November 2009


Information versus Tacit Knowledge on the Berlin Wall

Breaking Free

Breaking Free

Today marks 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It’s also an excellent opportunity to talk about the difference between information and tacit knowledge because before I moved to Germany I was merely informed, after living in Germany I became knowledgeable.

Sitting here today it’s hard for me to mark my transition point—that moment where I truly understood the wall and arguably I will never understand the wall because, ultimately, it’s not my history. It is the history of Germans, Czechs, Slovakians, Austrians, Slovenians, and Hungarians, plus Europeans who interacted and lived with the Iron Curtain.

For me it is a fragment of my adolescence. November 9, 1989, was a Thursday and I was a tenth grader at George Washington High School in Denver, Colorado: 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) from Berlin.

I might have well been on another planet.

As this date has approached I’ve pondered my younger self. If one could travel back in time and interview that 15-year-old version of me I like to think that I could have come up with something somewhat intelligent—probably something pithy about how at long last the people of Eastern Europe were free and that the Berlin Wall was inherently bad.

Of course these are true statements, but they are also naïve and ignorant because for me it was all remote and distant.

When I arrived in Germany, the first time, I wanted to see where the Iron Curtain had been, but as I took the train from Hamburg to Berlin, I didn’t know where to look, and it is was essentially erased. I wasn’t attuned enough to understand the cultural differences that resulted, and I dare say that I’m still not truly aware of the differences in culture between Berlin and Munich—at least the differences that are a result of the Cold War. There are cultural differences that are a result of long-standing history, not a 50-year-division, that I do begin to understand.

It wasn’t until I moved to Weimar and started to explore Germany that I think I began to understand the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. I would argue that it is something that is not easily captured in books and television documentaries—not that people shouldn’t try, after all I am trying right here to capture my perspective on history. The best way to try to capture and understand the history is by visiting, seeing, and touching the history; that is to acquire the tacit knowledge.

There are so many things to capture—the physical nature of the wall, the internal spying of the Stasi, and the quality of life of the people—to name three of many.

Once Here.

Once Here.

Unfortunately it is impossible to capture the physical nature of the wall. In the rush to erase memories of division, the physical manifestation of the wall is, essentially completely erased. Checkpoint Charlie was erased; all that remains is a replica of a booth and a museum: the terrorizing DDR checkpoint is now just a street and luxury good shops. The Berlin Wall and its death-strip are effectively gone—all that remains is a brick path and, in a few spots, the part that we from the west think of as the wall, but that was really only the last element in the death strip.

Understanding the Stasi is also difficult. It was early in my time here that one of my secretaries described going to a meeting where people found out who were the spies during the DDR times—people she’d never expected. This is history she cannot and will not forget. The people who spied then, the people who thought they had no choice but to spy, are still paying the consequences of their youthful choices today.

Feared Everywhere

Feared Everywhere

In addition to listening to her stories I visited two Stasi-specific museums—one in Leipzig and the former headquarters in East Berlin. They are profoundly creepy places and it is impossible to capture what these places are like in words. It is not until you are walking through the facilities that you begin to understand the pervasiveness, the ubiquitousness of the Stasi. The depth and detail of the files and the efforts with which the Stasi tried to destroy the evidence of their work is stunning.

The best effort I have ever read at capturing all of this is Stasiland (DE: EN | DE) – I highly recommend the book, it is worth reading if you cannot make it to Germany.

For all of this, though, listening to the people who lived in East Germany reveals a more complex story. One of the clearest mistakes made by the unified German government, a government dominated by West Germans, was to assume that West German solutions to problems were automatically better than East German solutions. A lasting resentment exists at the callousness of western Germans who presumed to tell East Germans how to live their lives.

My point in this, as I am trying to capture my thoughts on the fall of the Berlin Wall, that there is a difference between information—that is the stuff that is codified and transmitted in books and in Wikipedia—and tacit knowledge—the stuff that is understood only by physical presence.

This is something I wasn’t always cognizant of until I started travelling. Touring Robben Island with an ex-prisoner, going to Tsitsernakaberd, and enduring snow at Heart Mountain are truly the best ways to understand history.

And it’s why I’m so happy to be experiencing Germany and its complex interesting history. I could have watched the German World War II History Channel until I died and never really understood what had happened.

5 comments to Information versus Tacit Knowledge on the Berlin Wall

  • koko

    You know, I was only 7 years old when the wall went down but I still had a starkly different opinion compared to my family. My family was always on the West…none of them were separated at least not to my knowledge. I knew there was a family pride about being West but I didn’t understand why exactly. I remember learning from my family about the wall and learning about it in school. My opinion was that the wall was “bad and mean” (yes, bear with me I was 7). But I was always worried about the families that got separated and the people on the East side that had–from what I understood, pretty awful lives. I just thought, why not have one Germany and help the others. Needless to say I was happy when the wall went down. At some point my family talked to me about why there were such mixed feelings. The East would take jobs for lower pay or there would be a huge rush on the social programs available…all of which makes a strain on the economy. I know I didn’t really understand all of what was going on but those are my memories of it. I also remember all the touristy bricks and rubble that was sold in gift shops.

    When I was in high school I thought I was clever to take German because it would be easy for me. But I remember my teacher was actually from Germany. She vocally spoke out to me in great displeasure when she found out my family was west. Thankfully I finished 4 years of German in 2 years so I could switch to another language…and have a teacher that wasn’t a jerk.

  • Prashanth

    Great blogging Adam! I enjoyed reading and I wished you have a part 2!

    btw…Many young West Germans are quite disappointed that their tax contributions go to development of the easterners. I wonder if they still think its not their country!! here’s an interesting article about why east and west is still east and west.


    and this about “every eighth German” wanting the wall back again..


  • Bud

    I am a retired American whose partner is German, raised in Dresden. I moved to Dresden just a bit before the 11th year of no wall. I learned by looking and listening …. especially to my partner. We now live in the north of Germany, primarily because he was made redundant by an American company in Dresden and after one year of driving all over Germany, he found the one where we are now. The myths abound, both “sides,” but just the other day his boss said: You are definitely not “east.” BUT he has had phone customers refuse to speak with him because he is obviously “Saxon.” In simple terms: I like to think of what happened after the wall fell to the North and the South “reunification”…. after that war. Different time and circumstances but the same kind of total arrogance. Perhaps in 100 years this too shall pass.

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