|On the night of November 9, 1989, Georgia Franken crossed from the West to East Berlin|
Many events, large and small, in the East and the West, helped to bring the Cold War to a peaceful end.
But it is the events of November 9, 1989, that the world remembers.
The 154km of reinforced concrete and barbed wire, enclosing half a city, came to symbolise a government that could not trust its own people.
For the second time in the 20th century Berlin hosted the last battle in a global war. But this time, instead of laying in ruins, it stood unscathed. Rather than clearing rubble and building from scratch, Germany became a whole country again in less than a year.
Al Jazeera spoke to people who are witnesses to that period, their lives shaped by the political divide that dominated the second half of the 20th century. In turn, they helped to shape those events that the world celebrates on Monday, November 9, 2009.
They talk of die Mauer in den Kopf – the ‘wall in the head’ – the imaginary barrier that, 20 years after jubilant Germans set upon the concrete and steel with sledgehammers and bulldozers, still divides East and West.
For West Berliner Georgia Franken, 62, a major cause of the persisting mental wall is the ‘solidarity tax’ – the 5.5 per cent surcharge on every German’s income tax that goes towards rebuilding and reviving the economically depressed former East.
“We are fed up with it. A city like Dresden is doing very well and we’re still paying for it. Everything the East has, it is because we’ve paid for it,” she says.
Her friend, Judith Stückler, the manager of a kindergarten, nods in agreement. People from the East, on the whole, are not entrepreneurial, she says, citing as an example her Easterner colleagues who have a residual need to be given instructions.
“They are still waiting for orders,” Franken continues. “They say, ‘It was much better in the past because we knew what to do. We were given orders and we followed them and it was simple’.”
‘Screaming and weeping’
Franken’s irritation is all the more striking for the fact that she is on the more sympathetic side when it comes to Western attitudes towards the East. The good-natured music teacher has been a regular traveler in the former East for years and has plenty of friends there.
Indeed, she is one of the few West Berliners who, on the night of November 9, 1989, swam against the streaming tide of humanity and crossed over to East Berlin when she heard that the wall had fallen.
Interested to see how the news was being celebrated in the East, Franken and a friend went straight to Bornholmerstrasse, the first checkpoint to open that night.
“The guards were pretty surprised,” she recalls with a chuckle.
“They were too shocked to check my papers or anything. As a joke, I asked for my 100 Deutschmarks (people travelling the ‘right’ way were given 100 Deutschmarks as ‘welcome money’ by the West German government.) They didn’t laugh.”
They spent the night in a bar in the north-eastern Berlin suburb of Wedding, partying with East Berliners.
“I was talking to people for hours. They were screaming and weeping and telling me stories of how they’d wanted to escape for years. They couldn’t believe that it had finally arrived.”
When she left, she took as many East Berliners as she could fit in her car to Kurfürstendamm, the famous shopping boulevard in the West, where the parties raged for a week. She handed her address out to dozens of Easterners and insisted they visit her.
Moving too fast
But after a week of celebration, reality gradually crept in as it dawned on Germany that there was much hard work to be done to reunify the country and rehabilitate the moribund East.
“It was a happy time but it was also a tense time,” Franken said. “After the first week when the parties died down, people started asking, ‘How are we going to pay for this?'”
Small things became annoyances. People in West Berlin got sick of the Trabants, the East German two-stroke cars that pumped out blue-grey fumes.
And then there was the famous run on bananas – a fruit that was all but impossible to buy in East Germany.
“In supermarkets they were fighting over bananas, grabbing them out of people’s baskets,” Franken said. “There were banana peels everywhere. You never saw so many banana peels.
“And suddenly it seemed that everything was running much too fast.”
Helmut Kohl, the then West German chancellor, introduced the solidarity tax or ‘solitax’ as it has become known, promising that it would only last two or three years. Today it rakes in about 13 billion euros a year.
“He wanted to be the big man who reunified Germany,” Franken said. “So he rushed things and did it the wrong way and we’re still paying for it, 20 years later.”