Dispatches from Berlin: Still a Divide?

David Parke 6 June 2014
Image Credit: Simon Q

On November 9th Germany will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As you walk the short distance between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building it is hard to imagine that only a quarter of a century ago a 12-foot concrete and barbed-wire barrier divided both these landmarks and the city’s three million inhabitants.

Today, years after reunification, people still talk about the apparent differences between East and West Germans (colloquially known as Ossis and Wessis). According to the Guardian a recent Forsa poll found that only 27 per cent of Easterners think East and West Germans have become ‘one people’ during the past two decades. In the West the figure is slightly higher but by no means a majority. I recently asked my hairdresser, raised in East Berlin, what she thought about the West. “We moved there for a month just after the Wall fell,” she said matter-of-factly, “and hated it.”

While the historical divide between East and West has little to no impact on daily life, the effects of the 28-year long divide are overtly visible. Much of the city, particularly the centre, is taken up by building sites and road works, and some of the houses that were knocked down to clear the way for the wall have only just been rebuilt. There is a noticeable difference between East Berlin’s concrete grey city centre around Alexanderplatz and the opulent greenery of West Berlin’s centre around Kurfürstendamm and Kaufhaus des Westens. Although the Underground now connects both halves, the tram network is almost exclusively confined to the East, whereas the West has far more buses.

Another consequence was that house prices plunged in the East as people moved to the affluent West. A vast number of artists came flooding to Berlin because it created the economic conditions necessary for artists to live cheaply and pursue their work. As cities like New York and Paris became unaffordable writers, painters and musicians moved en masse to the old worker neighbourhoods of East Berlin, filling the Soviet-era blocks with studios, amateur exhibitions and excessive hedonism. The population of two of the eastern districts still consists mostly of young people and students. The West, in contrast, is home to a large number of families and professionals.

Today, Berlin is full of artists and those wishing to capitalise on Berlin’s image of cool: hoteliers, restaurateurs, tour guide companies, the lot. Many young people come here pursuing a vision of the city as it was just after the Wall fell, when life was inexpensive and the East constituted a sort of hipster paradise. Unfortunately for them, the gradual gentrification of many of the eastern neighbourhoods means that the cost of living is rising, and those wishing to pursue a bohemian lifestyle are having to move further away from the centre.

Although I fully embrace the idea of a unified Berlin, I do worry that it may end up overpriced and soulless like so many other capital cities. As East and West Berlin continue to grow closer both culturally and economically, they must learn from one another. The East can showcase the benefits of having many small independent businesses, and in return the West can demonstrate the value of green spaces among the apartment blocks. Soon after the Berlin Wall fell, Willy Brandt famously uttered “what belongs together, can now grow together”. And on the 9th November I hope that Berliners celebrate the fact that they do belong together – because of their differences, not in spite of them.