East or West, new ways are best - sort of

Berliners reflect on changes good and bad after the symbolic end of the cold war.


Michael Gabbert smiles at the faded card that 10 years ago gave him special permission to walk to the end of his street in East Berlin. The Berlin Wall stood just a block away, and his neighbors lived in a restricted border zone.

"The Wall at the end of the street was our horizon," says Mr. Gabbert. "It was unimaginable that these two parts of Germany would ever be together."

Ten years ago today Gabbert's world came crashing down, when Gnter Schabowski, the Communist Party boss of East Berlin, read at a press conference the terse government decree granting German citizens the right to travel to the West.

Constructed in 1961 to stem a steady tide of refugees to the West, the Berlin Wall collapsed for the same reason that it was built: by November 1989 the crumbling East German regime was no longer able to prevent its citizens from fleeing to West Germany via Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Symbolically the cold war ended on that November night, and within less than a year, Germany would be reunited. Yet while virtually all traces of the despised Wall have since vanished, a deep rift - colloquially called "the Wall in the heads" - still runs through German society. As eastern and western Germans reflect on a decade of living together, their observance of the anniversary is accompanied by ambivalence, nostalgia, and lingering resentment.

In his East Berlin apartment, Gabbert watched the historic press conference in disbelief. "At first I didn't understand anything at all," he remembers. "You felt this jolt, but you didn't know where it would lead you."

Meanwhile, in the West

On the other side of the Wall, a city block from the famous border crossing Checkpoint Charlie, West Berliner Karl-Heinz Seyfarth registered the historic announcement with equal amazement. He recalls waking up his wife Angelika and shouting, "The borders are open!" They stood on the balcony of their apartment and watched as the streets filled with East Berliners streaming over the once impenetrable border.

Gabbert and his wife, Ulrike, were not in the jubilant crowds that assembled at the Wall. As a "convinced" Communist Party member, Gabbert says he identified with the East German state. "But I'd say that two 'winners of unification' are sitting here," he says pensively. After a long pause Gabbert adds: "I don't yearn for East Germany, but a piece of our life has fallen by the wayside." His ambivalence is typical of easterners who have enjoyed a huge rise in living standards - at the expense of losing part of their former identity.

With the unemployment rate in the East twice as high as in the West, the Gabberts were fortunate to keep their old jobs: he in a factory that produces industrial lighting, she as a nurse in one of Berlin's most distinguished hospitals. Although they say they are better off materially today, the Gabberts voice a deep resentment with the process of reunification.

"At the beginning we had small hopes - that they can't do just anything to us," says Mrs. Gabbert. "But in the end, they showed that they could do everything to us."

By "they" she refers to the westerners, the so-called Wessis, who bought her husband's factory at a bargain price, replaced the senior doctors in her clinic, and still work 1-1/2 hours less than she does for the same wage.

"It was the same in industry," says her husband. "They sent over second-rate managers to teach us how to work. We let ourselves be annexed, it was such a disgraceful defeat."

For the Seyfarths in West Berlin, the opening of the Wall meant that their family would no longer be divided. Mrs. Seyfarth, who emigrated from East Berlin in 1975, left behind her mother and two sisters, whom she could visit only on one-day returns.

Yet the euphoria of the first few days - when Mrs. Seyfarth stood at Checkpoint Charlie embracing strangers - soon evaporated. "It's what I had always wanted - the whole family together," she says. But within months she became completely estranged from her elder sister, who had trouble coming to terms with the new economic reality. "I've heard from friends that many relationships that existed while the Wall was up later ended," says the petite woman, sipping a cup of tea.

Despite their close connections to the East, the Seyfarths show little patience for the complaints of Ossis, as easterners are known. "Many people in the West now have the same worries," says Mrs. Seyfarth, referring to job insecurity throughout Germany. She says that she and her husband are "financially much worse off" than they were 10 years ago.

As a reward for living in West Berlin, capitalism's show window to the East, the Seyfarths used to receive an 8 percent bonus on their wages and lived in subsidized housing. Today the subsidies have dried up. At the same time the Seyfarths pay the so-called "solidarity contribution," an extra income tax for western Germans to finance the enormous costs of reunification.

Mrs. Seyfarth, a lab technician at a university in western Berlin, says many of her colleagues complain that since unification, most research grants have gone to universities in the East. And her husband, a car-insurance representative, says the most exorbitant claims come from Ossis, many of whom "think that democracy is a supermarket."

Both the Seyfarths and the Gabberts live in former border neighborhoods that since the fall of the Berlin Wall are now at the center of Germany's vibrant capital. Both speak the same local dialect known as Berlinerisch.

Divides beyond the Wall

Yet the part of the city in which they have made their homes still sharply determines their world views. Both couples agree that even without the Wall, the city is still divided, if not physically then psychologically. Westerners are often frustrated by the continuing popularity of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), successor to the East German Communists. In last month's local elections in Berlin, the PDS won 40 percent of the vote in the eastern half, but only 4.5 percent in the West.

"You still make a distinction between East and West. When you go on vacation with a group of West Germans, they always ask if you're from East or West Berlin," says Mrs. Seyfarth. When friends from eastern Berlin and her husband joined the Seyfarths on vacation, she remembers, "they always had problems identifying themselves as being from the East. Their past begins in 1989. It was complex."

Mr. Gabbert, however, says that "in the meantime, the people are proud to be Ossi." When traveling with a group, he says, he never has had problems with young Wessis. Yet neither he nor his wife have friends in the western side of Berlin, and both rarely cross the invisible divide to the other half. Since 1990, 85 percent of easterners have visited western Germany, but only 60 percent of westerners have traveled to the East.

Both couples say that it will take at least a generation before Germany is truly whole. "In 10 more years you won't recognize Berlin anymore," says Mr. Seyfarth confidently.

One example of the new face of unified Germany can be found in the Gabberts' own neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg, which since unification has attracted thousands of young people from across the country. For them the district's cheap rents and hip nightlife matter more than dwelling on where the Wall once stood.

* Part 1 ran yesterday.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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