Nov. 9 marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an oppressive force in the city itself and symbol of the larger Iron Curtain dividing capitalist and communist Europe for much of the post-war period. Originally met with triumphalism, 20 years later, it is time to take stock of how much has really changed. The Economist reports that, today, a large majority of East Germans are not happy with the “political arrogance” under which the reunification happened, or with the sharp decline in their economy. Almost everybody interviewed by Reuters talked about the “horrors of capitalism” they so despise.
The crumbling wall signalled the collapse of the Stalinist regime in Eastern Europe. Seemingly invincible regimes were brought down by the power of millions in the streets, and all that was solid melted into air in a matter of months.
This was truly a great moment. Eastern Germany was filled with a sense of unparalleled euphoria. The brutal and cruel Stalinist regime, with its massive apparatus, informers in every bloc, horrifying Stasi secret police, gross mismanagement, and lack of consumer goods had finally come down. The future seemed bright for the East Germans.
However, there was a period of anarchy when the German Democratic Republic had fallen, and there was nothing to replace it. The people knew what they didn’t want, but, save for some vague talks about democracy and civil rights, they didn’t know what they did want for their future.
A lot of Germans were understandably upset about the division of their country in the aftermath of the Second World War, a division which brought suffering and pain for divided families, and isolated the East Germans from Central and Western Europe. It was in this atmosphere that an idea of reunification was sold to the euphoric people.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, West Germany was ruled by the Christian Democrats and their leader, Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Kohl’s offer of reunification for his East German fellow citizens was simple: come to our side and we will exchange your East German Ostmarks for West German Deutshmarks. What the East Germans weren’t told, however, was that their standard of living was not going match that of West Germany. They were deceived by the beauties of market economics, and were swayed by all the fridges, blue jeans, and Coca-Colas they could buy. But what followed was catastrophic by any interpretation.
The East German economy crumbled. Unemployment spiralled upward, prices went up, factories closed down, and large parts of the great industrial base that had characterized East Germany was simply destroyed. Their GDP went into a free fall, declining 15.6 per cent in 1990 and 22.7 per cent in 1991. After that there was a brief and small recovery, followed by a long period of stagnation.
Before the Second World War, eastern parts of Germany were actually richer than the western parts, and the GDR was a richer country compared to most Eastern European states. A life without consumer goods, and an existence under totalitarianism was surely hard for East Germans. But a nationalized economy meant full employment, free health care, and a standard of living that wasn’t as good as the West Germans, but not that bad either, and it was all destroyed in a matter of years.
Twenty years after the fall of Berlin Wall, East Germany is still divided from the western part of the country by invisible walls. Eastern standard of living lags behind, and the rate of unemployment is almost double that of the west. It is no wonder people in the east keep voting for The Left, a party comprised of remnants of the old Stalinist party, and socialists and communists in former West Germany. The Left has been the most rapidly growing party in the last two elections, receiving as much as 40 per cent of the vote in the old East.
Alongside this, many East Germans are looked down upon as second-class citizens by those in the former West. Germany is anything but reunited in substance. The great city of Berlin, beyond its opera houses and contemporary art scene, is not the bustling metropolis it once was during the interwar period. Its two parts were never really reunited.
Two decades after Francis Fukuyama declared the end of socialism and the triumph of markets, Germany has witnessed the total failure of capitalism. Not only did it fail to improve the living conditions in post-Stalinist Eastern Europe, but it can no longer afford the concessions it had given to Western German workers either, as the Angela Merkel government cuts social spending.
The German people shouldn’t have to choose between free-market capitalism and bureaucratic Stalinism. Their tradition is one of a militant, socialist labour struggle for a democratic socialist society. The future of Germany is up in the air.