Nearly 30 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the city was freed from the divisions of competing ideology and rigid government, Berlin has transformed into a bright city of cultural diversity, creativity and youth empowerment. A city in which different creeds and ideologies clash and mingle and a sense of liberty of expression flows through it from the ubiquitous graffiti city art, the lingering sense of social history & responsibility and celebration of its multi-cultural vibrancy. My month experience living in the heart of Berlin, in the quartier of Kreuzberg, could not have been more unexpected. My short time spent learning German at The Goethe Institute propelled me into an environment where I met people from all over the world settling into the city: actors, writers, artists, entrepreneurs and students. How has this massive city, located in the heart of former East Germany, manged to transform itself from absolute fragmentation into a vast community of cultural and ideological integration?
Not so long ago, on the 9th of November 1989, Berlin had to deal with the sudden cohesion of the Communist East and Democratic West; leaving a psychological “Wall in the head” between the “Ossis” (Easterners) and “Wessis” (Westerners). Easterners who, coming from a state which portrayed the West as the Imperialist oppressor, suddenly had to adapt to life driven by capitalist consumer culture. My Berliner flatmate recounted to me his experience of the wall coming down when he was a teenager and the obscurity of having Eastern children going to Western schools who were ridiculed for not understanding western celebrity culture and the latest consumer trends. The ideological divide couldn’t have been more prevalent.
Berlin’s transformation into an open, and liberally tolerant, cohesive society was imperative for it to have survived. The West Federal Government had to create incentives for the citizens to stay in Berlin during the sensitive stages of reunification. Billions were poured into Berlin to encourage business and workers to stay there. Outcasts, anarchists, artists, immigrants and exiles all found refuge in Berlin where rent was ridiculously cheap and immigration was welcome and sought after. The sense of relaxed regulations and personal liberty is evident today with the non-existent closing hours in clubs, bars and shops, allowing people to be out at all times night & day. Its dynamic sense of multi-culturalism is visible with the constant warble of different languages spoken and displays of politically motivated art all around the city. I was lucky to have gone to Berlin in May when there were many national celebrations and festivities which publically celebrated different aspects of cultural identity. On the 1st of May was Labour Day: a big party in the artsy quartier of Kreuzberg where extreme left groups organise mass demonstrations and parades. On that day, the parks and streets were full of youths and music and there was a great sense of celebration and unity. It was amazing to see how communist ideology could be celebrated in such an open and collective way considering its very recent history. On the 18th-21st of May there was the ‘Carnival of Cultures’ consisting of more than 5000 actors from all over the world, representing their cultures and countries. There was a large procession which invited onlookers to appreciate the diversity of cultures and many music and theatre events which celebrated peace, tolerance and multiculturalism.
Berlin can be seen as a model city for cultural integration and diversity; its success of reunification is highlighted by the fact that outside Berlin, the divide between East and West is still conspicuous. There is a large disparity in wealth: the net average of a westerner is €153,200 per person – citizens of the Eastern regions do not even acquire half of that (The Guardian). Due to this, there is a much higher rate of poverty in East Germany.
So, what can we learn from the unique position of the city of Berlin in a time where there is a great sense of political division, with the rise of populism, Brexit and Trump? – The celebration of cultural difference is key to an open and tolerant society and sense of community. In order to encourage societal integration, citizens should be able to take part in appreciating different people’s backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs. It is fear and ignorance which causes regimented division and misunderstanding. There should be more community events which encourage displays of different religions, cultures and customs in order to celebrate, learn and appreciate.
-Bethany Howard, Politics Editor