Mauer im Kopf: Contemporary Revelance of Schneider’s Story

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In 1982 Peter Schneider wrote a story with the title “Mauer im Kopf.” What in the story is meant by the “Mauer im Kopf”? Comment on the contemporary relevance of the Schneider’s story in relation to the Wall and its lasting impact.

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The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany was undoubtedly one of the defining events of the late Twentieth Century. Between the 1989 and 1990, the German Democratic Republic, the most stable member of the Soviet bloc disappeared in an instant without even a single shot being fired. The Wall had been a potent symbolic referent point for the division of Europe and the world between Communism and Capitalism for more than forty years. While vast sums of literature have been produced on the factors responsible for the fall of the Wall, what is often overlooked is the invisible wall between the two Germanys that lingered long after. The reunification left a kaleidoscope of issues, some of which are only recently being overcome. To this end, Peter Schneider’s concept of a ‘Mauer im Kopf’, or ‘Wall in the mind’, perfectly embodies the essential question of German identity in the Twenty-first century. Through an examination of the Schneider’s work as well as the socio-economic climate of post-unification Germany, it will be shown that the Berlin Wall became more than a mere physical barrier between people. It came to embody the spatial demarcation of identity for Germans on both sides. As such, it will be emphasised that Schneider’s concept of a Mauer im Kopf is of significant relevance in relation to the Wall and its lasting impacts.

In 1982, during a period in which the continued division of Germany seemed eternal, West Berlin author, Peter Schneider, coined the term “Mauer im kopf” within his short story Der Mauerspringer (Schneider 1982). The phrase, translated as “Wall in the mind”, is one which later came to embody the sense of internal division prevalent in the German experience after 1989. Throughout his story, Schneider contemplates the prospect of a united Germany without the existence of the Berlin Wall. He explores the critical dilemma of living in a divided country and the interrelationship of personal and national identity crises that results. Through the eyes of the first-person narrator, an unnamed West German, the Berlin Wall is represented as a metaphor for the more significant internalised borders which produced and perpetuated division. Throughout the story, Schneider articulates, well before the reality of political reunification, that the Wall is more than a physical barrier. For Schneider, the Wall is the border between difference, a monolith that simultaneously unites and separates the German people in a profoundly physiological way. This term Mauer im Kopf is a phrase that suggests that while the physical wall may be removed with relative ease, a more intangible and intractable barrier would necessarily remain (Schneider 1982). To this end, Schneider lamented that,

It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see…. The possessive ‘yours’ and ‘ours,’ ‘on our side’ and ‘on your side’ that creep into every German-German family reunion are not just a simple shorthand for the two states. They indicate a kind of belonging that transcends political options. (Schneider, 119)

This conjecture was eventually confirmed seven years later when the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989. By the time the Wall fell, it had divided Germany for over forty years, during which time those on either side had increasingly grown to perceive the other as foreign entities. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Wall, this sense of euphoria was perhaps encapsulated best by former Chancellor Willi Brandt, who exclaimed that “Now what belongs together will grow together” (Minkenberg 1993, 53). However, such optimism proved to be somewhat short-lived. In the years that followed, perceived differences and insular group identities between former East and West became a divisive factor in the newly reunified Germany. This was most evident in the stereotypes commonly employed against one another. Those from Eastern Germany were labeled as Ossis or Jammerossis, denoting a lazy, provincial character lacking any self-motivation or initiative (Engelhart 2014). Westerners, on the other hand, were viewed in the East as Besserwessis, arrogant, and selfish materialists concerned only with economic profit and their individual wellbeing (Engelhart 2014). Hence, the identities of Germans on either side of the wall were constructed in large part through opposition to each other. The mental divide between the two primarily stemmed from the fact that both had constructed their identities in two diametrically opposed systems. This account also correlates to recent scholarly discussions on subjectivity and identity. As theorist Christopher Brown argues, identity to some extent relies on negation, meaning identity is not only constituted by ‘who you are’ but also by ‘who you are not’ (Brown 2001, 129). As such, in the forty years prior to its fall, the Berlin Wall had become the spatial demarcation of identity, working to produce and reproduce this sense of otherness between the two Germanys. Despite the destruction of the physical barrier, people continued to orient themselves in relation to this other, thereby perpetuating this Mauer in Kopf in order to retain their sense of identity. As Schneider himself later noted, it became clear in the years following the fall of the wall that it was “the Wall alone that preserved the illusion that the Wall was the only thing separating the Germans” (Schneider 1991, 13). 

