West Germans liberated mentally by fall of Berlin Wall

As a child, Constanze Stelzenmüller saw the barrier as a symbol of Germany's punishment.

Elizabeth Pond

Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior transatlantic fellow at the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, grew up in West Germany. She was in her late 20s getting a doctorate at Harvard University when the Berlin Wall fell. This is an excerpt of her interview with Berlin correspondent Elizabeth Pond.

The wall was for me something symbolic and imaginary, because I only saw it for the first time when I was 14.

The wall, rather than a physical presence, was punishment for what we had done by beginning the world war and perpetrating the Holocaust, a memorial in fact to those crimes. I think that's an important point, because it also conveys the sense of inevitability about the wall. That something as brutal as the wall was a fitting punishment rather than something that ought to be resisted or overcome by time, or in some way resented, was the very least one would have to accept.

I came from a vaguely left-of-center environment, where there was a widespread assumption that in some ways – maybe in more ways than one would care to explore – the other Germany was perhaps a better Germany, because it was less tainted.... Left-of-center liberals like my parents were very up-front about the war and Holocaust with us children and about the fact that many Nazis had escaped punishment and had in fact been integrated into the ruling system of postwar [West] Germany. I think that was the taint that one felt....

The idea was that [East Germany] was a valid experiment, too, and that you couldn't keep 13 million Germans behind just one wall if they didn't actually want to be there. It's hard to convey to people 20 years younger than I am just how oppressive the legacy of the war and Holocaust was for our generation and how profound perhaps not the personal guilt, but the shame, was.

[Escaping East Germans] brought to light just how cruel and contemptuous of its citizens the East German system had been, and it made some of us, including me, ashamed of having assumed better. In some ways it was for me a political turning point. It made me somewhat less left-of-center – bien-pensant – and slightly more keen to examine my convictions.

You reexamine how you feel about your country, your nation, and your culture.

What for the East Germans was a physical liberation was for the West Germans a mental liberation.

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