I needed only head out my front door and walk to the end of my block to get to the Light Border commemorating that 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall tonight. The price to pay for this was the waves of tourists that have been washing through the street all weekend. Parents trying to explain to it to their children have been constantly underfoot. Which makes you pause and wonder, How do you explain it?
The fall of the Wall is my very first memory of watching the news a child. It was bizarre to see so many people rejoicing that It is finally over!, when I had only just discovered that it had ever been there in the first place. In later years, I of course learned more – specifically, the American version of the story that asserts that Ronald Reagan brought down the Wall and America won the Cold War. The fact that so many Berliners were chanting, “Gorbi! Gorbi!” amidst the celebrations 25 years ago is conveniently left out of this narrative.
I moved from New York to Berlin 10 years ago, when the shine of Reunification had well worn off. The former East Germany was known as the land of unemployment and racism, and the former West Germany was known as the land where little had changed and nobody cared about the East. The terms Jammer-Ossi (“Whiny Easterner”) and Besser-Wessi (“Uppity Westerner”) were well known. Some East Germans began talking about what they missed about the old country: a much lower crime rate, better kindergartens, consumer products low in quantity but built to last. And, above all, no unemployment.
One of my earliest jobs in Berlin put me in a room with five other coworkers. One of them hailed from Munich and, while reading the morning paper, regularly scoffed about East German nostalgia. “There’s nothing to be nostalgic about!” she huffed. “It was disgusting, just like the Third Reich!” My other coworkers remained silent, but after her umpteenth outburst, a young man finally sighed, “It wasn’t the Third Reich. Yes, there was no freedom of speech or travel, but it was not about eugenics or mass genocide!” The conversation quickly unraveled into uncomfortable silence.
One of the women who had remained silent all along later approached me at the water cooler. “What did you think of that?”
“I thought she was maybe being a bit rude,” I shrugged.
“So rude! I just didn’t want to get into it. I fled East Germany to the West in the Seventies.”
My eyes widened.
“That’s a long story and I don’t want to get into it. But I can’t take her pig-headed opinions about it. She’s always going off about the dumb East Germans, but she doesn’t understand what those people went through!”
Indeed, few of us truly can. For the former East Germany to not only experience unemployment for the first time but massive unemployment—up to 25% in some places—is like a town where no one has ever been sick suddenly overrun with the flu. In the early 1990s, the very idea of writing resumes and performing job interviews struck many East Germans as crass: “You mean I have to keep telling people how awesome I am till they hire me? That’s prostitution!”
I have friends from the East who still feel pressured to abandon all hope of working anywhere near where they grew up, moving out of state in search of better futures in Frankfurt or Hamburg or Cologne. Many of their parents were white collar professionals shocked to find themselves unemployed after the Wall came down and have never been fully employed since. I also have friends from the West who moved to the East after Reunification and were ostracized in the workplace. Tensions have eased a bit in the 10 years I’ve lived here, but Berlin is undoubtedly the place you’re most likely to see people who grew up on opposite sides of the Wall intermingling. The extent of prejudice between the two former nations became a legal issue last year when a woman sued a potential employer for discrimination. Interviewers at a company in southern Germany had scrawled on her job application “Drawback: East German.” The court ruled against the plaintiff on the grounds that East Germans do not qualify as an ethnic minority.
Legal arguments aside, those who grew up in East Germany certainly have a different history that has had considerable impact upon their culture. Girls and boys named “Mandy,” “Cindy,” “Jenny,” or “Kevin” are easily identifiable as coming from East Germany, where Hollywood movies in the 80s and 90s set a trend. A recent study revealed that such names invoke prejudice among school teachers who often assume such children will come from anti-intellectual home environments. East Germans over 30 pride themselves on being able to read Cyrillic, while their relationship to Russia is less affectionate. When the Soviet Forces occupied the East, they looked upon it as That Country That Invaded Us Twice In 20 Years. Russia lost more of its citizens to Nazi Germany—the conservative estimate is 20 million—than anyone else. East Germans in turn saw the Soviets as That Army That Raped Over 1.4 Million Of Us. The two countries never became true friends.
But would it help to spread diversity awareness and promote tolerance between East and West Germans if the former were recognized as a minority? Or should we stick to seeing the Cold War and the Fall of the Wall as a struggle not of nations but of ideas? After all, it was democracy, not nationalism, that was the driving force behind the peaceful revolution that brought down the Wall. Yet democracy is frequently given little thought beyond its associations with that nebulous word “freedom.” As one East German friend pointed out, too many portrayals of Reunification focus a lot more on the freedom to buy a Porsche and choose between 16 different brands of toothpaste than the freedom from government surveillance, knee-jerk patriotism, voter suppression, and execution by the state. One of the quotes of the East German uprising most well-known over here—but rarely heard in the U.S.—came from protester Steffi Spira: “I want my grandchildren to grow up in a country where they do not have to salute the flag!”
When the Nationalist Party and Neo-Nazi groups find substantial support in the East among the disaffected youth of today, their opponents frame it as a battle not against evil but for democracy. Because nothing undermines dictatorship better than the idea that Everybody matters. It is the essence of both democracy and minority rights. And no developed nation knows as well as Germany how fragile this idea is.