Be Careful What You Wish for: A Story of Broken Promises, Thirty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall


Over thirty years ago, I was born in a country that no longer exists: the German Democratic Republic (GDR). On November 9, 1989, a 160-kilometer-long wall, and with it a country, a political system, and a society that had been defined by it, collapsed. As we celebrate the thirty-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, I realize that, as with perhaps all historical events, many people have an exact recollection of that day. I, however, do not. I was too young. I probably knew that there was a wall, and that this wasn’t a good thing, but I had not experienced any noticeable disadvantages as a child because of it: I liked the Baltic Sea, and didn’t realize that Hawaii might be nicer; nor could I have known that Nikes were cooler than the anonymous trainers that GDR factories rolled out. At four or five years of age, if you can play outside with your friends, you’re happy.

At some point in the days that followed, I remember my mother telling me that the wall was gone, and that my father had been promoted to managing director of his company. It sounded like a good deal: the creepy wall was gone, and my Daddy was a boss now. This made us a family of Wende-Gewinner (winners of the reunification): We were the first in town to buy a brand-new car; we booked flights to the Mediterranean the following summer; and went skiing in Austria in winter. Even if life in GDR had not seemed that bad to the little boy playing in the garden, this was clearly better. Soon, a narrative seemed to emerge: not only were we Wende-Gewinner, but everybody was. After all, anyone could now travel anywhere they wanted, family members that hadn’t seen each other for decades were reunited, and anyone could buy a car. Even if it wasn’t a new car, it was guaranteed to be better than a Trabant. And then there were the small things, such as the availability of fruits all year round. This, in particular, was a big deal for my father who reminds me every year of how his family shared a can of pineapple for dessert on Christmas Eve in 1970.

At some point, however, I started noticing that there were not only Wende-Gewinner. While my father had become the managing director of a medium-sized company, he also had to lay off half of its employees. They were the so-called Wende-Verlierer (losers of the reunification). In a free market economy, it is not the state that pays salaries, but companies, hence a free market economy cannot only produce winners, but also losers. In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unemployment rate in East Germany rose to around 20 percent. The number would have been much higher if older employees had not been sent into early retirement, which in turn cost the Federal Republic a lot of money. The Wende-Verlierer are not only the unemployed, but also the thousands of workers with significantly worse jobs than the jobs they had before. My uncle, for example, who lived with his wife in Saxony, used to have a good job as an electrician in a large state-owned company, for which he also edited the magazine. After the fall of Communism, he worked as a mechanic for a temporary employment agency until he retired. Because of this temporary employment, he often spent weeks away from home and nights in ten-bed rooms in cheap hostels, and his wife spent many years in various so-called job creation measures in their hometown, many of which saw her cleaning its footpaths and streets. By contrast, there had been no unemployment in the GDR. The planned market economy had guaranteed full employment. In this case, full employment to the point of bankruptcy and collapse. As a result, the GDR had to beg for a billion-euro loan from West-Germany in 1983. On top of it all, this loan was arranged by the GDR’s ultimate villain: Franz Josef Strauß, the conservative, Bavarian chairman of the Christian Social Union.

While employment rates constitute a measurable loss, they are often paired with an even greater and immeasurable loss or erosion: that of “social capital.” According to the American Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam (1993, 1995), who coined this term and made it extremely popular in the early 1990s, social capital is analogous to a kind of “social clay” or “putty” that solidifies and binds people together when they interact for formal or informal purposes.  Meeting people at sports training, choir rehearsals, or even just at casual gatherings, makes you trust people and makes you part of the same society, “the same tribe.” These networks do not only make individuals happier, but they are also seen as causal to the vitality and stability of society as a whole. Put simply, wherever people are in close contact with each other, there is less crime and fear and greater trust and satisfaction. In fact, Putnam’s empirical research shows that in countries and regions with strong social capital, citizens are educated, medically healthy, and successful, whereas people in regions with few networks suffer vast social and economic problems (Putnam and Goss 2001). After the fall of the wall, the foundation of social capital eroded fairly quickly. In my hometown for instance, it took a couple of months for the football club to break up, the sports field to be neglected, the cinema to close down, and musicians to migrate to larger open-air stages in the West. The same fate befell many local supermarkets, bakers, and pubs. For the Wende-Gewinner, this loss was easy to compensate—they simply got into their new car and drove to the next town or the next hip wine bar―leaving the Wende-Verlierer to face these losses alone.