This “Wall in the Mind” and the issue of internal difference, was highlighted and no doubt compounded due to the speed with which unification took place. The accelerated pace of the events of 1989 took everyone by surprise. While some had foreseen an eventual a collapse of the GDR, the speed with which it occurred marked a sudden and dramatic shift for the conceptualisation of German Identity. In the immediate weeks following the fall of the wall, Chancellor of the FRG Helmut Kohl announced his so-called Ten-Point Program for overcoming the division of Germany through a measured and gradual process (Jarausch 1994, 13). As the dust settled, however, it became clear that there was strong public sentiment pushing for an instant policy of integration (Jarausch, 87). Public opinion polls taken in March 1990 revealed that close to ninety percent of East Germans thought West German democracy was desirable (Minkenberg 1993, 59). Furthermore, the polls also indicated that this same proportion of East Germans were alltogether in favour of immediate unification (Minkenberg, 59). In response to the increasing desire for instant unity, Kohl and his ‘Christian Democratic Union’ (CDU) party amended their policy of gradual unification to one of rapid accession in favour of Article 23 of the Grundgesetz or ‘Basic Law’ (Jarausch, 87-95). This adjustment allowed the jurisdiction of West German Basic Law to apply to federal states in other parts of Germany “upon their accession” (Patton 2011, 10). While proponents of this plan emphasised the advantages of extending the stable and prosperous Western model, the opposition ‘Social Democratic Party of Germany’ (SPD) rejected the strategy of hasty unification warning of de facto subordination of the East (Kitchen 2012, 283-90). Such opposition reasoned that two sovereign states should negotiate a common future after so many years apart to better accommodate underlying prejudices and economic disparity (Kitchen, 383). In response, to these two conceptions of unification, the first free elections in the east, held on October 14 1990 for the Landtage of the five new provinces, served as an unofficial referendum on the method of unification. (Kitchen, 390) The election resulted in an overwhelming victory for Kohl’s CDU and sealed the fate of the GDR (Kitchen, 391). The GDR was immediately dissolved in the months preceding the all-German election results in December later that year, further consolidating the triumph for CDU who obtained 43.8 percent of the popular vote compared to the SPD’s 33.5 percent (Kitchen, 391). After having briefly witnessed and experienced the lifestyle and success of their western counterparts many easterners “simply cast their vote for what appeared to be the fastest and least painful route to national unity” (McAdams, 214). East Germans soon enjoyed the benefits of a fully functioning democratic administration exported eastward by the FDR. East Germany thereby also subjected itself to a “swift and uneventful assimilation into the legal and political in situations of West Germany” (Leiby 1999, 67). This euphoria over a reunified Germany was soon tempered by the reality of rebuilding the critical economy of the eastern provinces and the psychological barrier between Ossis and Wessis. This realisation presented exceptional and ongoing difficulties, prompting Willi Brandt to amend his previous statement: “Today I would say that what politically belongs together from this 3rd of October onward still has to grow together” (Willy Brandt 1990).

