independent people. If you are writing an article about ‘Berliners’ then it is imperative to first explain why you only mention the point of view of foreigners who have moved here over the past decade and not the people who were born and bred here. In this blog I will address what she does not in her article, the plight of the people who were born and raised in the German capital.
When I first arrived in 1998 I discovered I had a second cousin who was my age and he and his friends (born and bred West Berliners) showed me their city. Back then the east of the capital was still occupied by the people who had lived there before the fall of the Wall. It was not overrun by tourists and ex pats, or defined by the transient, hipster, trust-fund, 20 somethings whose opinion is apparently all that matters today, at least according to the author of the Deutsche Welle article. In the late 1990’s there was still a distinct separation between the two cultures.
The West Berliners still blithely ignored the eastern half of the city preferring to spend time as they had for the past 40 years in the districts of Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and Schoneburg as if ‘die Wende’(the fall of the Wall and subsequent re-unification) had never happened. Some of the old generation still grumbled about all the ‘Ossies’ (derogatory term for East Germans) who dirtied up the West with their presence. From a western perspective all was well with the economy until the Wall came down. After re-unification they were forced to pay a solidarity tax to help rebuild the former GDR. On top of this the East German people suffering double digit unemployment were draining West Germany’s financial reserves as they were caught up in the (perhaps overly) generous social safety net. They resented the fact they had to pay what they considered to be a lazy, uneducated and ungrateful East German population.
In the East however a much different form of malcontent energy taking hold of the people. For all the drawbacks of Stasi-controlled GDR life, at least under communism each individual was considered an equal and integral part of the society as a whole. After re-unification ‘Ossies’ were treated like second class citizens, whom the West Germans seemed to loathe and were reluctant to hire. Even when they did manage to find a job they were paid less than their co-workers.
Another unforeseen side effect of ‘die Wende’ was the rampant capitalism and real estate speculation which led to the East Berliners being kicked out of their own city. After the fall of the Berlin Wall many investors began buying the crumbling run-down apartment buildings in the East. The central district of Berlin Mitte was the historical heart of the city and they felt there was quick, easy money to be made by investing in the property market there. All they needed to do was get the ‘ossies’ out of the areas of prime real estate and they would make a killing. The East Berliners never agreed to vacate their housing as a condition of the Wall coming down but unfortunately that is exactly what happened. It took until the late 1990’s and early ‘naughts’ that the developers finally managed to remove the undesirable local population, renovate the apartments and jack up the rents. Nowadays with the high unemployment and rampant gentrification it is financially infeasible for the local population to remain in the apartments where they once grew up.
The discontent on both sides is therefore easy to understand. After 40 years of being used as pawns in the Cold War two distinct Germanies emerged, isolated and estranged from each other. It has proven much harder to tear down the wall in people’s minds than it was to tear down the Berlin Wall. I lived in Berlin through this process and have spoken with many of those affected on both sides. Looking at things from their perspective I shudder to think of what they would feel reading the penultimate paragraph of Lavinia Pitu’s article.
“It feels like in an exercise in socialism, except only now we do it voluntarily. After all, Berlin had a few decades time to practice the techniques of the personality cult and learn from the best. So should you dislike something about Berlin, keep it for yourself. Don’t tell it to the locals, unless you are willing to take the risk of being skinned alive.”
I do love Berlin and I love it for being a microcosm of the world today. It has a divided population – those of the former East are struggling to minimize the disparity between rich and poor through democratic and socialist means. The other half is convinced that only deregulation and the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market can cure the ills of the world today and return Germany to its pre-unification financial glory. Due to the inability of the current government to properly assimilate the eastern half of the country into this newly re-united German society, a third group has been able to move in and (at least physically) fill the space left by the exodus of the East Berliners. This third group is the one of which I as a western immigrant am a part. There is a growing hostility towards us and it is due to our ignorance of the very reason Berlin is so accessible to us today. Lavinia Pitu attempts to define Berlin by only discussing the point of view of the hip new immigrant population. Like much of the mainstream media today she is threatening to erase the reality of the situation by misdirecting and misguiding us. In the hope that we will not be lulled into ignorance I leave you with the thoughts of the immortal Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The world is for thousands a freak show; the images flicker past and vanish; the impressions remain flat and unconnected in the soul. Thus they are easily led by the opinions of others, are content to let their impressions be shuffled and rearranged and evaluated differently.”