Happy 30th, Germany!
We need to stop saying 'East' and 'West' like they're four letter words.
Berlin-After I had lived in Berlin for four or five years, a German friend from Stuttgart visited my wife and me. She grew silent as we talked about the former East Berlin and West Berlin. It wasn’t a value judgement about either side or the Ossis and Wessis, just a discussion about the ongoing differences.
At some point, our friend had had enough: “Why are you still talking as if there’s a Wall? It’s just one Germany now!”
And I knew what she meant. When I moved to Germany in 1998, I lived in Frankfurt am Main for two years, and reunification – and even the former East Germany – seemed far away. The economic differences and the alleged rightwing tendencies made it on the news occasionally but it all seemed theoretical or academic. Reunification wasn’t yet a decade old, but it seemed a done deal. History.
Then I moved to Berlin in 2000 and the mistakes and successes of reunification became a part of my daily life overnight (also, every time I said I’d moved from Frankfurt people assumed I meant “Oder” and not “Am Main”).
I loved it. I didn’t pay attention much in school and so, as a journalist, I was learning lots about German history and culture and by moving to the former East Berlin, I got to also learn first-hand about East German history and culture too. Schwalbe scooters and Trabis weren’t just on postcards, it’s how we got around. The eastern Sandman. Leipziger Allerlei. Ragout Fin.
One city. Two worlds. What a bargain!
Also, abandoned villas and factories within a bike ride's reach often seemed untouched for decades, so we could explore the ruins of socialism and imagine what had once been in some bygone period. A wonderland (they’ve all since been looted and are now covered in graffiti, sadly).
I know this is a heavily romanticised version of what was happening. Because at the same time, the Treuhand was busy looting East German assets and there were haunting discoveries in Stasi files about people thought to be friends and kind neighbours.
There was also the weird tendency of West Germans to act as though they had each, individually, had a role in the fall of Communism while hinting that East Germans, individually, contributed to the oppressive East German government.
Neither was true, of course, and rarely relevant. But it contributed to the bad energy of reunification discussions. West Germans, it seemed, just could not fathom that someone could have had a happy childhood – or even life – in East Germany.
And when the decision was made to tear down the Palast der Republik it was clearly political: West Germany wanted to show who had won. Until that point, reunification had seemed like a goal to me, not a competition. Lots of people from Bonn seemed to differ.
But now here we are at 30 years of unification and the celebrations are being overshadowed by that thing that disrupts so many long-planned celebrations: Life, which seems apt. A reunified Germany is just part of life now, thankfully.
This anniversary has spawned several articles about how Germany is still divided. Culturally. Emotionally. And I chuckle a little inside because it reminds me of the never-ending discussion about immigrants unwilling to integrate into Germany. Every time the discussion comes up I think: How about the Germans integrate with each other first and then we’ll worry about the immigrants?
Is there a difference between people in the former West Germany and the former East Germany? Of course, but it’s just one of many. Ökos vs. Autofahrer. Swabians vs. Berliner. Bayern München fans vs. people with good taste. This country’s education system is built on division and it continues on into life – anyone with a doctorate is so hell-bent on highlighting their excessive education that they’ve given the title legal protection.
So why is it so important that former East Germans be indistinguishable from former West Germans? Opportunities and rights, of course. But otherwise, I can't be bothered. Bavarians are nothing like people in Hamburg.
The 30-year celebrations are a big deal in Berlin, and especially here at Berliner Zeitung. The other related celebrations like the party for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall (remember the balloons?) and 2o-year celebration (giant French puppets) that preceded them as well.
But I wonder how people in other parts of the country feel? The event probably feels theoretic and academic. And they’re probably disappointed it falls on a Saturday, when they wouldn’t have been working anyway.
Happy 30th, Germany.