Just as Schneider’s protagonist could not point to his Deutschland on a map, East Germans soon struggled to identify with their new home in the years after reunification. The significance of the unification process cannot be understated. Almost overnight, a member state of the United Nations, ranking high on the scale of industrialized nations, with a population of 17 million, disappeared from the world map. This reunification was not a merger of equal parts, but more akin to an asymmetric process of assimilation. It has been argued that the political, legal, and economic integration was unapologetically based on “absorption and acquisition, not on adaptation or adjustment” (Welsh, Hancock 318). This process can also be easily applied to the realm of social integration as the installation of West German structures and institutions in the East established everything western as the “norm to which everything eastern, as deviant from this norm, had to aspire” (Glaeser 2000, 176). While changes in the West amounted to primarily financial burdens, almost every aspect of the daily life of East Germans was affected, placing severe psychological pressures on them to adapt to a new way of life. To this end, it is important to note that the emerging social divisions were intensified by the economic inequality which came to plague the new Eastern provinces (Fulbrook 2009).  Chancellor Kohl had once spoken optimistically of the future prosperity of the new provinces. In reality, East Germany was rapidly de-industrialised, and its economic, social, and cultural environment was all but destroyed. The former communist East German companies and factories suddenly had to compete with their much more efficient western counterparts (Kitchen 390). By the Autumn of 1990 industrial production in the GDR had fallen by half and GDP had dropped by 30 percent (Kitchen 393). Later in 1998, per capita GDP in the eastern provinces was 56.1 percent of that in the West, while labour costs were over 124 percent higher (Kitchen 393). In this new socio-economic climate resentment at having to pay for ungrateful Jammerossis was matched by bitterness over what seemed to be the arrogance and condescension of the Bessserwessis. (Kitchen, 394) In April 1993, a survey indicated that over 85 percent of the inhabitants of the former GDR and 71 percent of those in the West felt that the two Germanys still harboured significant conflicting interests (Kitchen, 394). Furthermore, only 11 percent of Easterners and 22 percent of Westerners saw themselves as part of one Germany (Kitchen 394).

East Germans not only saw their country disappear in the blink of an eye, but they were also increasingly faced with a direct threat to their sense of identity as Westernisation was thrust upon them. This growing sense of alienation in the newly unified state largely contributed to the growth of Ostalgie, or a nostalgic yearning for the social world of former East Germany (Fulbrook 2009, 300). Ostalgie was essentially constituted by the rejection of present circumstance in favour of an idealized past (Glaeser, 188). The growth of this Ostalgie allowed East Germans to retreat into a psychological safe haven of commonality, further defining an independent East German identity (Engelhart 2014). It was a symptom of the persistent differences between East and West Germans, but it also served as a fulcrum for the preservation of the East German identity. This nostalgia reinstituted a sense of community among East Germans and represented a shared experience with which they could identify. This Mauer im Kopf is not only attributed to the easterners however. Similar West German attitudes of superiority and accompanying Westalgic mentality created further obstacles for the forging of common German identity (McAdams 220). As West Germans continued to view the fall of the Wall as the triumph of their system over its long-term rival, they inherently excluded their countrymen in the East from accommodation within the unified state (McAdams 222). The reunification of Germany is, for this reason, an ongoing process to this day. The years and decades after reunification highlighted how the Berlin Wall, in the long term, had undermined Germans sense of themselves. It is clear from this that the contradictory yet simultaneous function of the Wall was to divide as well as connect, to exclude and also include, it both produced and constrained the construction of identity. (Parker and Vaughan-williams 2009, 583)

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As has been shown, modern Germany did not come into being on October 3 1990. It is instead still progressing through the tensions brought about through thirty years of division. The Berlin Wall, while originally no more than a physical barrier dividing East and West, came to represent the spatially defined identity of the two Germanys. It can be inferred that although borders are often depicted as fixed ahistorical units of sovereign space, they instead acquire meaning through human interaction that often comes to be perceived as natural and timeless. The Berlin Wall, as with all conceptions of borders, produced and enabled the construction of identity through binary opposition to an external other. The case of German reunification after 1989, presents a clear demonstration of this phenomena. Never before have two polarised political systems been united in such a smooth and peaceful way. While tensions between Ossis and Wessis still linger in the social consciousness of contemporary Germany, it is noticeably less pronounced than in the late 1990s and early 2000s when this chasm deepest. The younger generations, those part or most of their lives after1989, continue to be the clear winners of reunification. While socio-economic consequences of rapid unification still linger, the younger generations have no attachments to the former status quo and are increasingly likely to consider themselves neither East nor West German. As has been shown, borders are not only found at territorially identifiable sites but are internalised within people’s construction of their own identity. Thus, even after the physical barrier has been torn down, the Mauer im Kopf continues to be a divisive yet ever diminishing factor in contemporary German society.

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