The Berlin Wall fell more than six years ago, but the physical differences between East and West Berlin remain striking. While the west is an affluent, somewhat staid European city, the east is a work in progress. Berlin isn't a high-rise city, but its eastern part has a skyline of construction cranes; scaffolding is everywhere as you stroll along the new upscale shopping strips.
Even more striking is the cultural gap that still divides Germany, as my group of visiting American journalists quickly found. When Germany reunited in 1990, many East Germans, accustomed to the shabby security of a communist state, found the change a shock. Many lost their make-work jobs and found they lacked marketable skills.
They also found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer over-abundance of Western popular culture. Newspapers are a case in point. East German papers, eight pages long, were meant to be read cover to cover. Now commercially owned, they remain essentially unchanged in form. West Berlin papers, their best marketing efforts in East Berlin notwithstanding, still have 90 percent of their circulation in the west. A correspondent for the national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine suggests why. He told us he'd bought a subscription for an East German couple. Months later he asked them how they liked it. "We let our subscription lapse," they told him. "We just didn't have time to read it all."
Such differences shouldn't surprise us. Out of the rubble of Nazism and World War II, after all, the two Germanys rebuilt in ways that couldn't have been more opposite. Take their divergent approaches to the Nazi legacy. West German society ultimately acknowledged its collective guilt, partially as an outgrowth of the sixties counterculture: when young German baby boomers called their parents "fascists," they weren't kidding. East Germany's official line was that communists—and, by extension, the East German state— were Nazism's chief victims. East German memorials still stand in one part of the Buchenwald concentration camp; nearly all those honored are communists. (In the years following the war, the Soviets housed political prisoners in the camp—some of them unlucky souls whom the Nazis had imprisoned there earlier.)
East Germany, though prosperous by communist standards, was one of the most totalitarian of the East Bloc countries; the Stasi, the vast secret police apparatus, permeated every cranny of citizens' private lives. A manager at Deutsche Waggonbau, a recently privatized railroad
manufacturer, told us of learning that the Stasi had obtained keys to his house from a trusted family friend. Vera Lengsfeld, once a dissident environmentalist and now a Green Party member of Parliament, learned that her own husband was informing on her. She is now divorced.
Working-class East Germans didn't starve, but they sure didn't learn the habits of independent living that westerners take for granted. "The system made children out of everyone," observes Tina Rosenberg in The Haunted Land. Today East Germans often seem timid, defensive, dependent. Our superb translator, a disillusioned 40-year-old former communist, felt personally hurt by criticism of the old regime. "Did we really do everything wrong for all those years?" he asked plaintively. In Weimar we met a reporter from a newspaper in nearby Erfurt who was preparing for a six-month fellowship in the U.S. She was worried, she told me: she lived with her parents and had never been away from them for any length of time. She was 29.
It will take East Germany a generation to grow up. But the process is well under way. In Jena we met with a dozen students at Friedrich Schiller University: almost all were high-spirited, optimistic about their future. One 20-year-old under-graduate told us that while her parents were having trouble adjusting to freedom, "I know that it means more opportunities for me." Communism clearly hadn't stunted her growth. Of course, when the wall came down, she was only 13.