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Germany still coping with 'wall in the mind'

BERLIN – As Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in many ways this is still a divided city.

It's not a physical divide – little remains of the former wall today. But spend a few days in Berlin and you realize that the city is still split by psychological and economic barriers. 

There is an expression about the "wall in the mind," referring to psychological and social barriers that keep easterners (ossis) and westerners (wessis) separate.

Many West Berliners, for example, say they rarely venture deep into East Berlin even now. Josef Jaffe, who has been an editor for the Die Zeit newspaper his entire career, described how he knows his way around Paris and New York better than around East Berlin.

And in Germany, a nation of newspaper readers, the four biggest East German newspapers and magazines are hardly read in West Berlin.The same goes for the largest West Berlin papers in the East. And therein lies the "wall in the mind."

Image: Barbed wire in front of the Brandenburg Gate
SLIDESHOW: The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall

Still wrestling with differences
I recently spent a week in Berlin as part of journalism fellowship sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Kommission to study German politics and media. In our meetings with journalists, politicians and academics, the East-West tension was a constant undercurrent.

It was described to us as being in many ways analogous to the American struggle over civil rights. Four decades after the civil rights battles of the 1960s, American society is still wrestling with racial issues, even after an overwhelming majority of voters elected the first African American president. And so it is with the Germans, only 20 years later, struggling with the psychological impact of six decades of division and oppression.

Reunification has been described as Germany's greatest achievement, and so it may be, but it has not been an easy process. Unemployment in the former East Germany is roughly double that in the former West, and for those who do have jobs, incomes are significantly lower.

Many Eastern Germans have had a difficult time assimilating to the West after decades of a controlled economy. As Thomas Habicht, the senior political editor for the national broadcaster Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg put it, "suddenly after 60 years, the economy mattered again in East Germany."

Image: Twentieth anniversary Fall of the Wall
SLIDESHOW: Germany celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall

High - expectations not necessarily met
A certain amount of disillusionment was perhaps inevitable. Many East Germans hopelessly romanticized daily life in the West. In East Berlin in particular, the proximity to Western culture (and access to Western television, which reached 89 percent of the East Berlin population) also fueled high expectations.

As a result, over the past two decades, strong resentment has developed among former Easterners. One politician we met with described the phenomenon as being like the "arrogant rich uncle versus the resentful poor nephew."

And this resentment has bred contempt. A poll last fall found that 64 percent of former eastern Germans feel like they are treated as second-class citizens. It's even led to a romanticism of their repressive past. In a recent poll, more than one in six former Easterners agreed with the statement: "It would have been better if the Wall had never fallen." 

This East-West divide was also reflected in the recent election in Germany with the surprising popularity of Die Linke, the far left party, made up in part by former East German Communists. Formed only two years ago, Die Linke took more than 10 percent of the vote nationwide.  In Berlin, it won more than 20 percent of the vote, and in some parts of eastern Germany it is the second-biggest party, after the ruling Christian Democrats, led by Angela Merkel. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/17/german-elections-die-linke-party

It seems that the Die Linke party has been able to exploit the disillusionment that many former East Germans feel. What many now will be watching is if they can shed its image as a "protest party" and figure out a path to real power in the government, through a coalition.

VIDEO: NBC's Tom Brokaw reports on the fall of the wall 20 years later

Pocketbook politics

Much of this discontent comes down to people's pocketbooks. As Jurgen Hofrichter, the director of election research at the Intratest polling firm in Berlin explained – German democracy was imposed from the "top down" in 1945 after World War II.

It was a system of government that Germans had little experience with, and in a large way it was the economic success of the post-war era that helped West Germans accept and embrace democracy. But after reunification, it was a different story – the German economy slowed, unemployment shot up, and economic transition for former East Germans has been especially difficult.

A whole generation of former East Germans lost their jobs. Some haven't worked since.

The real losers in reunification are this middle generation – Germans now in their late 40s and 50s who were born into the GDR, grew up in it and are too young to retire. For them, communism was both the "caring mother" and the "punishing father." It's a generation where a work ethic was not instilled; then after reunification, this generation found itself essentially having to start over.

Will take time
It's not necessarily the same for other generations. The older generation of former Easterners, the pensioners, have adapted better. They have long working histories in the GDR, which count when computing generous German pension programs.

And the younger generation of East Germans – those under 30 – represent the true hope for East Germany, because they are able to adapt and embrace the ways of the Western economy.

In the end, perhaps what matters most is time. As the memory of the wall that savagely divided East and West fades from people's memory, so too may the "wall in the mind."

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