With Wall Just a Memory, German Divisions Fade





BERLIN — “The Quiz of the Germans,” a lighthearted entry amid a crush of serious examinations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, pitted three West German celebrities seated behind the sloping hood of an old Volkswagen Beetle against counterparts from the East perched above the front of a clunky Trabant.

On a television stage emblazoned with an oversize map of unified Germany, the questions about the divided old days were as symmetrical as the antique cars. The topics — nude beachgoers in the East and sex education in the West, vacation destinations or the funny dialects on either side — struck a note of shared Germanness that endured even at the peak of the cold war.

The anniversary on Monday has prompted a powerful national conversation, not just about a moment two decades ago, but about Germany today. It is more united and less turbulent than many here or abroad expected and, given its 20th century history, than many thought it deserved to be. Especially among the young, there is the sense that the aspiration to transcend Germany’s dark history and simply become normal may finally be within reach.

The latest round of news media accounts on the tumultuous final hours of the wall have emphasized not some sense of historical inevitability driven by economics and geopolitics, but rather the capricious human side of the event. That is reflected in last week’s cover story in the magazine Der Spiegel, which meticulously reconstructed, hour by hour, the events of the day that built up to the wall’s unexpected opening, titled “The Error That Led to Unity.”

Bureaucratic confusion over new travel regulations led crowds of East Berliners to gather at border checkpoints on Nov. 9, 1989, prompting guards to open the gates, bringing a sudden end to the division of the city with a night of spontaneous celebration and reunion.

In recent weeks polls have been released on the differences, and as often as not the similarities, between the former East and the former West in matters of love and real estate, table manners and car ownership. In ways both typically serious and atypically jocular, Germans seem to be groping for an understanding of what happened and what, along the way, they have become.

Beneath the trivial differences lies a country more unified than anyone expected. That is not to say that there are not still some hard feelings, and particularly among those from the East, known officially as the German Democratic Republic. Despite great strides and an estimated $2 trillion in assistance since 1989, many there have not quite caught up to the West materially and saw their everyday way of life disappear along with the wall...


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