The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, marked the end of the Cold War and the making of a new world map. For those who had come of age in East Germany, the change was both exhilarating and disorienting. Overnight, East Germans had unfettered access to goods, travel and, above all, to ideas that had been denied them for decades. They were reunited with relatives in the West and no longer had to fear inquisitive neighbors and Stasi police. Their national narrative of the good socialist was replaced by a Western narrative of the liberated capitalist. Within a year, their country was gone too, absorbed into a reunified Germany.
In the 20 years since, cranes have remade the Berlin skyline. Street names have been changed and landmarks razed. The warp-speed change was thrilling, but it left many former East Germans feeling exposed as they struggled to keep their balance in a shifting landscape.
“I don’t know if you can imagine in 1989, from one day to the next, suddenly none of the old rules of society still applied, and all values were turned on their head,” recalled Jana Hensel, author of “After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life That Came Next.” “Masses of people were forced to look at themselves from an outside perspective and tell their stories in a different way.”
The two countries have been sewn back together over the last two decades, although political and economic development has been uneven throughout the East, and some former East Germans -- particularly the elderly -- remain on the margins of the reunited country. Many people raised in East Germany have fully embraced the West; others are more ambivalent and say they still experience the mauer im kopf -- the wall in the mind. Many feel their histories have been erased in the process of assimilation. A nostalgia for the old East is prevalent enough to have given birth to its own term, ostalgie.
In Berlin and Los Angeles last month, Times editorial writer Marjorie Miller asked former East Germans to talk about their experiences as citizens of a reunited Germany. We are publishing edited transcripts of their remarks.
Anja Vogel, 36
Anthropologist from Berlin
I was not quite 16 in 1989. My dad was in sales and was allowed to travel out of the country to Africa and other non-communist places, so we were privileged. The trade-off was that we were not allowed to have any West German contacts. My parents were pretty apolitical, critical at times but rather satisfied overall. My dad had a job; we had Western products. When the wall came down, they were both uncertain of what was to come.
I didn’t find out until I went to school the next day. Everyone was talking about how they’d opened the wall. The teacher let us out early, and we all decided to go, but we didn’t really know where to go. You didn’t go to West Berlin, so why would you know where the checkpoints were, especially at that age? A classmate had an aunt in West Berlin, so we followed her, and then at some point you just had to follow the masses.
There were lots of people on the other side, and video cameras. But as exciting as it all was, I tried not to smile because I didn’t feel they had freed me from anything. I was happy in my country, and we didn’t know about a lot of the atrocities that had happened. We were not afraid at all; it was just a big adventure; we felt they wouldn’t keep us or close the border; the border guards were wearing flowers and weren’t threatening.
You were allowed to go pick up 100 marks in “welcome money” from the banks, something the West German state offered. We got our money and stopped at the first department store. That was the moment when I said, OK, this is what’s different. I bought two stuffed dogs, one pink and one blue, and gave them to my parents for their nightstands.
I didn’t have much contact with West Germans in the early years. At that age, you mostly stayed in your district. And, in West Berlin, you felt weird that people always were observing you, saying, “I can detect East Germans by their shoes, by their hair, by their dialect.” In West Berlin, a dialect was by social class, but in the East, the dialect crossed through all social strata.
One of my first trips abroad was to England in 1991, a little more than a year after the wall. There I had a guide from Frankfurt who was the first Westerner I really got to know. She showed me their style, certain things. Then I spent a year in Baltimore as an au pair. I’ve always wanted to be hip, and I didn’t want people to have an impression of me without knowing me.
I went to UCLA for graduate school, where I did my dissertation in anthropology on children born after German reunification. I studied 10th-graders to see how history was taught and how students and teachers discussed it. What I found was that the teachers still very much identified with the East or West, but not all of them expressed it when dealing with the students. West German teachers were more cautious not to identify with one or the other, while East German teachers who had a feeling of losing their history and identity were trying to pass the identity on to their students. The students saw themselves as German and don’t want to be identified with a past that wasn’t theirs; that was history.
For years in the United States, I had the luxury of just feeling like a German, not an East or West German. Now that I am back, I primarily identify as a German, but there are situations in which I feel like a German with a “special history.” I think that’s how I would identify myself. I was part of a huge historical event that took place. A lot of East Germans feel that way.
Falko Hennig, 40
Writer, performer from Berlin
Officially it was called the anti-fascistic wall, erected to protect us from the fascists, but everyone knew it was there to keep us from escaping.
I was in Koln when the wall came down. I had escaped in August. Coincidentally, the morning after the wall fell, I had a ticket to go to Berlin, and so I flew there and went back to East Berlin against the stream of people going west.
