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Why German divisions remain, 30 years after fall of the Berlin Wall

It's been 30 years since one of the 20th century's biggest historic events: the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although the East German dictatorship subsequently collapsed, cultural and political divisions remain, more than a generation after reunification. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on the wall's legacy, the polarizing issue of immigration and the lingering stain of anti-Semitism.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, this weekend marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most important historic events of the 20th century, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

    The East German dictatorship collapsed, and, shortly afterwards, so did other totalitarian regimes across the former Soviet Bloc. As the wall fell, so then did the Iron Curtain.

    But, as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Berlin, Germany may have been politically reunified, but, in many ways, it is still divided.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Thirty years after its demise, just a few hundred yards of the Berlin Wall remain, as a reminder.

  • Peter Schneider:

    The Berlin Wall wasn't only a separation between the two city halves. It was the separation of Europe.

  • Alexandra Hildebrandt:

    As long as Berlin Wall was here, it did represent the dictatorship.

  • Vera Lengsfeld:

    It made East Germany, the so-called German Democratic Republic, a huge prison.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Nearly 2,000 people were killed by communist guards as they tried to breach the wall, erected in 1961 by the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc to protect their ideology from Western values.

    Alexandra Hildebrandt runs the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which honors the courage of people like this Czech family who crossed the Iron Curtain in a homemade hang glider.

  • Alexandra Hildebrandt:

    The wish of the people to be free is stronger than all the walls in the world.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was a principle catalyst for change, with his policies of perestroika, meaning listen, and Glasnost, meaning openness.

    In the autumn of 1989, Gorbachev visited East Germany and urged its hard-line leaders to reform. Anti-government demonstrations intensified, offering hope to East German historian Stefan Wolle, frustrated by his inability to travel outside the communist bloc.

  • Stefan Wolle (through translator):

    In the autumn of '89, we first of all wanted freedom, and the fall of the wall was a surprise that took place faster than most of us had expected.

  • Oliver Berlau:

    My heart was beating faster. And I thought, is this true? This is madness.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Oliver Berlau became a history maker 30 years ago. A former tank commander and Foreign Ministry official, Berlau's exuberance and that of tens of thousands of East Berliners fashioned one of the most important events of the 20th century.

  • Oliver Berlau:

    All of a sudden, people said, do you want to climb up? And hands stretched out, and I was given a leg up, and I'm standing on top of the wall.

    And I thought, like, this is impossible, this can't be happening. And I jumped down on the other side of the wall, and I said, I'm standing in the West. I'm in the West.

  • Vera Lengsfeld:

    This photo was done by the Stasi when I became a prisoner.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Vera Lengsfeld's credentials as an East German human rights activist helped her become a lawmaker in Angela Merkel's center-right party after unification.

  • Vera Lengsfeld:

    I know of nobody who thought that it might be able to get rid of the wall and to get rid of the socialist system, so it was a victory of which we had never dreamt.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    To reinforce that victory, Western consumerism has engulfed Checkpoint Charlie, once a tense frontier crossing in the no-man's land of mutually assured destruction, now an essential stop on the selfie bucket list.

    The Berlin Wall may have been a symbol of dictatorship, of repression, of communism, the antithesis of democracy. But, for the West, it also represented certainty, because it defined global divisions.

  • Peter Neumann:

    For sure, during the Cold War, the world was easier. Everything was related to the conflict with the Soviet Union. And, sometimes, that didn't actually make sense.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Peter Neumann was born and raised in Bavaria, in what was West Germany, and lectures on security, terrorism and war studies.

  • Peter Neumann:

    The West supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan because they were fighting against the Soviet Union. But, by doing that, we inadvertently created the people who are now fighting us as jihadists.

    We didn't realize that at the time, because our only thought pattern, our only way of conceptualizing these conflicts, was in terms of the Cold War. So, whilst it was easier, that doesn't mean it was always correct.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In common with other experts, Neumann doesn't believe the reunification of Germany has been a total success.

    The East German economy was moribund, and many of its labor-intensive industries collapsed once exposed to free market forces.

    Author Peter Schneider has documented the changing fortunes of his home city, Berlin.

  • Peter Schneider:

    I had thought that it would take one generation to unify the Germans. It will be more than two generations.

    People around 50, if they left their job, they had no chance to find another one. And their kids saw that. Many of them see the unification as an act of imperialism.

  • Stefan Wolle:

    And, suddenly, an enormous amount of people lost their jobs. And, naturally, they were disappointed about it, and said, so this is the unification? What good are freedom and democracy, if I have no job and cannot buy any of the nice things I always wanted?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Successive German governments have spent heavily in the former East to try to raise living standards, but Peter Neumann says, financial investment alone can't counter divisions in outlook.

  • Peter Neumann:

    East Germany never really confronted Germany's past. In Western Germany, we were from the very beginning taught that we inherited the legacy of Nazism, and that we had to make up for it, whereas, in East Germany, people were told, you are actually the successors of the people that the Nazis fought against. You are the successors of the communists. So there is nothing you have to atone for.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Anti-Semitism resurfaced last month in Halle, the birthplace of composer George Frideric Handel. Close to his statue in this eastern city, mourners honored two people shot dead by a neo-Nazi after he failed to enter the city's synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

  • Woman (through translator):

    With our history, it's, like, a shame that now things like this can happen.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    At the synagogue, community leader Max Provorozki feared Germany may no longer be a place that Jews can call home.

  • Max Provorozki:

    We have a problem in Germany, and I think it's not a question to Jewish community. It's a question for politicians. It's very important that governments in all countries find the special medicine.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    It isn't just Jews who feel under threat from the hard right.

    Richard Khamis came from Sudan 35 years ago to study at Leipzig's Karl Marx University. Khamis was here when the wall fell, and settled in what he thought was a welcoming country. Now he's too scared to go out at night.

  • Richard Khamis:

    They insult you simply because you are black. People are being beaten up, chased from places. You — as a black man, you can hardly go to a pub on your own to have a pint of beer, because you get so scared. You don't know what will happen to you.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Khamis says attitudes changed in 2015 after Chancellor Angela Merkel threw open Germany's borders to more than a million migrants. The influx appalled Merkel's former ally, Vera Lengsfeld.

  • Vera Lengsfeld:

    Too many of them detest the Western way of life. They don't respect democracy and its rules. They don't respect the women's rights. I fear this will in the long run destabilize our society.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Mass migration has fueled the rise of the right-wing AFD, or Alternative For Germany Party, in the east, where many felt like second-class citizens after unification.

    The AFD's European affairs spokesman is Hugh Bronson. Is the party's anti-immigrant stance responsible for inflaming racism?

  • Hugh Bronson:

    I don't think it's true. We are just taking the worries of the people. We take them seriously, and we respond to that. You can't even discuss issues about immigration in Parliament. Immediately, you are branded a racist.

    And this is a very unfair situation, just asking, how much this country can accept, how much can we take in?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But after the fall of the wall, international borders lost their aura of permanence.

  • Alexandra Hildebrandt:

    The lesson is, there exists no wall which stays forever. The lesson is that everyone, every person in the whole world can be free, must be free.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But if the wall's specter means that East and West Germans won't fully embrace for at least another generation, then immigrants have their own Iron Curtain to negotiate before this complex nation accepts them, if indeed it ever will.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Berlin.

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