Historically, socialist or communist states have held enormous pride in their pronounced sense of community and institutionally enforced solidarity. This strength of the community ultimately also served as a political legitimation of an entire economic and social system. The GDR was not shy to use the community argument to feed the myth that they had the “better” system. “Overtake without catching up” was GDR’s head of state, Walter Ulbricht’s, paradoxical slogan. It questioned the value of material goods, such as fast cars, in a system that had something greater to offer its citizens: community and solidarity. In the GDR people were reminded of their “superiority” on a daily basis. By contrast, the state propaganda or what we might today call fake news media outlets, focused on homelessness, poverty, gang wars, as well as loneliness and a disintegration of society when they reported about Western Germany. The GDR even had its own propaganda department, which provided texts to be printed in the newspapers every day. The communication scientists Michael Meyen (2011) calls this approach state-imposed public relations. Of course, citizens of the GDR knew what was going on and whilst some may have enjoyed it, nobody took it entirely seriously.

However, what the GDR population took seriously, according to media mogul Hubert Burda (2010), was Western advertising. According to Burda, images of happy people drinking coke and driving convertibles had a major impact on the political events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even if the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), GDR’s leading party, could control external borders, election polls, and the national press, it could not keep its citizens from hearing about the promises of the West. The longer the GDR existed, the more its citizens yearned to have such promises fulfilled and secretly started believing that the West had the better system after all. More than anything, they wanted the “more” that these promises entailed; they wanted a taste of freedom. “Freedom is the only thing that´s missing” was a famous song by Marius Müllers-Westerhagen and a secret hit in the GDR. They craved change without being able to quantify what they may be losing.

Thirty years later, not all promises have been immediately satisfying or even as sensational as that of freedom. Soon after the fall of the wall, the former Chancellor of the reunification, Helmut Kohl, promised “flourishing landscapes” to East Germans. Decades later, for many these have yet to bloom. According to the German Federal Employment Agency, the average gross salary in East Germany is about 2,500 Euro per month, almost 1,000 Euros below the average gross salary in West Germany, while the unemployment rate is about 30 percent higher (Bundesagentur für Arbeit 2019). While Porsche and Volkswagen maintain factories here and there in the GDR, and there are some well-positioned medium-sized businesses, most major stock exchange companies have remained in the West. The Ruhr Economic Papers (2019) document that East Germans are migrating massively to major cities in the West trying to make a better life. According to the extensive evaluations of the Otto Brenner Foundation (2019) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (2019), more and more people in East Germany are generally dissatisfied with the political system and the state of democracy in Germany.

When promises and expectations are not met, people feel powerless and frustrated. While some blame themselves, many do what they have always done―without or without a wall: they blame the system. As the regional elections in 2019 have revealed, this is true for a quarter of the citizens in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia. Freedom is no longer the virtue that people are fighting for, but seems to have been replaced with nationalism. As in many European countries, the far right, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has become the new illusionist and yet again is making promises of a better system. Promises are not bad, so long as they do not intend to harm the basic principles of human rights or the constitution. Promises can be simple, and they can be complex. The more complicated the world gets and the more challenging the issues are, the simpler and easier the promises and answers seem to become. Nationalism, isolation, and political regression are probably the easiest answers to a world facing globalization, digitalization, and migration and people choose to believe the underlying promise of a simple and flourishing.

Our history has not seen a single economic system or form of governance remain in power for a long time without it having to adapt due to change and progress. Biology teaches us that only those who adapt survive. The new nationalist parties see themselves as political alternatives to established parties. They constitute movement, whereas the established parties stagnate. The great paradox of this movement, however, is that it represents standstill in terms of objectives. The citizens of the GDR wanted freedom and change. They didn’t want to stagnate and for things to remain the same. They were not conservative, just quick to believe in simple promises. While Coca-Cola advertisements are still omnipresent in our lives, the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall have taught us that simple solutions are seldom the response to complicated issues. We may be hearing the same old warning once proclaimed by Goethe’s Zauberlehrling (the Sorcerer’s Apprentice): “The spirits that I called, I cannot rid myself of now.” Be careful what you wish for.


Rüdiger Müller holds a PhD in communication science and likes to think, speak, and write about society, media, politics and art.



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Photo: The part of Berlin Wall (East Side Gallery)| Shutterstock
Published on January 16, 2020.


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