I found it was more socialistic in West Germany than in East Germany. It was hard to explain to the East German worker that workers in West Germany had more money and better conditions, more vacation. They had told us that East Germany was a workers’ paradise and that workers owned the means of production, but in truth, in West Germany, workers had many more rights in production than in East Germany.
By the ‘80s, when I grew up, East Germany was less dangerous. It was much more frightening in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with a stronger Russian presence. My father was in prison for two years in the late ‘60s for political reasons. He saw the police beat somebody up, and he compared the way they acted to West Berlin police. That was enough to put him into prison for two years.
I think democracy in Germany today is all right. The history kids are taught is less filled with lies than the history we were taught in East Germany. But what is true is history is always written by the winners.
When I was in school, the teachers told us all the Nazis were in West Germany and the good people in East Germany. But I knew in my family that my grandfather had been a Nazi, and later he became a communist in the Communist Party. In the one dictatorship you had to be a member, and then in the other dictatorship you had to be a member to get a good job. I guess my grandfather could believe both in Hitler and the Nazi Party and later on in the Communist Party.
Things are better since I escaped and the wall came down. My daughters don’t speak differently at home and at school, as we did; the public and private talk doesn’t exist anymore. On the other hand, in East Germany we were very equal, with just a few powerful people.
Gabriele Hayes, 42
Company owner in Los Angeles, originally from Jena
I never thought about leaving East Germany because it was next to impossible. I didn’t want to go to prison or get shot. You heard about neighbors, friends, doctors leaving because they couldn’t make a good salary, but I was kind of content until I met Mark.
It was July 1985. I was hitchhiking home, and suddenly this minivan pulls up with a couple of guys. I thought they were West Germans. They turned out to be Americans. I struck up a conversation, eager to practice my English. Mark and his friend invited me for dinner. My parents were away, which was good because my mother was worse than the Stasi. We liked each other right away. He came back every few months. We kept it very secret. We wrote letters in code through my brother-in-law, who was a doctor and could receive mail from abroad without drawing attention. He would put the letter in a different envelope and send it to me. Mark would stay at a hotel and list phony reasons he was visiting East Germany, like doing research on Martin Luther.
Once when we were in Hungary, Mark brought some news magazines that told the story of the wall. He thought I’d be thrilled to read the real history, about how they’d rolled out barbed wire in the night, built the wall and shocked the whole world. But I started crying. I said, “Look, I’m stuck in East Germany. You can go, but I have to go back.” Suddenly I felt locked in.
Mark asked me to marry him in 1986, but I said no. I had to finish my studies, and I was afraid of losing my scholarship. Languages were my passion, and I had wanted to be a translator. But I couldn’t go to university, even though I had joined all of the youth organizations and had the grades, because my parents were not members of the Communist Party and we were Catholics. So I worked in a factory making irons during the day and went to high school at night. I finished my degree in 1989, but in exchange for my free education, I had agreed to teach for three years. By then things were getting a little looser, however. Family members could move to the West. My girlfriend was dating someone from the West and applied for permission to get married, and she said, “Look, nothing happened. I didn’t get kicked out of school, so maybe you should try.”
We were married on Aug. 24, 1989, and I applied for my exit visa. By then it was crazy. You’d see people one day having coffee, and the next day they were gone. It was spinning apart. Then suddenly our exit visa arrived. We packed up everything and left.
Jochen Schmidt, 38
Writer from Berlin
The wall came down on my 19th birthday.
If you grew up in East Berlin at this time and with a Christian background, as in my case, there were two ways to talk. One for the family and friends, and one for the teacher and officials. It was in your body, where to say what. I didn’t feel bad about it.
Some parents tried to protect the children and didn’t tell them the truth, because if they knew, they would have problems at school. In my case, my parents told us, for example, what happened in Budapest in ’56, and they said you couldn’t talk about it in school. There were other families more openly in the opposition, but that meant you couldn’t study, and you wouldn’t have a good job. Open opposition was a decision to live apart. We didn’t want this.
I had joined the army eight days before the wall fell, because I was 18 and going to study, and if you had a place in university, you had to serve in the army first. Things didn’t fall apart right away. By December, we had just two cases of desertion -- people who stayed in the West. You’d think everyone would have left, but we didn’t know what would happen. We didn’t know if we would survive in the West.
It’s hard to understand now how unimaginable everything was. Even on the 9th of November, the idea that reunification would take place a year later was utopian. I was even against it because I was young and stupid.
