August 13, 2021 - 7:00am

Sixty years ago today, on 13 August 1961, Gerda Langosch (28) was in the middle of making breakfast in her flat in the Kieler Straße 3 in central Berlin when she heard the news on the radio: the Soviet sector, in which she lived, had been sealed off from the Western parts of the city by an ‘anti-fascist protection wall’. 

Gerda was stunned. How could the government seal off an entire part of Berlin overnight? She hurried to her parents’ flat a few doors down from where she could see onto the Boyenstraße, which marked the border. And indeed, so-called ‘Spanish Riders’, defensive wooden barriers with barbed wire, had been set up. She and 16 million other Germans would spend the next 28 years of their lives behind the Iron Curtain, whether they liked it or not.

To this day, the Berlin Wall continues to capture the imagination as a deadly line in the sand between two world orders, capitalism and communism.

But to the German people themselves, the Berlin Wall was more than that. For nearly three decades it divided their country. It kept loved ones apart. It stopped East Germans from travelling and emigrating. It kept West Berliners surrounded by high walls. When it fell in 1989, the scenes of jubilation went around the world. Reunification was meant to be a happy ending to Germany’s troubled journey of national identity.

Sixty years after the building of the Berlin Wall began, its days as a tourist attraction have now exceeded the number of years it served as a real Cold War border. Yet its long historical shadow remains. East Germans still have 14% less disposable income than their Western counterparts. Botched privatisation processes in the 1990s led to a bargain basement sellout of East German industry, leaving entire regions without viable employment. People left in search of jobs, so that today’s East German population levels are comparable to 1905.

But this does not mean that the so-called Ossis are a disgruntled lot. A recent survey has shown they are just as happy as their Western compatriots. Life expectancy is roughly the same and the gender pay gap is far smaller in the East compared to the West (which, at 21%, has the second worst rate in Europe after Estonia). Individual cities like Leipzig, Jena, Dresden and Berlin have all grown in size and wealth since 1990.

Where the presence of the Berlin Wall is still keenly felt is in public debate. A recent study conducted by The Berlin Institute for Population and Development came to the conclusion that ‘East Germans feel they are either not represented at all or in a negative way in the national media’. Thus the Wall remains a firm dividing factor between East and West as suspicion, resentment and stereotypes are deployed by news outlets and politicians alike. 

Eastern voters are on average twice as likely to vote for the right-wing party AfD. But instead of engaging with voters, too many politicians have stuck with lazy stereotypes about former GDR citizens being incapable of participating in the electoral process. The government’s own secretary for East Germany, Marco Wanderwitz, claimed that some East Germans were ‘lost to democracy’.

Angela Merkel, too, has missed a trick here. For sixteen years, a woman who grew up in the GDR was at the helm of German politics. Yet she did very little to chip away at the psychological wall that remains. Now three West German candidates battle each other to take over from her in the autumn. Over half of German voters don’t trust any of them to tackle the country’s problems — and a disproportionate number of East Germans are among the doubters.

Boris Johnson may have been right when he recently claimed that ‘to a large extent Germany has succeeded in levelling up,’ contrasting it with the deep structural North-South divide in this country. East German life satisfaction and living standards are indeed moving in the right direction as economic walls are being broken down. But sixty years on, the Wall stands as firm as ever in German minds.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.