30 years after fall of Berlin Wall, 2 women born in its shadow wrestle with its legacy
Recent polls suggest the cleavages between east and west are getting worse, not better
Originally published on Nov. 7, 2019.
After months in exile, civil rights activist Vera Lengsfeld returned to East Germany on Nov. 9, 1989 — unaware that within hours, she would see the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"You might imagine that this was one of the happiest moments of my life," said Lengsfeld, whose activism resulted in her arrest and expulsion from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) a year before.
Lengsfeld is proud of the progress that has been made in eastern Germany since the wall came down — 30 years ago on Saturday.
But she is also aware of the sharp economic, cultural and political differences that remain between Germany's former halves.
"Of course it was hard for the East Germans to come to terms with the system that was totally different from the system they grew up in and it was a closed society so it was not very easy, but the East Germans did it," said Lengsfeld.
"East Germany came like [a] phoenix out of the ash."
Stasi files unsealed
Lengsfeld was "brought up and educated like a real socialist." Her father was a Stasi officer — the GDR's notorious secret police — and her mother was an active communist party member.
As a teenager, though, she began to bristle against the restrictions on freedom, and in the 1980s, she co-founded an opposition group called Peace Circle, advocating for civil rights.
After reunification, Lengsfeld worked as a parliamentarian for 16 years, and served on a commission focused on bringing East and West Germany back together.
Last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted there is still work to be done to unite the people of the former East and West together.
Recent polls suggest the cleavages between east and west are getting worse, not better. A government report this year notes many former East Germans still consider themselves second-class citizens.
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These divisions between people — a manifestation of the Wall's physical barrier — were laid bare in 1992, when records kept by the secret police were opened.
The "Stasi files" revealed the identity of informants and the people — sometimes loved ones — they had reported on.
The files left many people to confront painful truths from the past.
When Lengsfeld read her own file she discovered her second husband had been a Stasi informant and he had reported on her during their marriage.
They divorced in 1992 after the information came to light.
Revelations that tore families apart
Writer Susanne Schädlich discovered her own painful truth about her family when the files were opened.
Her beloved uncle, Karlheinz Schädlich, had spied on the family for 15 years.
"My father found out when he read the files," Schädlich said, explaining there were multiple reports in his file from an informant with the codename "Shepherd."
"He came to this one report about a visit in Prague and he realized this conversation in that park in Prague was my brother. And we realized that 'Shepherd' was his brother."
Schädlich was born in 1965 in East Berlin, but her family fled the GDR after her father wrote a book about life behind the Iron Curtain. The manuscript was smuggled across and published in West Germany.
The details of that cold winter day in 1977 when they left the GDR are still etched in her mind. When they crossed into West Germany, "everybody in the car was just quiet. Dead silence. Because I think we only realized then the door just closed behind us."
Years later, the revelation about her uncle led to rifts in her already divided family and the betrayal had lasting repercussions.
"You mistrust everyone," said Schädlich, "you have to educate yourself or remind yourself that not everybody is a spy. So we have to learn to trust again."
'Freedom is work'
Having grown up in the shadow of a repressive state, Schädlich and Lengsfeld are both attuned to the threat of creeping dictatorship.
Neither of them take freedom for granted. But their politics are radically different today.
While Schaedlich's early life in the shadow of the Wall left her on guard against intolerance and opposed to borders and separation, Lengsfeld's experiences have made her vigilant about perceived threats. She's willing to put up firmer borders to preserve the society she put her life on the line to defend.
Lengsfeld was first elected as a Green Party politician, and then served with Merkel's Christian Democrat Union Party (CDU). In the last few years, she has become known for anti-immigrant blog postings that align with messages coming from the far-right.
"The political situation in East Germany is very difficult again," said Lengsfled.
"It became most difficult after the decision of Chancellor Merkel to open the border for mass migration of mostly young men who came from violent societies."
Merkel initiated an open-door migration policy in 2015 in response to the migrant crisis driven in part by the Syrian Civil War. The country registered nearly 1.1 million new asylum seekers that year.
Merkel has won both praise and criticism for the move, as well as her commitment to the UN Global Compact For Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
The document lays out how the international community can share the burden of increased migration, but its opponents argue the pact is a threat to national sovereignty.
Germany's far-right, anti-immigration party — the Alternative for Germany (AfD) — performs best in eastern Germany, coming in second place in three recent state elections.
Schädlich characterizes the AfD's promises as simplistic and backward-looking — but says that's exactly what makes the party appealing.
"I mean, freedom is work. You have to deal with it somehow, you have to make decisions. And before the state controlled everything. It was a safe haven also. So it's always two sides: controlled, but safe," said Schädlich.
The effects of East Germany's communist, totalitarian past linger in the politics of the present, according to Schädlich.
"Of course it does something to a society. It's a society of traitors towards your neighbours and a society of people who are being traited upon," she said.
"Dictatorships work like that.… You have to construct a system like that in order to control people."
Documentary "The Wall in the Head" written and produced by Kristin Nelson, and The Current's Documentary Editor Joan Webber