If you lived through it, you’d have to have been an apathetic stoic with no soul, not to shed a tear at the sight of East Germans flooding into West Berlin on the night of November 9th, 1989. As a (half) native German, it was pivotal moment in my motherland’s history and one I remember with great emotion and nostalgia.
It happened so quickly, and, more importantly, it happened so peacefully. ‘Die Mauer’, “The Wall”, was built in 1961, creating a forbidding barrier between people who could listen to music, buy bananas, travel, and enjoy the fruits of freedom, and those who simply couldn’t.
Trying to cross it was, literally, life threatening. The ominous watch towers and those who guarded them were not to be trifled with. But then, in the summer of 1989, things started to change seismically as a revolution was brewing across the Eastern Bloc. By October, German Democratic Republic (GDR) leader Eric Honecker was forced to resign. Days later, half a million people gathered in East Berlin in a mass protest.
On the night of November 9th, the Berlin Wall, which divided communist East Germany from flourishing West Germany was breached.
An emotional reunion
Elated East Berliners got into their Wartburg and Trabant cars and drove across its crumbs able to move freely across their city for the first time. They were met with hugs, love, celebration, unity and unfortunately for them, David Hasselhoff singing ‘I’ve Been looking for Freedom,’ on the Wall. (Yes, that’s why he’s big in Germany, in case you were wondering). The city became one big celebratory mullet and cowboy boot fest.
In those momentous moments, the West was finally open, and the Iron Curtain that has kept so many imprisoned was finally rotting away. On 3 December of the same year, Michael Gorbachev and US President George HW Bush sat side by side in Malta, and released a statement saying the Cold War between the two powers was over.
It was wonderful to witness such monumental changes in European geopolitics lead to a new Europe, but 30 years on, the East and West still have a long way to go.
But is there parity?
Once the dust settled, the banana skins were picked up off the ground (they weren’t available in the East) and the West German Olympic team got an injection of pumped up Eastern German shot putters, the cost of living skyrocketed in East Germany.
So too did unemployment, which rose from 0 percent to 16 percent three years after reunification. Although the end of the GDR brought new freedoms, people struggled to put bread on the table.
The Ostmark became the much stronger Deutschmark, and then, in 2002, the Euro. Germany invested over €2.2 trillion in the lands that had made up the East German state.
A recent German government report lauds German reunification as “an impressive success story.” stating that per capita GDP in the former East Germany grew from 43 percent of that in West Germany in 1990, to 75 percent in 2018.
But that, to some extent, hides the true picture.
Today, the former East only contributes to 8 percent of GDP. Wages are 20 percent lower than the West, and according to a study in Die Welt newspaper, only 16 of the country’s top 500 companies by revenue are based in the east, none of those are on Germany’s flagship stock market index, the DAX, and they hold just 1.7percent of top jobs.
There’s 25 percent unemployment in some parts, and Dresden has declared a ‘Nazi-emergency,’ blaming ‘far right sentiment and support for the rise of the AFD ‘far right’ party.
Perhaps it was a little too ambitious to get parity with West Germany, one of the biggest economies in the world with the drop of a hat. In truth, The East should compare its development to other Eastern European countries, not a financial and political behemoth.
How do we get along on the ground?
But what about on the ground- how do we get along? After 30 years. I haven’t visited East Germany, besides Berlin in a long time, but when we meet, there can be a subtle ‘Ossies’ and ‘Wessies’ divide, albeit a very benign one. We don’t hate each other, but we have very different pasts, and it may take a few generations to adapt.
A survey carried out by Forsa research institute and the Federal Foundation in September last year found that attitudes towards reunification found that 50 percent of Germans believe the country has grown to become one nation, an increase of three percent from 2011.
52 percent stated that they felt the country was unified. But in eastern Germany, only 43 percent of those surveyed felt the same.
“Inner unity does not come from one day to the next, but it does come,” managing director of the Federal Foundation for Examining the GDR, Anna Kaminsky, said of the findings.
65 percent of 14 to 21-year-olds stated that Germany has grown together as one nation, only 40 percent of respondents over the age of 60 agreed.
Many of these East Germans crave a simpler life. There’s a term for it- as there is for everything in Germany, ‘Ostalgie’ (East Nostalgia) where despite the fact that they were looking over the wall at the Joneses or in this case, the “Schmidt’s’, for half a century, many found that he grass turned out not to be greener after all.
The Wall may have come down in a night, but the psychological and societal mindset of the people on both sides still hasn’t fully adapted.
For example, Germans don’t move too much within the country. I live in the South and I don’t know anyone from north Germany who moved there, same goes for East Germany.
Trendy Berlin or ‘far right’ rural East Germany?
Besides Berlin, which has become the world’s most trendy city, where the old Eastern drab suburbs of Friedrichshein and Prenzlauer Berg have become hipster havens, ‘westerners’ aren’t that smitten.
I’m one of them- I like the low prices, the humanity of local councils compared to here, rental caps and the fact that artists can roam there, but the people are still dull and un German. The oppression of communism lives on.
When I was there during the World Cup in 2014, some trendy bars banned German flags and paraphernalia, which is shocking coming from Southern Germany, where I’m from.
Recently, the rest of East Germany has been in the news for its ‘far right proclivities, but anyone I’ve met recently is the opposite – they don’t even care about the soccer and look down on “Wessies” for such trifling enthusiasm, in my experience.
That said, we wouldn’t change it
Modern Germany is, at least in name, a socialist state. Standards of living in most of the country are high, My German friends have more than me. They have cellars filled with beer and wine. They all have their own houses, either bought or rented on ten year leases. They don’t need inheritance or parents to pay their deposits. They earn decent money working for good companies.
They have cars, motorbikes, skis. They are grounded.
Services are excellent and no one rips you off. Renters, importantly, have rights. Despite bureaucracy and high taxes, Germany is broadly a fair place and certainly one I’d like to be united with.
The unity of east and west, however, remains a work in progress. Communism, and capitalism don’t mingle, but because its Germany, they’re making it happen.
That said, if it’s 30 years and counting in passive Germany, you’d wonder how long it would take in places which harbour much more residual anger. We do not have to look far to wonder – the lessons of German unification, and its costs, and, in some cases failures, should be a lesson for anyone who wishes to unite this Island of Ireland.