The Berlin Wall 30 years on

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Or, to be more precise, the border guards opened the gates and allowed crowds from East Berlin to cross into the west. People celebrated by climbing onto the wall and dancing.

The fall of the wall was widely seen as a victory for freedom. But things are not that simple.

In the three decades since 1989, new walls have gone up, and existing walls and other barriers to the free movement of people have been strengthened, in many parts of the world.

The United States/Mexico border is a well-known example. US President Donald Trump is building a wall, but there is already a wall or high fence along much of the border. Many of those who crossed the border illegally have been detained in harsh conditions. Children have been separated from their parents.

Some European countries such as Hungary have built walls or fences to keep refugees out. The European Union tries to make the Mediterranean Sea a barrier to keep out refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

Similarly, Australia's system of "border protection" is a metaphorical wall to keep refugees out. The system includes literal walls around detention centres both in Australia and overseas, such as the Bomana detention centre in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

This harsh treatment of "illegal immigrants" today contrasts with the way in which those who illegally crossed the Berlin Wall before 1989 were treated when they arrived in West Berlin. They were welcomed as political refugees. The fact that they were fleeing from "communist" East Germany (officially known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), meant that they were useful to anti-communist politicians and journalists.

Today's refugees don't have the same usefulness for anti-communist propaganda. Instead they are portrayed as a security or economic threat to people in countries such as Australia.

German unity and mass sackings

The opening of the wall was followed by the political unification of East and West Germany — .which meant in reality the annexation of East Germany by West Germany. The Christian Democrats, who advocated German unity, won an election in East Germany in March 1990, and unity was formalised on October 3 of that year.

The German government moved rapidly to sell off or shut down East Germany's state-owned enterprises. According to Victor Grossman, a US citizen who had lived in East Germany for many years, in his book A Socialist Defector: "Everything was to be hocked off or scrapped. That included, aside from all of industry, nearly 10,000 square miles of publicly-owned farmland and forests, large sections of public housing, much of the army's buildings and equipment, everything the Stasi [State Security] had owned, the property of parties and organizations, and, to round off the picture, the state pharmacy network.

“In other words, almost everything of any value, from fields and forests, railroads, and new steel works to insulin supplies and the famous Babelsberg Film Studios. The first 3,713 factories, 43% of the total, were shut down within twenty months, costing the jobs of almost three million employees.”

As well as mass sackings due to factory closures, there were also politically motivated sackings of teachers, academics and journalists who had belonged to the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the ruling party of the former GDR, which had more than two million members.

According to Grossman, "I was told that more academics were fired after 1990 than in the Nazi years of barring Jews and burning books".

In factories where West German workers worked side by side with East German workers, the East German workers were paid lower wages. Generally wages in East Germany were much lower than in the West.

After 1990 many young people moved to the western part of Germany because there were no jobs for them in the east.

Life in the GDR

The wall was built on August 13, 1961. Its main aim was to stop skilled workers from leaving the GDR for higher paid jobs in the west. Doctors, for example received much higher pay in West Germany than in the East.

East Germany was much poorer than West Germany. Both parts of the country had suffered great destruction during the World War II, but West Germany received billions of dollars in aid from the US through the Marshall Plan, to prevent the spread of communism. By contrast, East Germany was for several years forced to pay reparations to the Soviet Union for the damage caused by Adolf Hitler’s invasion.

Consequently, West Germany was able to rebuild its infrastructure and industry to the latest standards. Turkish guest workers, other migrants from southern Europe and German workers were exploited to benefit German capitalism's “rise from the ashes”. This led to the so-called “economic miracle” - West Germany's rise to a leading western economy.

Economic factors were not the sole reason for people leaving East Germany — political repression was also a factor. But political repression also existed in West Germany, where the Communist Party was banned. Anyone who was a member of the KPD was banned from working in the public service. Even train drivers who were members of the KPD were sacked.

East German society had some positive features. It had full employment. This gave workers a degree of freedom in the workplace, since they did not fear being sacked.

Grossman quotes a saying among workers in the aftermath of reunification: "In GDR days ... it was wiser not to say anything against Erich Honecker or other Party bigwigs. But you could answer back and say whatever you wanted against the foreman, the department boss or the manager! Today it is the other way around. You can say anything you want against Chancellor Kohl and political bigshots, but you damned well better be careful what you say about your foreman or any other factory boss!"

Under the GDR, rent was very low (usually about 5–10% of income) and there were no evictions. There was free health care, including dental care. Kindergartens were free and children received meals free meals there.

There was progress on women's rights and gay rights. Abortion was legalised in 1972. Maternity leave was progressively increased. Child care was free. In 1968 the old German law against homosexuality was annulled, which did not happen in West Germany until 1994.

However, there was political repression in the GDR. People were arrested for political activity deemed illegal. The Stasi was a political police force with a network of informers.

There was censorship of the media. This led to a lack of sufficient discussion of the problems facing East German society. East German media were often boring, with the result that many people watched West German TV, and were politically influenced by it.

Parliamentary elections offered no real choice. There were several parties, but they all followed the lead of the SED. In any election there was only one slate (list of candidates), put forward by the SED and its allied parties.

Some people, including members of the SED, tried to make East German society more democratic without losing the positive aspects. They wanted democratic socialism, not integration into capitalist West Germany.

However they failed. The prosperity of West Germany attracted many people, who did not realise that capitalism would mean mass unemployment, increased rents etc. Other factors were the nationalist sentiment for united Germany, and the history of bureaucratic rule that had discredited the Left.

Rise of racism

Today the racist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is gaining ground in Germany, particularly in the eastern areas that were formerly part of the GDR. A big part of the AfD's appeal is its strident opposition to refugees coming into Germany, claiming that refugees are taking jobs. Unemployment in eastern Germany is still much higher than in the former West Germany, especially for young people.

It is ironic that many people in the former East Germany, whose citizens used to live behind a wall designed to restrict their movement, now support policies designed to restrict the movement of others.

Die Linke, a left party formed by former members of the SED in East Germany, independent Leftists from West Germany and a group that split away from the Social Democratic Party in West Germany, still has a presence in the East, but has so far been unable to counter the rise of AfD.

The restoration of capitalism has had similar results in other Eastern European countries. Factory closures and purges created high unemployment as well as widespread insecure employment. This created fertile ground for right wing politicians inciting hatred against refugees, Muslims, Roma and other minorities.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.