Here is the first episode of my series Kids of Berlin: Growing up on two sides of the wall. Ben’s answered my questions about his life after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.
Photo caption: Ben in his childhood neighbourhood in Lichtenberg.
Ben was 5 years old when the Berlin wall fell. He belongs to the same generation as me, those for whom this painful part of history was not completely closed up when they grew up, but not a reality anymore. How does one grow up in a present time marked by a past that they (almost) didn’t know? That’s what we talked about with Ben, a kid from East Berlin, a pure product of Lichtenberg, this popular district located on the edge of the (now) very hip Friedrichshain area.
His life just after the fall of the wall
Ben has only brief memories of the day the wall fell: “I remember my mom was really excited when she heard the news, she was working early, and that morning it was 5:00 a. m. when we found out the wall had fallen at night, she was really excited and happy.” What marked him after the fall of the wall? His kid’s memory retained a detail: “I remember very well my first visit to a supermarket in West Berlin: there was a huge choice, so many laundry products, so many different powders, softeners… It smelt so good, that smell really marked me!” A smell of laundry that didn’t exist in East Berlin, like all those consumer goods from the West that were so popular on the other side of the wall. While today the GDR’s products have come back into fashion via a strange phenomenon called Ostalgie, at that time many East Germans turned their backs on them in favour of the more “trendy” West ones. This phenomenon, coupled with the monetary union decided in July 1990 and a wage revaluation shock, has plunged East Germany’s economy into the abyss.
I remember very well my first visit to a supermarket in West Berlin: there were so many laundry products… It smelt so good, that smell really marked me!
Sudden opening to the world
Photos : Ben on his trip to the United States.
But Ben didn’t care about all that at the time. The wall, now abolished, allowed him, the child of the Lichtenberg towers, to travel beyond the borders of the former East Germany: “Before, of course, we could not travel as we wanted, we went from time to time to the Baltic Sea or Saxony, or occasionally to the Czech Republic, but the holiday destinations were generally very limited. Once the wall fell, we really travelled everywhere, and further afield, to Spain, Italy and later Tunisia. It was obviously a huge change that occurred quite suddenly. The world was now open to us.”
My family didn’t think there was a better system than the other
But the opening of the borders did not only have positive effects: his grandmother lost her job because the company that employed her had to close, “which was the case for many East Germans,” he says. In 1997, unemployment rate was over 20% in the East compared to only 10% in the West. His grandfather also lost his job, not at the fall of the wall but after its construction, because he was working in the West at the time and could no longer go there. However: “In the family, the question of whether the GDR was better or worse than the FRG (West of Germany) was never discussed. My family was very neutral, they took it as it was. They did not believe that there was a better system than the other. I think this is due to the fact that we were watching TV from the FRG, which was of course prohibited at the time in the GDR. So we could also follow what was happening in the West and see that they also had their own problems.” Ben also points out another reality that we hardly hear: “Living in Berlin, we had much more than in the rest of the GDR, we never lacked fruits like bananas or or oranges for example, as it could be the case in Saxony or Thuringia”.
Berliners first and foremost
This grandfather who watched West Berlin television had dreams of escaping: “He wanted to escape via the sewers, he wanted to open a manhole cover and sneak into West Berlin through the city’s underground, but my grandmother was against it. She was afraid that they would be discovered by the police, the army or the Stasi, and she was also very afraid of rats. So they never did it.” In this contradictory speech, I understand that, like many others, Ben’s family put up with their life in the East, while looking at the other side of the three meters sixty that spearated them from the rest of the world.
Although he did not experience the partition of Berlin, when it comes to the cultural differences between the two German states, Ben nods his head: “People in the West are looking for a good quality of life. They want a good job with a good salary, a nice house, a nice car. They are pretty much about appearance. I do not find this trait of character in East Germans at all. For them, it is more important to have food, a roof over their heads, but do not try to show it to others. Modesty is, I think, a very important character trait of East Germans. Politics clearly has something to do with it, or rather the indoctrination of the GDR.”
Photo : Ben moved to the West, unlike some of his friends who refuse to leave East Berlin. Photo Unsplash
“When I moved to Steglitz, in West Berlin, I immediately felt good there, but for some of my friends, it’s just not an option, they stay as far east as they can.”
However, the East-West separation caused by the Iron Curtain did not prevent him from moving to Steglitz, a residential (and rather chic) district located southwest of the German capital. For this child from the East, who has almost no memory of the wall, his first identity is his hometown: Berlin. “If people ask me more specifically if I come from the East or the West, I answer East Berlin but for me it’s not that important. When I moved to Steglitz, in West Berlin, I immediately felt good there, but for some of my friends, it’s just not an option, they stay as far east as they can. Even the districts of Prenzlauer Berg or Berlin Mitte (bordering) are already located too far west!”
