Do you remember November 9, 1989? If you have a German background or were traveling there at the time, you will. Thirty years ago, the Wall in Berlin fell, the Iron Curtain was lifted, and apparently Communism as known in the Western world was defeated. This is what Germans will be celebrating this Saturday. But meanwhile new walls have risen – or maybe the old one hasn’t ever really been removed. For the walls that are in people’s minds and perceptions are regrowing these days. Unfortunately.
I grew up with my mother packing care packages for a relative in the so-called German Democratic Republic. I’d never meet her or her family, but I remember there was the occasional letter that made it across the deadly border. Did my mother know whether any of her lovingly packed boxes arrived at its destination unscathed? She probably had her suspicions. But, even after the demise of this relative, it didn’t hinder her to continue the Samaritan work and mail packages to a pen pal she made via a church support activity one Advent season. The relationship lasted for years; curiously enough, it ended with the fall of the Wall. Something didn’t rhyme in the letters we suddenly received – but that’s not the topic.
We had never been able to travel to the German Democratic Republic, and the tales that friends of my parents related about a trip to some of the historical places behind the border in the East sounded quite adventurous and outlandish. We didn’t travel over immediately after the Iron Curtain was removed. But we experienced the influx of former GDR citizens. They were so obvious with their specific dialects, haircuts, and fashion. They seemed to be set on making up for as much consume as possible for all the years they had been behind the West, just knowing our way of life via secretly watched TV broadcasts. It was “us” and “them” from the beginning. And there were no government programs that sought to eliminate the differences. To this day, there is a remarkable discrepancy between economics especially in the more rural areas in the East compared to the West.
I had the opportunity, due to my journalistic travels, to work with manufacturers, distributors, and retailers in the so-called “new states”. There were few enough, and they were all striving. Apart from that I met restaurateurs and hotel managers, tourist guides and workers, and I observed the forlornness of those left behind after the elite had either gone west or to the big cities. It was disheartening to see the collapse of a society that had only functioned on the bubble of promises and credits; and the romanticism of cobble-stoned village main thoroughfares, fire ponds, Romanesque brick churches, and farm idylls was quickly counterpointed by shuttered businesses, groups of drunkards around the local supermarkets, and a lackluster in every detail. Mind you, even when not meeting people as the useful journalist I might have been to some, I was always treated with utter friendliness and mindfulness, and I have never had one single bad experience in the former Eastern Zone.
I made quite a few friends over there back then, but also have gained new ones thanks to the internet. And I keep learning a lot about what makes them tick. Because their past was so different from mine in so many ways. But also, because we had and have some things in common. Above all the effort to understand and overcome the differences in perception. Between us, the “us” and “them” has disappeared, as we have placed mindfulness above what governed our mindsets in the past.
These days, the government’s failure to observe the humane needs in what was reunited to Western Germany along with the population’s growing ignorance of a joint history before 1945, the current distrust in economical and immigration politics, and a growing gap between the classes are leading to a new “us” and “them”. And the unwillingness to listen to each other creates new walls. I celebrate the fall of the Wall with mixed feelings, therefore. Too much has been left undone.
“Us” and “them” – we could overcome these inner walls so easily and so well if we listened to each other more carefully. If we treated each other with more kindness. A smile can make someone feel so much better for a moment and change an entire day for the better. “Us” and “them” starts with our next-door neighbors. Do you know yours? Do you greet each other? If you don’t – a friendly word across the fence can change a lot. It’s been working well for me all my life.