In my final high school oral exam, I chose German reunification as a subject. I got 15 points, the highest possible score. But although I aced the exam, I did not really understand the topic.
Eight years ago, I began to recognize what German unity really means.
It was then that I made a friend who grew up in the German Democratic Republic. He belongs to a generation of young East Germans that is still struggling with the way the country has reunited, even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.
The German-German border divided the country from 1961 until 1989 and separated the West from the Soviet-dominated East. The barrier was 855 miles long, protected by watchtowers, about 1.3 million mines, 55,000 spring guns rigged to fire automatically, and 3,000 guard dogs. About 1,000 people died at the border during those years, according to some estimates.
In weeks before the wall came down, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated, chanting “We are the people!” The pressure rose and rose and finally the East German government declared that its citizens could freely visit the West. Thereafter crowds of jubilant people took to the streets to celebrate. Berlin was shaking.
My friend from East Germany can hardly remember that; he was 10 years old when the wall came down. I was just six, and my memory of the event is practically blank.
Here is what he does remember: His grandmother had relatives in West Germany, and they frequently sent her Deutsche Marks, which she used at the so-called Intershop, the only official store in East Germany where products from the West could be bought with Western money. She would buy Kinderriegel chocolate sticks for my friend. West Germany smells sweet like this, he thought. Today, he always keeps a package in the cupboard.
I was born 1983 in the old Federal Republic of Germany. Once, two young East German soccer players who were taking part in an international tournament slept over at our house. My mom put jellies on the table, as well as Nutella and cornflakes. The boys had seldom eaten such things before. So I imagined East Germany as flavorless and without any sugar.
At that time, my future friend and I were divided by about 250 miles. Nevertheless we grew up in two worlds: He swam in the East German Baltic Sea; I climbed the Alps. His parents lost their jobs after reunification; my parents never changed theirs. My homeland still exists, his does not.
It was as though West Germany had swallowed up the East. Suddenly the West German constitution applied to the former citizens of East Germany. They had to use the West German currency. Their formerly state-owned enterprises were sold, and many were closed down. Many East Germans were frightened and upset by these developments; some still feel that way.
And yet, in some ways, the country has never been more unified. Two former East Germans lead the country ― Joachim Gauck as federal president and Angela Merkel as chancellor. Marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Merkel observed with delight about young adults that “you can no longer say whether they come from the East or West.”
Still, today many young Easterners are annoyed that the public’s cultural memory is still largely framed by Western Germany. When Otfried Preussler, the popular West German author of children’s books, died last year, journalists wrote long obituaries about him. When Reinhard Lakomy, the East German author of a popular children’s radio drama, died, they wrote news briefs about it.
Journalists who grew up in West Germany dominate the most influential media today. As a result, they greatly shape public opinion. The East is often associated with neo-Nazis, with crime, and with unemployment benefits.
Reunification shifted about 1.8 million of the 17 million inhabitants of the East to West German federal states. For a long time, there were fears that East Germany could morph into a retirement home. Young people who stayed behind looked desperately for an identity ― some found it in right-wing extremism. Recently members of AfD, a far-right-wing party, were elected to state parliaments in three East German federal states.
Although Helmut Kohl, the chancellor during reunification, promised “blooming landscapes“, the region still lags behind the West. Unemployment is 9.9 percent in the East, compared to 6.1 percent in the West. There are fewer large companies, and the average gross domestic product is about a third below that of the West.
Many West Germans still regard East Germany as a single entity. They do not recognize that each of the five federal states has its own identity. Most young people define themselves not as East Germans, but as citizens of their individual states.
Often they become known as East Germans only when they leave for the West. Then they have to explain that there is running water, and telephones and, yes, even bananas. Some Easterners are annoyed or hurt by what they perceive as Western haughtiness.
None of them would deny that East Germany was a dictatorship. They do not wish the old East Germany to come back. They do not long for the Stasi secret service, which seemed to control everything, or for a wall that kept everyone locked up, or for a planned economy that made free enterprise impossible. They simply want to join in the national conversation.
It may be years before this sense of exclusion abates.
Oddly enough, it might have dissipated by now if more Westerners visited the East.
In the past eight years my friend and I have traveled to numerous East German cities. I have walked white beaches, cycled around glassy lakes framed by huge trees. I have seen picturesque restored inner cities full of frame houses and marveled at vacant factory buildings revived by young artists. Once I was there I did not even have to search for those “blooming landscapes.”
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