by Chris Rock
I brush away the dust masking my memories of the DDR and East Berlin to reveal a city for which, thirty years after the Wall was torn down, I have an undeniable sense of nostalgia and loss.The metaphors that come to mind are to do with contrast. Magdeburg, just thirty miles from the West German border, with its twin hemispheres joining the two Germanys at the hip, while their limbs pulled in opposite directions. The brashness and vibrancy of West Berlin, which in 1989 flooded the drab austerity of the East. And not just one but two paradises: the Workers’ Paradise, which is how Westerners typically characterised the DDR; counterbalanced by a tapestry of individual paradises across the country that, together, gave East Germany the highest concentration of allotments and dachas in the world and the East Germans, a means to escape. Dig further into “paradise” and you arrive at Old Persian, where it signified a walled enclosure or garden. In East Germany the enclosure was the Berlin Wall, which was monolithic and real. The garden one, made up of the multiple paradises, was notional but, I like to think, rather more benign and no less effective. For life in the DDR, like the rest of Eastern Europe, was conducted externally and internally. External meant a heavy-handed, intrusive state requiring compliance and uniformity, compensated with jobs for life, free education and child-care, and a seven-year wait for a new Trabant. Meanwhile, real life went on behind the symbolic wall, in cramped flats and bucolic gardens, among groups of trusted friends and family.
The implosion when it came was inevitable. All the same there was much to regret. It is the solidarity of shared hardship that today’s older East Germans miss most. They must surely miss, too, the post-war, 1950s feel of East Berlin’s streets, the unmistakable smell of Trabis and Wartburgs spewing out their low-octane petrol fumes, and the charmingly below-par goods in the shops. I was once asked to compare the two Berlins. West Berlin, I said spontaneously, was bunte – colourful. But then I remember a more intensely evocative November evening in the East, on a deserted Unter den Linden, accompanied by the wind and fallen lime leaves. Voltaire tells us at the end of Candide to cultivate our own garden, without saying whether the garden is metaphorical or real. For East Berliners, it was surely both.