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Physical wall replaced by mental divide

The toppling of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, was the culmination of years of protest by East Germans and was seen as the ultimate expression of the triumph of freedom over totalitarianism. As NBC News' Andy Eckardt and Andreas Bechmann report, today much of that initial euphoria has vanished.
File photo shows a demonstrator breaking the Berlin Wall
A demonstrator pounds away at the Berlin Wall as East Berlin border guards look on near the Brandenburg Gate in this Nov. 11, 1989, file photo.  David Brauchli / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

The images of the collapse of the Berlin Wall were beamed around the world. At the open border crossings in Berlin, thousands of people from East and West, who met for the first time, hugged, kissed and danced in a joyous celebration.

It all happened on Nov. 9. 1989, the culmination of years of protests and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of East Germans longing for more freedom, democracy and free elections. 

On the 15th anniversary of that historic moment, the enthusiasm and euphoria has disappeared and the mood has sobered for most Germans.

Euphoria has vanished
Opinion polls now show that one out of five eastern Germans would like the wall back and every fourth German who grew up in West Germany think that the two Germanys should be divided again. 

"An alarming signal," said Wolfgang Tierse, a former East German and head of the German parliament. "I call on German politicians not to further enhance the indifference and disintegration of eastern Germans," he warned.

Economic and political divisions between the two parts of Germany seem to have grown over the last years, due to the country's poor economic performance and rising unemployment. Unemployment in the east is at around 18 percent, more than twice as high as in the west.

Expectations for a brighter future and confidence in the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have eroded among eastern Germans. They is little hope for delivery of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's famous promise of "blooming landscapes."

Despite the fact that large eastern German cities like Dresden, Leipzig or Potsdam have been refurbished and are widely regarded as monuments to success, many east Germans, especially in rural areas, remain disillusioned.

Exodus from the East
Since 1990, millions of mainly young eastern Germans have left for better job opportunities in the west.

Germany's Leibnitz Research Institute predicts that if the current migration trend continues, vast eastern regions will loose approximately half of their population in the next 40 years.

In addition, many German companies are moving their production facilities to eastern European countries, leaving economically abandoned regions behind. Textile manufacturers, who used to provide thousands of jobs, have gradually moved further east since 1990, to Russia, Ukraine or Belarus.

Two women pass the Berlin Wall on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2004 at the Wall Memorial Park. August 13 is the 43rd anniversary of the building of the wall which divided Berlin in two parts, lasting from 1961 till 1989. (AP Photo/Fritz Reiss)Fritz Reiss / AP

In Germany's Lausitz area, along the Polish border, once a stronghold for textile manufacturing and coal mining, some cities have already lost about 35 percent of their population.

In the town of Freital, on the outskirts of Dresden, a local steel factory used to employ more than 5,000 people during communist times. Unlike many other technologically outdated factories, it survived reunification, but only has a total of 750 employees today.

The growing pool of "unneeded" workers has burdened the German economy. Before the fall of the wall, unemployment in East Germany was more or less non-existent. Every citizen had a job, no matter whether the position was economically efficient or the person actually needed one.

Criticism on both ends
Productivity is another crippling problem. Gross domestic product and income per capita remain far lower in the eastern German states than in the west, despite transfers of approximately $106 billion each year. Eastern Germany still depends on subsidies, which make up about four percent of the total German gross domestic product.

Many western Germans describe their countrymen from the east as lazy, claiming they depend too much on government support.

They also blame the "Ossis,” as the easterners are often referred to, for the slump in their once-prosperous economy. Since reunification, more than one trillion euros ($1.28 trillion), have been transferred from west to east.

Many Easterners, for their part, view the "Wessis," their western counterparts, as arrogant. In their eyes, the hope for government support is a call for long-lost security and stability.

"It is often a generation issue. Even though we often tease each other about Wessis and Ossis, I feel accepted as a German from the east," said 28-year-old east German Christiane Burkert.

"I think for the younger generation it does not matter whether you are from the east or the west," said Burkert, who lives in the western city of Wiesbaden.

Berlin reflects divide
While politicians have often downplayed the problems, experts say that the divide will persist as long as economic inequality exists. For many, the once divided city of Berlin, is a microcosm which resembles the difficulties.

"Some people from the west don't go to the eastern part of the city at all. And since everything can be had in the east now — shopping facilities, bars, the western lifestyle — I know people who do not go to the west anymore," said Rita Gerlach, a university teacher in Berlin.

In 1992, Gerlach moved to Bavaria from east Berlin, but ended up back home after five years. "In Berlin the divide seems to be stronger and more present," she said. "I often have the impression that the wall still cuts through the city."