On a recent trip to Berlin, I sat in on a panel where two men from East and West Germany shared their lives and experiences before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany the following year. The gentleman from West Berlin, Dr. Lorenz Wilkens, was a distinguished protestant minister. But it was the man from the East who stole the show.
Roman Shamov, a 46-year-old musician/performance artist and founder of the duo Meystersinger, was born in East Berlin approximately 23 years after World War II; he was 21 years old when he was first allowed to visit West Berlin 25 years ago. His life is a triptych of modern Germany. So what does this have to do with marketing, you ask? I’m getting to that.
Imagine a creative soul growing up in a sealed Tupperware bowl, “protected,” in the Communist vernacular, from the decadence and decay of the Capitalist west. It has been estimated that at the time the wall fell, one in five citizens of the German Democratic Republic (including, by some accounts, current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, although she has denied any connection) was working, officially or unofficially, for the Ministry for State Security — The Stasi — once one of the world’s most effective and repressive intelligence services (See the award-winning movie: The Lives of Others).
Before the wall came down, conditions in East Berlin resembled a banana republic — except that there were no bananas, or practically none (You could only buy them once or twice a year, and each family was limited to one — that’s one banana, not one bunch). Houses were heated with coal. The air was foul and it was not unusual to have to wait years to purchase a car — which came in one variety: the 18-horsepower Trabant.
In 1987, hundreds of East German youth were beaten and arrested by police for crowding too close to the wall at the iconic Brandenburg Gate to hear The Eurythmics, David Bowie, Genesis and others playing a concert on the lawn of the Reichstag. Shamov was among the crowd, drawn by the opportunity to hear some of his musical idols performing live. He was also in attendance at the Radrennbahn Weißensee when Bruce Springsteen played in October 1988 for a crowd of 300,000, in what the East German government intended as a gesture to mollify growing social unrest. That event backfired and is heralded by pop historians as akin to, and perhaps more even more significant within East Berlin, than Ronald Reagan’s historic appeal at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” which was not widely publicized in the East.
On November 9, 1989, Shamov was listening to the radio, when he heard Günter Schabowski, an official with the ruling Socialist Unity Party, announce at a press conference that East Germans, with proper permission, would be allowed to cross into West Germany.
To understand how significant this was, you need to know that the Berlin Wall had been dividing East and West Berlin since before Shamov was born. The wall was not merely a wall, but two walls, topped with barbed wire and separated by a “death zone” as wide as a football field, and full of all sorts of nasties, including motion-activated machine guns.
Shamov could hardly believe his ears. He and thousands of others gathered the required papers and began walking to the nearest gate. With a shaking hand, he presented his papers to a border guard who looked at him indifferently.
“I’d like to . . . um, I’d like to cross,” Shamov stammered.
To which the guard replied: “You’re not the first.”
And then, without another word, the guard stamped his papers and sent him on his way — into the death zone. Shamov said it was the longest walk of his life. He had no frame of reference. Had he tried this a day earlier, he might have been shot or arrested. He had been authorized to leave, but he had no idea whether he’d be allowed to come back. No-one knew how long this new freedom would last.
When he got to the other side, he said, his eyes dazzled with all the colors. Even the air, unburdened by coal smoke, smelled better. Advertisements everywhere promised a cornucopia of goods and services. “Even the buses were different than our buses,” he said. “I thought they were art.”
He spent his first day in West Berlin riding around, free of charge, on a city bus, just taking it all in. He held no currency and was totally at the mercy of strangers, who would later come to resent the influx of refugees, but that day embraced him like a lost brother. In the market, he found all manner of fruits and vegetables in unimaginable variety and volume. Bananas, yes, as many as he could carry. The sensory overload of such things after a lifetime of material deprivation threw Shamov into awed silence.
Over the course of the following year, as the leaders of East and West Germany met to work out a reunification plan, there was talk of creating some kind of hybrid government combining the best intentions of socialism with the economic success of capitalism. As time went by, however, such talk faded, and today, Germany is unabashedly capitalist.
Dr. Wilkens, who met and married an East German girl after the fall of the wall, lamented the abandonment of a hybrid government as a lost opportunity to create something truly great.
To Shamov, now a successful musician and entrepreneur in Berlin, it was inevitable that East Germans would abandon their old ways after a life of material deprivation. Asked why, he offers up a one-word answer that should resonate with every marketer trying to tap that primal ache in the consumer’s soul: “bananas.”