Getting it wrong

Misha Glenny

  • In Europe’s Name by Timothy Garton Ash
    Cape, 680 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 224 02054 4

Last November, I returned to Berlin for the first time since the Wall came down. I had first lived there for six months in 1979. Within days of my arrival I’d been lucky to be accepted into a Wohngemeinschaft, an institution which hovers between flat-sharing and communal life. The apartment was in SO 36, the heart of Kreuzberg, which at that time was notorious for its punk and squatter culture. My bedroom window looked out over the River Spree and beyond onto the quiet uniformity of die Zone; der russische Sektor; Berlin (Ost); or Berlin, die Hauptstadt der DDR, depending on your ideological perspective.

On many evenings I would sit on the embankment eating a Turkish takeaway. The grey motorised dinghies belonging to the River Section of the East German Border Police would occasionally dart out of their moorings to inspect their half of the Spree for any goldfish trying to make a break for it. The view of East Berlin past these zealous sailors was unremarkable but ruthlessly compelling. I would stare dumbly trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. In many respects the people of each half of the city shut out the presence of the other. The youth of West Berlin, busy in the vanguard of West Germany’s squatter movement, evinced a thorough, almost cultivated ignorance of their peers over the fence. Conversely, East Berliners were forced to suppress their curiosity and longing to acquaint themselves with the BKA (Das böse kapitalistische Ausland – ‘The evil capitalist abroad’) in order to concentrate on the everyday struggle of life in the GDR. And the two grew apart.

‘To say that Germany had become normal since unification was common sense,’ Timothy Garton Ash writes towards the end of In Europe’s Name. ‘Anyone who thought that it was normal to live with a wall through Berlin was not quite normal. It was more normal to take a bus from the Alexanderplatz’ – East Berlin – ‘to Bahnhof Zoo’ – West Berlin. People, however, have an uncommon ability to reach an accommodation with the abnormal and the absurd. When I first crossed the divide unhindered by the Wall, I was gripped, like millions of others since 1989, by a disturbingly weird sensation. To be able to drift in and out of East Berlin from the West felt wrong. I walked into Centrum, once East Berlin’s showcase department store and now called something like Kaufhaus-Xtra Billig, Preiswert und Günstig, and was shocked to see all manner of Western consumer items (few, if any, manufactured in the new Länder of East Germany). What had happened to the endless rows of alarm clocks embossed with the same silly clown’s face? And what had they done with the three designs of unspeakably ugly furniture from Romania which used to take up an entire floor? The only things remaining of the old East Berlin, beyond the dreary architecture, were the wonderful red and green men on pedestrian crossings: the former, his arm rigidly at 90 degrees to his body, looking like a scarecrow in a prison camp; the latter, frozen in a pose of forward motion, exuding a Leninist determination to get to the other side of the road. All else is going or gone. And yet East Berlin remains East Berlin.

Garton Ash assumes, rightly, that since 1945 all mainstream West German politicians had to make a central place in their thinking for the ultimate goal of reunification. This added a dimension to the politics of post-war West Germany which is hard, if not impossible, for other West Europeans to grasp. Another obstacle to understanding the two Germanies has been the virtual monopoly which German academics, politicians and journalists enjoyed over the subject – and, my God, they could be boring. In addition, public political debate in Germany is frequently synonymous, sometimes unintentionally, with obfuscation:

The Federal Constitutional Court, in a judgment calculated to confound all but the most hardened jurist, averred that the German Reich continued to exist in the frontiers of December 1937 – the original Allied definition of ‘Germany as a whole’. The Federal Republic, said its highest court, was a state identical with that German Reich but ‘so far as its territorial extent is concerned “part-identical”, so that to this extent the identity does not aspire to exclusivity’.

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