Berlin Wall Ceremony Triggers Debate Over German History, Political Divide

Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German leaders gathered in the capital today to mark the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s construction as a debate over its place in history laid bare a legacy of political division.

Merkel, on her first official engagement after a three-week summer break, was joined by German President Christian Wulff and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit at the Berlin Wall Memorial, one of the few remaining sections of wall in central Berlin. The mayor added his voice to the chorus of politicians accusing some of attempting to trivialize the impact of the Berlin Wall.

“It’s shocking that today some people still believe that the Communist Party had good reasons to seal off” West Berlin, Mayor Wowereit said. “No. For the injustice, for the violation of human rights, for the deaths caused by the wall and the barbed wire, there are no good reasons and no justification.”

The mayor spoke to several hundred onlookers, including relatives of those killed trying to cross from the East to the West before the communist regime collapsed in 1989, leading to German reunification the following year. On the morning of Aug. 13, 1961, Berliners awoke to find East German security forces building a security barrier of fences and barbed wire to seal off West Berlin. The wall stood for more than 28 years and came to embody the entrenched battle lines of the Cold War.

Those divisions resurfaced last week after a Forsa poll showed that more than a third of Berliners said they felt the building of the wall was at least partly warranted to stem the flow of refugees from East Germany and stabilize tensions.

‘Affected My Whole Life’

Twenty-five percent of the residents of the German capital said they “partly” agreed that the wall’s construction was “necessary and justified,” according to the Aug. 3 survey commissioned by the newspaper Berliner Zeitung. Ten percent said they agreed fully, while 62 percent rejected the suggestion.

Some 2.7 million Germans in the Soviet-dominated East fled to West Germany between 1949 and the erection of the wall, equal to one-seventh of the population of the communist state. The wave of refugees sapped East Germany of its most qualified workers and created a crisis that threatened to take to breaking point Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S.

“This event is important to me because it has so much to do with my own life,” Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, said in a video podcast on July 23. “I couldn’t visit my aunt; I couldn’t visit my cousins. That affected my whole life.”

Memorial Area

The leaders spoke at a newly landscaped outdoor memorial area that includes information posts explaining the wall’s history, including a display with the names and illuminated photos of most of those who died. At least 136 people died trying to cross it or while walking near it; eight of the dead were border guards. Berlin observed a minute of silence at noon.

The debate over the Berlin Wall’s legacy was further fueled this week when Gesine Loetzsch, co-leader of the anti-capitalist Left Party, said its construction was a result of World War II and the attack by Nazi Germany on the Soviet Union.

The Left Party, which includes former members of the East German Communist Party, has 76 seats in the 620-seat federal lower house of parliament and is junior partner in the Social Democrat-led coalition that rules the city-state of Berlin.

“You can’t view the event in an isolated way,” Loetzsch told a rally in the Baltic Sea port city of Rostock on Aug. 9, according to the Deutsche Presse-Agentur. “Germany’s division is very much a result of World War II, which Germany started.”

German politicians accused the Left leader of trivializing the destruction and suffering caused by the wall. Hermann Groehe, the general secretary of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said in an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper that Loetzsch’s statements were “shameful and scandalous.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Donahue in Berlin at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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