After 25 Years, the Berlin Wall Still Haunts City Residents

Illustration for article titled After 25 Years, the Berlin Wall Still Haunts City Residents

It's been a quarter of a century since the Berlin Wall was torn down, and the city is still marked by the architectural remains from a generation of Soviet occupation. A new study of the city's residents suggests that east and west Berlin remain culturally divided too — though they are still happy with their lives overall.

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Photo by Debbie Buisson

Over on Atlantic's CityLab, Feargus O'Sullivan reports on a massive survey of Berlin residents, published last week. One of the most interesting findings from the study was that 46 percent of people surveyed said that east and west Berlin communities "have little to do with each other." Easterners were slightly more likely to call attention to this cultural division. Obviously the division isn't as keenly felt as it was in 1990, when 76 percent of Berlin's population believed there were strong social divisions two groups.

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Despite a sense of separation that still exists between the two sides of a city that was once cut down the middle by a massive, fortified wall, today's Berlin is full of people who say they're happy.

O'Sullivan writes:

Asked on a scale of one to five how satisfied they were, no district of the city reported average answers below a healthy 3.76. Interestingly, Berlin's happiness map reveals a different side to the city from the one usually portrayed when charting its rise as Europe's capital of cool. The happiest area (with a satisfaction score of 4.15) was the suburban working and lower middle class western borough of Spandau, far off the tourist beat and arguably the area of Berlin that has changed least in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, the least satisfied Berliners were in centrally located Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, the city's youngest borough and a place that's home to both newcomers to the city and a long-standing Turkish German population. It's easy enough to hypothesize reasons for lower levels of satisfaction here. Many living in the area are poor and, being younger, less well rooted, while the area is under general stress from rapid, displacement-inducing rent rises.

The bigger picture nonetheless is that, compared to 2009, satisfaction is up across the board, probably thanks to the city's improving economy. This upbeat trend continued when looking at the future. Asked how they saw Berlin's path over the next five years, 58 percent were optimistic and 11 percent very optimistic.

Despite the fact that people in Berlin still struggle with the social divisions imposed on them by the Soviets, they're still able to look to the future with hope. The city is also getting slightly younger, and has a higher-than-average number of people describing themselves as "hedonists" (which actually isn't too surprising in a city long known for its radical artists, as well as a very ahead-of-its-time gay rights movement in the 1920s).

Even as they remain haunted by history, cities can still change and look to the future. Though one has to assume that Berlin's sunny attitude is at least partly a result of its good economic fortunes.

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DISCUSSION

craigmichaelranapia
Craig Michael Ranapia

I'm wondering if this just reflects general attitudes towards reunification, which like so much in life is so much more complicated (and ambiguous) when theory gets translated in everyday realities.

Many easterners have endured change, hardship, upheaval and various negative developments – including sometimes being evicted from their houses that people who fled during the Cold War returned to reclaim. Free speech and freedom to travel have been great but the price has been high: millions lost their jobs, their homes as well as the fabric of their society and their way of life. Many are still struggling to come to terms with life in reunited Germany – and are understandably nostalgic about life in East Germany, to the great irritation of western Germans who have helped pay 1.6 trillion euros to rebuild the east.

Reasons for their disenchantment can be seen everywhere: The eastern population has shrunk by about 2 million, unemployment soared, young people are moving away in droves and what was one of the Eastern Bloc's leading industrial nations is now largely devoid of industry. Did it all have to happen like that? Platzeck thinks not. There are no ghost towns in the east yet but some cities with dwindling populations have torn down thousands of flats on their outskirts and let the forests grow back around them.

It should come as little surprise, then, that an opinion poll published in Stern magazine on Wednesday found 67 percent of easterners do not feel like they are part of a united country and only 25 percent said they felt like "ein Volk" (one people) – by contrast 47 percent of the westerners surveyed feel that the two parts of Germany have overcome what divided them in the last 20 years. Another poll found that one in 13 easterners would have preferred if the Berlin Wall were still splitting the two Germanys. Another survey found 25 percent the situation in the east has worsened in the last 20 years. It is also hardly surprising that eastern Germans vote for different political parties than their western brethren.