It's a run-of-the-mill Saturday night and you're at a concert in Manhattan's Lower East Side. While sauntering home to the Upper West Side at the crack of dawn, you're horrified to discover that the New York City government has constructed a wall right through the centre of the city, through Central Park and down Sixth Avenue, separating you from your loved ones on the other side for three whole decades. Becoming a prisoner in your own country, you're forced to say "Auf Wiedersehen" to sipping Starbucks Frappuccinos while pumping Taylor Swift tunes in your VW Beetle, and "Guten Tag" to guzzling god-awful imitation coffee to communist propaganda radio in a cardboard Trabi so puny it makes Mr. Bean's car look colossal!
Winding back the clock just half a century, this seemingly inconceivable head-trip was a harrowing reality for East Berlin citizens, whose government erected a wall overnight on Saturday August 13, 1961, shooting anyone who hightailed over it. What they underestimated, however, was the sheer courage of those willing to risk their lives to defect across the Iron Curtain, taking to the Baltic sea in home-built submarines, the sky via hot air balloons and tightropes, or the dirt below through tunnels, like Germany's famous Berlin Wall 'mole' Hasso Herschel who helped over 1,000 East Germans escape to the West from 1962 to 1972, inspiring the critically acclaimed 2001 film 'The Tunnel'. (You can read an interview I did with him for NPR here).
After hearing these epic escape tales, when tourists pop their Berlin Wall cherry nowadays, realizing this very barrier that stood in the way of freedom for countless East Germans is only a mere 3.6 meters high, they tend to blurt out the same three words all men dread hearing in the bedroom:
..."Is that it?"
In all seriousness, though, considering how often I hear this phrase uttered at the East Side Gallery - followed by "But I could've jumped over that!" - thank god the Berlin Wall is, well, a wall, and not a man, or else its pride would be shattered into more pieces than its exterior was when it bit the dust a quarter of a century ago!
When you take a step back and consider that these GDR armed guards have now been replaced by shaggy-haired guitarists, the watchtowers by the McDonald's golden arches, the death strip by hipster flea markets, Trabis by Drive Now BMWs and Plattenbau apartments by futuristic loft abodes, you can't really blame tourists for their "size DOES matter"-affirming reactions.
In fact, the traces of the Berlin Wall today have done such a miraculous Houdini vanishing act that the wall actually had to be resurrected all over again using 8,000 white LED balloons as a "Lichtgrenze" ("Border of Light") installation for the 25th anniversary this past weekend.
Even if Berlin's East-West divide may no longer be visible on today's bustling city streets, it still is beyond the Earth's stratosphere, according to an image Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield took from space last year showing West Berlin glowing white and East Berlin yellow. Although there was a simple explanation for this - the street lamps in the East still use sodium-vapor and the Western ones are fluorescent - perhaps this image is telling of other harsher truths about Germany's remaining divide.
© NASA, Courtesy of Chris Hadfield
Sabine Rennefanz wrote in a 2010 Guardian article that according to sociologists at Bielefeld University, even though east Germans represent 20% of the population, they comprise fewer than 5% of the elite in politics, business, science and media. What's more, despite the fact that Angela Merkel is GDR born and bred, her cabinet today consists of mainly west Germans and shockingly, not one of the 30 leading companies listed in the German share index is headed up by an east German boss. In the academic realm, 95% of professors of sociology or political science are originally from the west, even in east German universities such as Leipzig and Dresden. Although it's widely known that west Germans read Tagesspiegel while east Germans prefer Berliner Zeitung or SUPERillu, even the editors-in-chief of these east German-favored newspapers hail from the West.
So, why does this East-West divide still prevail 25 years later? Rennefanz says, "After the wall came down many people lacked qualifications, others were sacked because of their links with the communist party and the Stasi. Sociologists point out that German society is rigid and the elite usually only promote people who have the same upbringing and the same experiences - who are usually white, male, west German and middle-class."
This 'Us Versus Them' mentality isn't just limited to 'East Versus West' anymore either, as Germany's reunification has triggered whole new divides between rich and poor, old and young, taxpayers and refugees, and native Germans and tourists, which you can read more about in my '25 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Who Are the Real Berliners?' article.
So, at the end of the day, what does this all mean for the future of the German capital Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit coined as "poor, but sexy" in 2003? Sure, there are still social, cultural and political divides between East and West. After all, the city and nation was sliced by a hammer and sickle into two couldn't-be-more-bipolar societies and political systems for 28 whole years, which is still more time than the 25 years that has passed since. Berlin would certainly need superhuman healing powers, and much longer than a quarter century, for its scar - the Berlin Wall trail - to heal over completely. That being said, considering expats like myself can now belt horribly out-of-tune karaoke and have BBQ picnics in the death strip where we'd be met by bullets 25 years ago, you simply can't deny that today's colourful metropolis is worlds apart from the black and white divided city it once was. Besides, this 'work in progress' element to the city is what makes Berlin "Berlin" - a city, as Karl Scheffler's 1910 adage goes, condemned forever to becoming and never to being.
To conclude, my father once told me that one can distinguish the ever-evolving nature of a city just by counting how many cranes paint the city's skyline. If that's truly the case, Berlin is soaring sky-high, just like the 8,000 balloons that were released into its night sky on Sunday night.
All photos © Mathias Wasik: wasikphoto.com