This weekend, Germany will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the reunification and somehow, everyone seems to be slightly contemplative these days. While I was visiting my friend in Berlin three weeks ago, we found ourselves discussing our perception of the reunification, how our generation experienced that particular time and how we perceive the reunited Germany nowadays. Some interesting points came up due to her being from East Germany and me being from West Germany, so I thought I share some of our experiences with you.
First of all: we actually don’t have that many particular memories of the reunification. My family was living near the border to East Germany at the Baltic Sea and the wall came down when I was six years old. I had no clue about East and West Germany. The only thing I noticed was the large number of Trabis (the famous East German cars) that suddenly appeared on the streets. And that our sunday walks suddenly lead to barren stripes of land with brownish grass, sand, grey watchtowers and small colorless villages in the middle of nowhere. Two years after the reunification my family rented a caravan and we spend our holidays driving around East Germany, visiting our extended family that I had never seen before. Again, I didn’t really understand the concept of East or West Germany, I just remember a great lack of colors in the cities we visited. And that’s basically it. Until then, the reunification had no big impact on me.
My friend was living in East Berlin and she was able to look right at the wall from the windows of her flat. She, too, doesn’t have any sensational memories of 1989 – according to her memories the biggest change was that all the rabbits that she loved to watch along the wall were suddenly gone (which was very sad for her). All the memories she has from growing up in the GDR are good memories – and we agreed that this is probably true with most people from our generation. The fact that she was only six when the wall came down means that she hadn’t had any negative experiences at that point. All she had was a beautiful childhood. You don’t miss things that you don’t know. And our generation was lucky enough to live in a reunited Germany at the point when most of us started to critically question some things.
Funnily enough, we started to notice some significant differences between the former East and West Germany some years after the reunification. In 1997, my parents moved to a city close to Dresden. Moving from the former West to the former East was not very common at that time as salaries were of course much higher in former West Germany (they still are today). In 1997, I finally understood that there seemed to be a difference between East and West – and I also learned that “Ossi” is not a term for people living in the East of Schleswig-Holstein. I think my mother was a bit worried that I would have a hard time making friends in my new school (being the only kid from former West Germany). Turned out it wasn’t difficult at all! I felt very welcomed in my new class, made good friends and actually enjoyed everything much more than in my old city. Maybe it was due to my nescience, who knows (not knowing about stereotypes does somehow allow you to act unbiased and with an open mind).
Here are a few things which I remember being different to former West Germany:
– there was still a lack of colors in the cities in former East Germany. In fact, the city we moved to looked pretty disastrous in many parts. Right before the reunification took place there had been plans to demolish all of the old centre and to build new concrete blocks (I looked at some pictures recently and I will try do a before-after-post soon).
– everything was cheaper
– the people in my new class were much more down to earth than people in my old class. While I was suffering a bit in my old class because certain brands, make-up and boy bands were the most important things to define your popularity, I was feeling incredibly happy in my new class because people listen to good music, didn’t care about the newest nike shoes or baggy pants and were interested in music and theater (though I admit that the latter might have had to do with the fact that I joined a class with a focus on art, theater, music and literature…it would have probably been different in another class).
– the little green man at the pedestrian crossing looked much cuter! (and is almost gone today)
-in autumn and winter the air smelled like brown coal (it still does sometimes)
– the old buildings had a very peculiar smell too. I noticed it in Hohenschönhausen as well and when I said that it smells like my old school, the guide says it has to do with the material on the floor. Apparently it only has that special smell if you clean the floor. If you would leave it uncleaned for a while, the smell would vanish. Still not sure what exactly causes this smell, but it’s definitely a GDR smell.
– the class at school was much more structured and grades were given quite regularly for all kinds of small assessments. The biggest change for me: the music teacher assessed our singing. Each of us had to go up to the front and sing one out of three possible songs which was then assessed. It is only thanks to the kindness and moral integrity of my classmates that it didn’t turned into one of my most haunting teenage experiences…
– at physical education, boys and girls were divided into separate classes
– while I wasn’t faced with too many stereotypes regarding West Germany, I suddenly noticed that many people from former West Germany had massive stereotypes regarding East Germany. There were situations I experienced which were absolutely ridiculous. Once we were asked if there are already hotels and cars in Eastern Germany (note: that was ten years (!!) after the reunification). People asked my parents why they were moving to “Finsterdeutschland” (finster is the German word for darkness..). When I visited one of my old friends a year after our move, I joined her at school and met my old class. In geography, the students were asked to draw the federal states of Germany on the blackboard. Everyone knew the “old” federal states (the western ones). No one knew the new ones. I went up to the blackboard and drew the new federal states. And was very surprised to be corrected by the teacher who wrongly thought that Thuringia borders on the Czech Republic. (It doesn’t!). What annoyed me most was the fact that despite all those stereotypes that the people were having (and openly announcing), none of them had actually been to former East Germany (again, I am talking about ten years after the reunification!).
These stereotypes together with a certain arrogance of the West German population wasn’t unnoticed in the Eastern parts. And I think the people in former East Germany had every right to be a bit reluctant regarding “Wessis”.
Nowadays, most of the differences in our generation appear when talking about typical childhood experiences. I dare to say that most of my friends from former East Germany didn’t grow up with Rolf Zuckoswky and his christmas bakery. On the other hand, almost no one from Western Germany listened to Gerhard Schöne or the Traumzauberbaum during their childhood. Karsten still doesn’t understand why tearing a shirt apart is a key scene in movie history. Well, at least the GDR Sandman made it immediately into the reunited television programme. My friend in Berlin says she normally knows whether a person is from the former East or West simply because most people from Western Germany have a more thriftless way of buying and dealing with stuff.
Even at our wedding, 25 years after the reunification, an attentive observer could have noticed that our families were born in West Germany: when the dj played kling klang, it was only us and a few friends singing and rocking the dance floor. If one of our families would have been from the former East Germany, the dance floor would have been crowded!
Although these differences can still be noticed today, I think they will vanish soon. With us being the last generation with memories of the time before the wall came down, the stereotypes shouldn’t live for another 25 years. I for my part am extremely grateful for a reunited Germany – my life would have been completely different without it, and I don’t think it could have been better! So, happy reunification 🙂