On the 9th of November 1989 Berlin experienced the night of all nights. The wall fell and history turned for the good. Even today, people all over the world know of this night. But what happened afterwards?
I was a toddler at the time, growing up in the north of Germany, far away from the scenes of action. My parents heard about the fall of the wall and the subsequent reunification over the radio. Years later, when I was about thirteen, I first saw the photos. It must have been in a history lesson when our teacher screened those pictures onto the classroom wall. People everywhere, eighties hairdos and funky clothes. Smiling, laughing, waving towards the camera, celebrating. We were told that on that day East Germans could enter West Germany for the first time. “What a ludicrous idea”, I remember thinking, “My Germany, our Germany divided? By fences and walls? Protected by armed patrols?”
Only later did I hear the stories of how “Die Wende” (the turnaround post-1989) shaped East German peoples’ lives. More than three quarter of the former DDR (East German) citizens became unemployed or had to change their jobs. Their diplomas and degrees were devalued and they endured the general and utter lack of understanding towards their previous lives on the part of West Germans. Stories on the news told of masses of people moving from the East German countryside to West German cities, desperately looking for jobs. Whole villages and towns were left to the elderly, and those who had lost every hope of finding a new life perspective elsewhere. The result: frustration, violence, even neo-Nazis. But who would blame them? The DDR’s system, everything people believed in, and had to believe in for their own good, had been abolished within the shortest amount of time. Politicians, teachers, the police; they were either gone or utterly disillusioned.
It was only when I moved to Greifswald, a picturesque town of fifty thousand people close to the Baltic Sea, which also happened to be situated in the former DDR, that I really came in touch with my country’s history. I remember clearly how the professor in our first lecture at university asked people to raise their hand: who’s from the east and who’s from the west? Although this was a good twenty years after Germany had been unified, we dutifully signalled from what part we were from and I realised that I, a “wessi”, was in the minority, and that was exciting. I was looking forward to hearing my fellow students’ stories, and I did. I heard stories of parents who had been doctors and were now working in low-paid pharmaceutical factories. I heard stories of uncles who had been successful engineers and were now filling shelves in supermarkets. I heard of aunts who had been managers, now working as shop assistants. Despite the fact that my friends had only been born during or after unification, most of them grew up amid feelings of disorientation, confusion and financial anxiety. However, as they told me, it wasn’t all black and white. For many of their parents, the great chances their children now had, chances they had never had, turned their own disappointment around. I never experienced families having such a close bond as the ones my friends had. Parents and grandparents, in most cases still together and not divorced as I was used to from back home, would come and visit them. Strong coffee and tray-baked cake! I remember being awed by their closeness, they way everyone seemed to support each other. How great, I thought, comparing it to impersonal family dinners at posh restaurants, how warm.
So although nothing should ever harm our unified Germany again, it is important that we learn from each other — and maybe even spread some values overseas.