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Talkin' 'bout my generation: What unity means to eastern Germans

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Talkin' 'bout my generation: What unity means to eastern Germans
A photo collage by the French street art artist JR adorns the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin for the Unity Festival. Photo: DPA
17:53 CEST+02:00
To mark German Reunification Day on Wednesday The Local spoke to two eastern Germans from different generations to find out what unity means to them and what they think the country can learn from its past.

Elisa Gutsche's story

Elisa Gutsche was only four when the Berlin Wall came down so doesn’t remember much about the celebrations of the time around German reunification.

But what she does recall is the uncertainty of the time when she was growing up in 90's Germany.

Now she is part of a project helping to change the conversation, focusing on the experience and views of all generations affected by reunification.

"We want to have another discourse about eastern Germany - and not just talk about Communism and the Stasi," says Gutsche, a lawyer and political scientist who was born in a small town near Dresden, Saxony.

The 33-year-old is part of Perspektive hoch 3, a project spotlighting the perspective of the GDR from people born from 1976 to 1986 and beyond. As well as releasing books, the network, launched in 2010, also talks to school pupils and organizes cultural events in a bid to educate people about history from this perspective.

“Even the younger people who were born after the wall came down are affected by the transformation of Germany,” she says. “It’s a very special kind of bond that connects us all."

Uncertainty 

Gutsche believes reunification was “positive” but says there needs to be more views about how it happened.

“I remember economic insecurity and uncertainty,” says Gutsche, who works for a political foundation in Berlin.

"My parents and I think all my friends’ parents lost their job in the 90s. The economy totally collapsed.

“Where I come from we had a huge factory and industry - my mother worked there, my grandparents worked there - and after the wall came down it was very difficult to find new jobs.”

Gutsche has been asking herself how she would feel in the position of her parents, who were around her age when reunification took place.

“They had two kids and they had to be in another system - capitalism and a democracy," she says.

“What would I feel if I woke up in a totally different country, a totally different world?”

Another cultural language

As a student Gutsche had thought there were no real differences between eastern and western Germans and wondered why older generations had other viewpoints.

She says: “My grandmother always said to me: ‘Are they nice to you, the western Germans?’”

But in the last few years Gutsche has become more aware that there is a gap.

“When someone from the west talks about their childhood, they have special stories or TV shows they’ve watched, or they have certain comics or stuffed toys,” she says.

“I grew up with a whole other cultural language, other fairy tales, we were told other things.”

But it doesn’t end there. Gender equality has developed differently on each side of the country because it was easier to balance professional and family life in East Germany than in the west.

Gutsche says she grew up with many women role models. “My mother and grandmother have always worked and it’s never been an issue in eastern Germany to be a woman with an opinion or to be a mother who works,” she says.

The Berlin Wall. Photo: DPA

Similarly, Gutsche says behaviour differs in east and west, including how people behave in certain environments and how they network. “These things are small but they make a huge difference,” she says.

“I think in eastern German especially, people from my parents’ generation never learned networking or even how capitalism works.”

Far-right attitudes

When it comes to the rise of right-wing populism and far-right organizations in eastern Germany, such as Pegida, Gutsche says there’s a clear difference between protest voters and those who set out to cause violence or hold closed and extremist world views.

She believes a lot of protest voters who support Alternative for Germany (AfD) could be reached by mainstream parties if politicians tackled social issues, including pensions.

But Gutsche adds that people from her parent’s generation weren’t educated in democracy and this could be part of different voting behaviours.

“People didn’t learn how to voice their opinion, how to lobby for it, how to say what you want and what you need, how to be apart of an active civil society.”

Gutsche also points out there may be a fear of joining politics too much because the GDR was a one party state.

Learn from mistakes

As German unity celebrations get underway, Gutsche hopes that Germans, both eastern and western, broaden their minds to look at the bigger picture.

“It’s a huge party and everything is positive but we need more of the grey area,” she says.

“For some people, reunification is very hurtful and some people lost everything.”

Gutsche hopes German unity could be something everyone can learn from by focusing on the mistakes and blind spots.

“It’s very necessary to educate the next generation and also this generation, in the western parts too,” she says. 

Stefan Wolle's story

Dr. Stefan Wolle is pointing out where his father brought him days before work began on the Berlin Wall in August 1961.

“I stood with my father on the other side of Brandenburg Gate and he explained to me the political situation. I was 10 years old.

"A week later we heard the news on the radio that the border was closed and the wall was being built,” says the 67-year-old historian who is head of research at the DDR Museum in Berlin, dedicated to German Democratic Republic (GDR) history.

Today the area, a huge tourist attraction, is filled with people and stalls celebrating German life, from bakeries selling Pfannkuchen (Berlin doughnuts) to cultural projects.

The gate is covered in artwork showing ecstatic faces atop the Berlin Wall, the backs of police guards and a message written across: Freedom.

Wolle is holding an East German passport, one of many that are being given out to children to receive a ‘visa stamp’ at the DDR Museum stand during the Tag Der Deutschen Einheit (German Unity Day) celebrations.

“It’s important to talk to younger people about this history,” he says. “Although it’s very complicated.”

Wolle can remember almost every detail from the night that the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989, paving the way for German reunification a year later on October 3rd 1990.

He was 39, with a wife and four daughters, and worked as a historian specializing in Russia, at the Academy of Sciences of the GDR.

Dr Stefan Wolle at the German Reunification Day celebrations in Berlin. Photo: Rachel Loxton

Wolle, who was born in Halle, Saxony Anhalt, says he had contact with government opposition groups in East Berlin at the time and he and his wife had met with them on this November evening in a church within a small village called Fredersdorf near Berlin.

“It was the first time many of the people in the group were talking about their political opinions in public for the first time. It was very emotional," he says.

Around 9pm, Wolle says they heard a voice from the benches in the church.

“We heard someone say: ‘The wall is open!’ We thought it was a joke.”

Wolle switched on his Walkman and listened to the radio.

It was true. He heard all checkpoints were open and thousands of people were going through them to the west.

With young children, Wolle and his wife headed home to relieve the babysitter, feeling a mix of “strange” emotions.

The next day at the university his colleague told him that there were no students. They were, instead, “dancing on the Ku’damm” - one of west Berlin’s main roads.

Wolle set off to West Berlin, queing with thousands of others for a train at the Friedrichstrasse station where there was a border checkpoint just a day before. At Zoo station he got off to find no traffic, only people walking everywhere in happiness and in disbelief.

Wolle says the steps to a reunified country were “difficult” for families, as they adjusted to a new time, a new system, a new country.

He remembers how GDR citizens were given 100 German marks of ‘welcome money’ which they could pick up the post office. He bought dresses for his daughters.

Story of unity 

“Today I look back and think it was the best day in the history of Germany,” says Wolle.

“I was so happy then, and today I’m very happy about the reunification of Germany. It was the only way that was right because we are at peace with our neighbours.

“We have a good democracy and very successful economic development in Germany, it’s a story of unity.”

Wolle acknowledges that things are far from perfect in Germany. He mentions the rise of the far-right in eastern Germany, which he believes isn’t down to the effects of reunification but, rather, connected to fears over immigration, which usually grows in places with small populations.

He also talks about differences, such as salaries being lower for eastern Germans compared to the west.

But overall he thinks the country should celebrate how far it has come.

“Of course we have problems but we are on the right track. I’m very proud of Germany, I’m very proud of east Germany and our successful path after reunification.”

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