When the Wall Came Down: Reflections on the RIAS Berlin Fellowship

By Sophat Soeung, Voice of America, Washington, D.C. for RIAS Berlin (Fall 2013 Photos)

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the German lower house of parliament. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the German lower house of parliament. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

When the Fernsehturm appeared imposingly in the distant fall sky during our descend into Berlin’s Tegel Airport, I immediately knew that the RIAS Fellowship would be unlike any of my previous trips to the German capital. Last time I had seen Berlin from above like this was as a child nearly twenty years ago, when my family flew out of Tegel, permanently leaving a city I once called home.

I, thus, came to RIAS ‘prepared’ to learn more about — first and foremost — the Berlin I didn’t know, but also about Germany and Europe. RIAS even exceeded the “dream Fellowship” I had in mind. In two weeks, I have gained invaluable knowledge and professional connections, passed through more diverse cities, eaten more new dishes, and talked to more strangers on the streets than any two weeks before.

There are countless highlights of the program, but as a former Berliner, I could not escape “Nach der Wende” or “When the Wall came down.” It had been a constant narrative throughout the RIAS program, from our first session in Berlin to our last session at NATO in Brussels.

The ‘Wall narrative’ was prevalent in Berlin. Nearly 24 years after its iconic Wall came down, the city’s East-West “mental gap” still existed in people who had lived through the divide, but fading with the younger generation. According to Mr. Thomas Habicht this mental divide manifested itself in media preference and voting pattern. The September elections were indeed a clear indication. And to my surprise, two 18-year-old Germans in the eastern Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood told me they voted for the leftist party, suggesting a continuing undercurrent even amongst the young.

Thanks to RIAS’ appointments with prominent politicians, business leaders, and media professionals, in the nearly two weeks, I lived and learned Berlin like never before. Be it a currywurst at Curry36; the Spree boat tour through the ‘Berlin Mall’; a walk with a Turkish-German politician in Wedding; interviewing a Berlin official near the former city hall where President Kennedy delivered his famed “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech; touring RTL television station; or going to an opera; each moment captured a different aspect of the dynamism that is today’s Berlin.

But as a former “East Berliner”, not all new revelations were pleasant. At the former Stasi prison, I learned for the first time that the East German secret police most likely had a file on my family. Almost everyone I talked to was shocked at my mentioning of “Marzahn” as the district I once grew up. The once communist-inspried “City of the Future,” Marzahn is now known throughout Germany as the “Berlin ghetto” of xenophobia. Admittedly, my growing up there as a foreigner was not pleasant. But on this trip, I did find the healing answers to the many things I could not comprehend as a child.

Gentrification was happening in Berlin on a vast scale — even grander than that of Washington D.C. — and cranes were everywhere. They were bringing down old walls while also erecting new ones. But rather unique to Berlin, development is happening on top of many layers of history. At the East Side Gallery, we had a close-up of this conflict over one of the last stretches of the Berlin Wall. I couldn’t help thinking that ironically Berlin’s new battle was to keep the Wall standing — the city’s long-term dilemma between development and preservation.

I was surprised to learn that history of division had literally ‘robbed’ Berlin of its economic significance and prevented the capital of Europe’s largest economy from becoming the metropolis that are London and Paris. Yet, history also made it the only Western capital allowed to start anew. Even as Germany’s poorest state, it seemed every road for the young led to Berlin. The influx of new people drives the city’s tech industry and makes it feel one city again. Perhaps most symbolic, I left Berlin on the German Unity Day, satisfied with my greater understanding of the former divided city.

But walls also existed beyond Berlin. This was the first time I learned about the invisible divide between Germany’s former East and West. Most striking, the legacy of that divide is not only felt politically and economically, but even views of history differ. At the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, I learned that in the former East Germany, the history of the Nazis was not dealt with adequately because the former communist regime saw itself also a victim of Hitler. Its correlation with xenophobia proved a revelation to me. Furthermore, unlike America, Germany has yet to think of itself as a nation of immigrants; nevertheless, the country has come a long way in accepting its difficult history. As Buchenwald press director Dr. Philipp Neumann-Thein summed up for me, “I am not proud to be German on the history but I am proud to be German on how we dealt with history.”

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows at the European Union building in Brussels. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

RIAS Fall 2013 fellows at the European Union building in Brussels. (Courtesy of RIAS Berlin)

That history also constituted the walls  that existed elsewhere in Europe. While “When the Wall came down” marks the end of the Cold War, it also marks the beginning a reunified Germany that is now once again leading Europe, perhaps at the discomfort of both its neighbors and itself. For the first time, the German elections have become a topic in neighboring countries, we were told. We also learned it is the only developed country to emerged better economically after the financial crisis. Given its current political and economic cloud in the EU, while cognizant of its history, the message of German pacifism at the defense office should not have come as an irony.

Of course, and there were the German elections, the third I had witnessed in less than a year after the U.S. and Cambodian elections. Every previous RIAS group seemed to claim their program as the best or most fortuitous. But I think the German elections, the NSA drama, and the Syrian crisis — to point a few — did make ours truly the most fortuitous. Who else could claim to have seen Angela Merkel land in a helicopter at the Chancellery and walking passed us into her office — just three days before the election? Or given a results analysis the very next morning by her party officials? Oh, yes, and that poster, “Cool bleiben und Kanzlerin wählen!”

Merkel’s “grand” victory seemed to only further symbolise Germany’s confident standing in Europe and the world. That confidence in one’s political, economic, and media institutions, is increasingly shaken in the US. This is especially true as I arrive back in Washington, DC during the government shutdown. RIAS Fellows had been sharing their wish that the U.S. would learn from the German compromise.

And even nearly one month after RIAS, the experience is strong. Der Spiegel has found its way into my daily morning read, and all eyes are now on the NSA spying revelations that is starting to erect new ‘walls’ in US-German relations. Here at VOA, I immediately applied my knowledge from RIAS to explain Germany to my colleagues. On a lighter note, I was honored to be panelist at a RIAS-Deutsche Welle reunion at the Goethe Institute in Washington. And better yet, my biggest ‘RIAS’ moment back in America came when, for the first time, my dateline was “Berlin”!

RIAS has been a truly life-changing experience for me, both professionally and personally. It has tremendously increased my understanding of Germany’s political, economic, social, and media systems as well as its relations with Europe and the United States. Just looking at what I have written surprises me as to how much more confident I am in discussing Germany and Europe. I am grateful.

As an American journalist, I came with my own walls of misunderstandings, misconceptions, or pure ignorance of the Germany beyond Marzahn. The Berlin Wall came down on November 09, 1989. My “Berlin Wall” came down during the RIAS Fellowship, nearly 24 years later.

Note: This is a repost of my report for RIAS Berlin Fellowship Fall 2013. You can apply for the 2014 program here. Learn more about my Berlin connection here.

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