The 1990s, an epic rebirth
Ben grew up in a changing Berlin: “The 1990s in Berlin was a very free and mad period. We could do what we wanted, it was a strange status, not yet West but not East anymore, there was a lot of space for freedom.” In this ruined and hopeful city, sheared by a now invisible wall, techno clubs and the emerging counter-culture were facing another reality: the development of a neo-Nazi movement. “There were still many Nazis at that time, especially in Lichtenberg, with many attacks that terrorized the neighborhood,” says the 30-year-old Berliner.
The neo-Nazi bastion on Weitlingstrasse
This is a taboo reality in the history of the GDR: the existence of a neo-Nazi movement. The 1987 attack on the Zionskirche church, home to alternative left-wing opponents, by a neo-Nazi group, nevertheless revealed the emergence of far-right groups in the communist state. After the fall of the wall, Nazi militants occupied the building at Weitlingstrasse 122 in Lichtenberg. Since then, the district has become the rallying point for the entire Berlin far right. Like Kay Diesner, an activist sentenced to life imprisonment after the murder of a police officer in 1997. Today, many foreigners, especially Turks, do not venture there, although this part of Berlin has become more cosmopolitan, with many Vietnamese living there. However, the district is still often the favourite place for neo-Nazi demonstrations, such as the one held in memory of one of Hitler’s right-hand men, Rudolf Heß (but which did not take place in 2019). In the last parliamentary elections in 2017, the AfD, the far-right German party, won about 15% of the vote in Lichtenberg, one of the highest rates in Berlin (behind the eastern districts of Hellersdorf-Marzahn and Köpenick).
From the Love Parade to the World Cup: Berlin improves its image
But growing up in Berlin in the 1990s also means seeing the emergence of new social and cultural movements, helping the city heal after half a century of trauma. “It was a pretty cool way of life,” Ben admits. East and west Berlin grew up together. The best example is the Love Parade. More than a million people from all over Germany and elsewhere, but also from Berlin itself, gathered every year to celebrate in Berlin, between the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory column. It was quite symbolic and reflected a positive image to the rest of the world.”
The Love Parade, from love to drama
The Love Parade is an event born in 1989 in Berlin. Initially demanding peace and celebrating love and the German techno music, it gradually transformed into a giant commercial rave party, before moving to the Rhur in 2007. The figures attest to this spectacular metamorphosis: from 2000 people in 1990, it welcomed 1 million in 1997. The initial route, on the very posh Kufürstendamm street, had to be modified in 1996 to adapt to the crowds. In 2006, the techno walk took a decisive turn with the participation of McFit fitness studios in its financing and its move to West Germany. From an alternative and political demonstration, it then became a decadent and lucrative techno festival sponsored by brands that no longer have anything to do with the music industry. But the worst is yet to come. In 2010, 21 people died and 650 were injured during the Love Parade in Duisburg, following a crowd movement. This tragic event ended the demonstration. Today, however, there are two events that continue the original tradition of the Love Parade: the Fuckparade and Zug der Liebe.
But according to Ben, other events have helped to restore Berlin’s image: “In 2006, there was also the Football World Cup. Since Germany was the host country, many changes happened in the country. We welcomed a lot of visitors from all over the world and I think the image the Germans gave back was very positive. The rest of the world saw that we were welcoming and nice. I think it also influenced a lot of people to come and visit or settle in Berlin.”
Berlin too sexy?
The German capital was also able to count on its atypical personalities. “The mayor at the time, Klaus Wowereit, was not afraid to show his homosexuality and conveyed an image of tolerance to the rest of the world. He is also the author of the famous phrase “Berlin is poor but sexy”. And that is still true today. Berlin is certainly getting more expensive but still sexy.”
Photo : According to Ben, the arrival of new inhabitants each year overwhelms Berlin’s public transport system. Photo Unsplash
People are angry and getting aggressive, just because there are too many people in Berlin
This slogan, which the former mayor of Berlin uttered fifteen years ago, has indeed not aged a bit. Every year, nearly 50,000 people settle in the German capital. A situation that Ben, who grew up in a not-yet-fashionable Berlin, finds “difficult, of course. There are more and more people, everything is getting more expensive, rents are rising, the BVG (the local transport company) can no longer keep up, buses and metros are too full. People are angry and getting aggressive, just because there are too many people in Berlin.”
However, the metamorphosis of his city does not only have dark sides. When asked about his favourite neighbourhood, Ben says: “The new Mercedes Platz, near the Warschauer Brücke (in Friedrichshain). This place is brand new, it has been built from scratch over the last three years. Today, it is a great place to have fun and go out, there are bars, restaurants, a concert hall,… And I also like the Boxhagener Platz bars where you can party all night long.”
Of this rapid transformation – 30 years, what is it at the scale of a city? – comes a burning question that wonder the natives, like Ben, but also newcomers, like me: “What will Berlin look like in 15 years’ time?”