25 years after Berlin Wall fell, division remains

People pass by balloons of the art project 'Lichtgrenze 2014' photographed through a hole in remains of the Berlin Wall in Germany, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. The light installation featuring 8,000 luminous white balloons commemorates the division of Berlin where the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall is marked with numerous events on the weekend.
People pass by balloons of the art project 'Lichtgrenze 2014' photographed through a hole in remains of the Berlin Wall in Germany, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. The light installation featuring 8,000 luminous white balloons commemorates the division of Berlin where the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall is marked with numerous events on the weekend. AP

The graying activist pulls up to the scant and rusted remains of the Berlin Wall’s Checkpoint Bravo on a trendy electric bike, and says that when looking back over the 25 years since the wall fell, it’s important to keep perspective.

Klaus-Jurgen Warnick, 62, was here Nov. 9, 1989, when East German guards, unsure how to deal with the thousands turning up at heavily controlled checkpoints, decided that letting people pass was a better option than opening fire.

The world changed that day. The German nation, long separated between East and West, started its road to reunification and the transformation began from a bipolar world where nuclear war seemed a real threat to one led by a single superpower.

But Warnick wants to make sure it’s understood that as the communists of the East massed to pass into the capitalist West, they weren’t trying to change the world. Most just wanted to peek at a forbidden land. They had dreams that life could, and should, be a little better. The grandiose narratives came later.

“I have friends from the old East who today can only remember that back then, they lived in a paradise, where everything was perfect inside the wall,” he said. “I also have friends from the old West who are certain that in the old days, those of us in the East walked the streets with bloody knives clenched in our teeth, spoiling for a fight, and the fall of the wall saved us. Neither view is true.”

Warnick is still uncertain how to judge the change that came. “To be honest, if asked today, 25 years after this moment that was going to transform our lives and fulfill our dreams, I could not truthfully say whether we’re better off or not,” he said. “It’s a matter of perspective.”

In many ways, life is better for residents of the former East in this unified nation: free speech and elections, the ability to travel, the availability of goods like Warnick’s bike and freedom from government surveillance. But in many other ways, Germany remains a nation divided, and to those from the East, the German reunification that followed the fall began to feel less like being unified than being conquered.

Today, Ossies, as residents in the former East are called, suffer from higher unemployment and are paid less than their countrymen in the former West. Those who’ve retired find their pensions are significantly lower. Ossies also have far less in savings and assets.

Those economic realities in turn depress the former East further, leading to flight to the West. That means the East is graying faster and has fewer children. Even the soccer teams are inferior; not a single professional team from the former East is in Germany’s top league, and this summer’s World Cup-winning team contained just one Ossie player.

Germany’s two former pieces are seen as fundamentally unequal. This year, the German Parliament passed a minimum wage law that set the bottom line lower in the old East than in the former West. An example of what that means: In September, a new high-end shopping mall opened along what had been the wall in formerly East Berlin. Employees there earn about $1,400 a year less than employees at the mall across the street, in the former West Berlin.

The inequalities between East and West, 25 years later, are no place better on display than in this town on the Berlin outskirts. This is the origin of what Germans call Kleinmachnow Syndrome — the term used to describe how Ossies suffered after reunification.

Kleinmachnow Syndrome is the result of a simple ideological difference between capitalism and socialism: property ownership. In the West, it was sacrosanct. The East didn’t believe in it. As a result, when the country became one again, many East Germans lost the homes they had lived in, many for decades, to West Germans, who had fled or abandoned them, depending on your perspective, but were able to reclaim them when Germany was unified.

Eight thousand of Kleinmachnow’s 11,000 residents were forced to leave their homes after reunification. Nationwide, about 4 million of East Germany’s 17 million people were displaced.

The effects, and even some legal cases, continue today. Because they had no property, Ossies have had less security, less wealth, less ability to borrow and less ability to invest than their Western compatriots. That made them poorer — and likely to remain so.

In the four years between the opening of the wall and reunification, Warnick, a radio engineer turned politician, headed committees to deal with the conflict. He managed to save his home but, for the most part, his efforts to allow East Germans to keep what had become their homes failed.

The tale of inequality began when communism took more and more control of East Germany in the 1950s. Many preferred the idea of living under American, British or French authority, or simply preferred capitalism, and they moved out in droves. In some cases, they made plans to care for their homes or gardens. More often, they did not. They simply left. In post-World War II Germany, property values were low enough that starting over was the easier option.

As a schoolboy, Warnick remembers, he was puzzled each autumn upon returning to school to learn that several classmates had moved away.

All of that abandoned property became the property of East Germany. But, in a move that Warnick says defines the essence of being German, the land records — and who had owned the property — were maintained. Germans do not throw out records, regardless of their form of government.

The East German government didn’t have the money to maintain the mass of homes it then had title to, so it started assigning houses to those who stayed in the East. With a housing shortage, it urged people to build homes on garden plots when possible. While it didn’t allow property ownership, the government offered 99-year leases.

In 1969, Warnick got such a lease on a garden patch. The only structure on the land was a Nazi-era prefab cottage that hadn’t been lived in or tended to since it had been left behind in 1948. “It looked like a scrap heap. I used it for firewood,” he said.

He started building. Years passed, and he traded for stones and concrete for the foundation, doing the work himself. The notion of building a life on this patch of land grew. He found the love of his life, and they had four children. “I started dreaming of a legacy here,” he said. “I planted trees, so that my grandchildren’s grandchildren would know their grandfather’s grandfather had put down these roots.”

Then the wall fell, and he and others in his situation started wondering what it meant now that the nation that had proclaimed it owned all land was shutting down. The problem for those in the East, or the advantage to those from the West, was that the land records had been maintained. And then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl insisted that the reunification treaty make a priority for “restitution before compensation.”

“I remember the first time the former owner from West Germany showed up,” he said. It was a sunny afternoon in April 1990. The kids were growing and, needing more room, Warnick had just gotten the permits to add a second story to his house. “I was shoveling gravel for the cement. He was nice, for a while. Then he noted that I didn’t have to leave right away, I could have six months to find someplace else.”

It was a scene repeated thousands of times in Germany. There’s a map of Kleinmachnow showing every property. Those that were the subject of disputes between Ossies and returning Wessies are marked in red. Warnick admits the map was made that way for its dramatic effect. The town is a mass of red.

Warnick won the right to stay, after paying about $180,000 to the previous owner and lawyers. It was worth it, in the end, to have the home he built. And to be able to dream about his great-grandchildren someday staring up at the trees he’d planted.

Harry Hartig, 86, was less fortunate. The owner of the house for which Hartig had a 99-year lease offered to sell it to him at West German prices — far beyond his means. He challenged his eviction and lost.

So Hartig, who as a lieutenant colonel retired from the East German army earns $7,600 a month less in pension than does a retiree of the same rank from the West German army, built a new dwelling in what is now called the Ossie ghetto, an area that used to be a military training ground where plots were opened to displaced Ossies. About 3,000 Ossies live there.

He’s made peace with the new reality. “We expected things to be different. We expected equality. But I have a roof, and food. I can’t complain,” he said.

Warnick, however, was tormented.

“I spent years kicking myself for not changing the land records, but we were naive,” he said. “We’d never heard of a land registry. It was a nation with no concept of land ownership. And who believes that their nation, their way of life, will collapse?”

Related stories from Miami Herald