I remember that everyone in my army squad thought they were so clever that they would get a job in the West. But a lot of them would be jobless very soon, and that was the hard part of reunification. The East German was very able to solve problems. Everyone could fix his car. You had to know how. You saw a West German guy with a fancy car, but he didn’t know how to change the spark plug. In East Germany, everyone had a job and a second job to get things. People were really handy. But then there were no jobs because companies from the West that produced something a company from the East also produced would buy up the Eastern company. Then they closed the company in the East to eliminate the competition. On top of that was the problem that if you were from the East, everyone had been conditioned for 40 years to think that everything from the West was better, so even East Germans bought everything from the West.
I’m not adjusting very well to the changes. I can make a living, but I’m not really happy. They destroyed the charm of Berlin, and they seem determined to destroy things from the East. Take the Palace of the Republic, the former parliament and leisure center. I didn’t really love it before; it wasn’t an important memory for me. But I think it was wrong to tear it down and rebuild the center of Berlin as if the past never happened.
At 38, I already feel old, because there’s already a part of my life that has disappeared completely, and it’s part of my job to keep it alive. It leaves me in the position of fighting to preserve the memory of things I was against when they existed.
Kathrin Schmidt, 29
Travel agent from Neubrandenburg
I moved to West Germany as a child of 9, three months before the wall came down. It was very hard. They made fun of me. The way I spoke was a little different. My handwriting was different. I didn’t wear any brand-name clothes.
After the wall fell, I kind of created my own wall. I started lying when people would ask me where I came from because teachers and other people had an opinion about boys and girls from East Germany.
My mom was always a capitalist. She was married to a man (not my dad) who originally came from the West and always wanted to go back to be self-employed, to earn more money to build a company. So they had more opportunities in the West than most people, and they have been very lucky.
I moved to Berlin four years ago, and I think of myself as East German now. I am done lying about my past. I was never unhappy in the East, so inside me I was always the girl from the East. As soon as I realized there were people interested in my past in a positive way, it made me more confident to say, well, yes, I am from there. It still makes me kind of proud to say I’m East German.
I was really happy the years I lived there. I felt safe. I felt proud at school because we were honored for everything good we did. Sometimes I wonder, where would I be right now if the wall were still there, if the German Democratic Republic still existed? What would I be doing now?
There’s conflict between my mom and me. She lives differently. She fancies another lifestyle, very nice suits, lots of jewelry, playing golf and everything. She was like that in the East too, but there was no way to get all of this. She’s like she always wanted to be, but my heart still beats like a socialist. That’s a great difference between her and me. Usually I vote the Socialist Party.
People from the East concentrate on the small things. We didn’t have a lot of big cars and TVs; you didn’t concentrate on the material things. It was nice when you got a car after 14 years, but you had more time to concentrate on people, on being together and nice moments. You had more time to talk.
Maik Orlyewski, 41
Construction worker from Berlin
I had just come back from the army when the wall came down. I didn’t watch television, so I didn’t realize what was going on until I went to work the next day. Someone told me what had happened. I said, “Are you crazy?”
I grew up in Berlin, so I was always aware the wall was there and you couldn’t cross. It was a strange feeling to know that suddenly we could. We headed to the border with our baby. I got goose bumps. But we crossed, and it was unspectacular. I was a little disappointed in what I saw there. What impressed me was the situation. There were so many people; there was no violence; people were embracing each other. There was an old man, and he gave a child 20 marks.
Berlin still doesn’t feel completely united. We grew up differently. We have a whole different set of experiences. We had to learn how everything worked in the West. It took a couple of years before there were people you could go to to get help with income taxes or health insurance. After deutsche marks were introduced, the doorbell would ring every day and someone was trying to sell you an insurance policy or a washing machine. It was confusing.
In the GDR, the state did everything. I was trained as a bricklayer. I never suffered any repression in the GDR; I was never spied on by the Stasi. Of course we would talk, but I was politically inexperienced, so I didn’t have a lot of opinions. I was happy that I had learned a craft. Crafts were good as gold.
I want a reunited Germany. My wife, on the other hand, would have liked the GDR to remain separate. It was very comfortable. Life was very easy. You had work; everyone had a job. If your child was sick, you could take care of him without losing your job. My wife thinks more from the GDR could have been adopted by the West.
I think overall it’s better now. There are many things I couldn’t do in the old system. We can be spontaneous now, go out in the countryside with our bikes for a picnic -- just get dressed and go without planning for the food. There’s a night life. Back then, we were all in bed at 10.
We tell stories about the old days, but for my kids it’s not interesting. They’re Germans. The kids in the East and West have the same experiences now; they grow up in the same system and same schools. Back then, we had the Cold War. Today they go to sports clubs together. Some don’t even know where the border used to be.