I recall the interview in the summer of 1995. I was in Dresden, and had an interview with an elderly member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to discuss the difficulties of German unification.
In Berlin there was a controversy brewing about the above shown “Ampelmaennchen.” The icons of East German traffic lights showed a little man with a hate, green and walking to indicate “walk,” and read with hands spread apart to indicate “don’t walk.” In Berlin the goal of unification meant standardizing traffic lights, which meant doing away with the Ampelmaennchen in favor of the more modern West Berlin figures.
In 1995 this emerged as a full blown controversy, with groups protesting in favor of the Ampelmaennchen and pressuring the Berlin government to back down. At first it refused, and the Ampelmaennchen became a symbol of a growing East German resentment for what they felt was a take over by the West. Not that they wanted communism back – only a few aging stalwarts wanted that – but they wanted a new Germany that could be shaped by them alongside the “Wessis,” rather than simply having the West shove a new system down their throat.
As I chatted with the man whose name I forget (I’ve got it written down somewhere if I dug through my records), I told him about how it seems like the “wall in the head” was dividing Germans with as much power as the original wall had divided them physical. It was Ossi vs. Wessi. You could tell an “Ossi” (easterner) by their clothes and dental work; it was clear almost all the time which Germany one was from.
Moreover, the former Communist party (SED, now renamed PDS – Party of Democratic Socialism) was rebounding quickly in the East. Most thought it would vanish as Communism was discredited; instead, as East Germans felt alienated in the new system, it quickly became the most powerful political force in many parts of the East. Was unification failing?
The gentleman had been part of the Ost-CDU, one of the “block parties” which offered symbolic opposition yet had to promise to support the SED (Socialist Unity Party – the Communists) in East German politics. Many Ost-CDU politicians were distrusted because they had collaborated; others saw it as a way to raise different voices. Angela Merkel, the most famous Christian Democrat from the East, was not a member of the Ost-CDU, she joined Democratic Awakening (DA) after the wall fell. The DA later merged with the CDU.
“It’s just a matter of generational change,” he told me. ” This generation will never accept it completely, their world has changed too much. As much as they hate communism, they don’t know anything else, and resent demands from the West. They aren’t used to having to work hard because in communism there wasn’t enough work – ten people did the job one person could do. That was to avoid unemployment. Come back in 25 years, you’ll see.”
It is now 25 years since the wall came down. Perhaps most obvious of the change is the Berlin public transportation system. The idiosyncrasies and annoying detours caused by the wall are gone. When we went to Potsdam I tried to go the old route via Wannsee. We got there, but then I found out that the S-Bahn cuts through the city now, the system is efficient and unified.
I thought of that conversation in Dresden as I walked through Berlin two weeks ago, noting that it was now virtually impossible to distinguish Wessi from Ossi, or to see where the wall had been. A top the television tower in old East Berlin it was clearer – the ugly architecture of “real existing socialism” distinguished itself from the more vibrant West. The S-Bahn stations also showed the difference; in 25 years the infrastructure rebuilding remains an on going project. Berlin is still a “city of cranes,” as construction vehicles dot the city, rebuilding train stations, neighborhoods and homes.
With “Ossi” Angela Merkel now in her ninth year as Chancellor, her reputation and success has led to a point that she no longer is distinguished by the fact she’s the first woman and first ex-East German Chancellor. Rather she is Angie, perhaps the most powerful woman on the planet. She’s compared with Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer. When Kohl plucked her from the young DA party to become Family Minister on his cabinet, most thought it was purely symbolic – he just needed an Eastern woman. She’s shown herself to be much more.
The notion of generational change is powerful. The differences have blurred. The West clearly dominated the change, but not completely. The old PDS ultimately linked up with disenchanted Social Democrats in the West, who thought their party had drifted too much to the center. That allowed the creation of the leftist “Linke” party, altering the German political landscape.
Perhaps most symbolic is the survival of the Ampelmaennchen. Not only did the Berlin city government give up on its effort to standardize all traffic lights to the modern sleek figures of West Berlin, but they decided that as they replace or add new signals in the West, the old Ampelmaennchen figure will be preferred. Thus the Ampelmaennchen are no longer East Berlin phenomena, they are all over in the West, helping blur the distinctions between east and west.
Generational change yields new politics; one sees that in the US as well. A generation ago gay marriage and a black President named Barack Hussein Obama would have been unthinkable. In Berlin, however, it is profound and communism is very quickly becoming an historical oddity, a short lived failure.