All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Text: Vitus Besel
Picture: Vitus Besel, Pixabay, Unsplash

This autumn we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Ending not only a geographical separation, but also an identity one. I am German. It is written there in my passport. And if I ignore the urge to dispute the usefulness of the concept of nationality in this globalized world, I feel quite German. Not long ago, though, being German meant something way more ambivalent than that. People were either East German or West German, but in many ways, they are still today.

In 1949 the German Democratic Republic came into being in the area administered by the Soviet Union after World War II. In 1961 they erected the Berlin Wall on the pretext that it was an Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. This was the beginning of a de facto separation in order to counter the continuous migration of citizens to the west or in the East authorities’ terms: to counter the “desertion from the republic”. 

It took almost thirty years and a sloppy press conference held by an East Berlin party boss to trigger, what up to today remains as one of the most memorable peaceful events in history: Der Mauerfall. On the 9th of November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and over the course of merely months East Germany merged into West Germany. Books have been written and movies made about this event and these few sentences barely do justice to the great personalities and circumstances who played an undeniable role in the unification of Germany. 

Now, for the sake of the thirtieth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, I wanted to take a step back and look at the situation today from my generation’s perspective. Is the separation of East- and West still present? I realized quickly that I personally do not have much to say about this. I am from the very South of Germany, therefore, from a rural area, born in 1995. Only this article made me realize that I do not even know any Ossis (East in German, Ost), as we may call the people from East Germany. (They’d call me a Wessi.) Additionally, I also did not feel any economic repercussions following the collapse of East Germany. I guess, I grew up privileged in many ways and this is just one more point to add to this list. 

I turn to my mother for some input, but my parents married on the 28th of October 1989 followed by their honeymoon: they basically missed the reunification. My mother tells me, however, that the federal government put many programs into place in order to improve the infrastructure in the East. And there it is, the possibly one concrete thing that I know makes still a difference between the East and the West: the economy. I have read time and time again in newspapers that the unemployment is higher in the East than in the West, that the income is lower, that people are rather migrating to the West and that people are more likely to vote for far-right parties and so on. The federal government even publishes an Annual Report on the State of the Unification, which is a more than 100 pages long document reporting mainly on in which ways the East lacks behind the West economically. The report on 2018 paints a picture of the East catching up to the West, it conveys rather optimism than the sentiment of difference, which calms me. Maybe I am not that ignorant after all.

What does the absence of the East in my life say about me, my generation or the place I grew up in? Maybe, a positive take on this could be, that the separation of East and West is not (anymore) present in our heads. When I meet someone from the East, it feels no different than meeting someone from the West. A negative take could be that differences which are overlooked by the privileged are time bombs. The people who are still suffering under the aftermath of the East economy break down, but also the ones who are just yearning back in false nostalgia should be taken seriously. Sentiments of separation or isolation can quickly let these people turn to extreme political views.

I would love to know if someone with a rural, East German background would say the same. Is the Wall still somewhere there in the German heads or not?

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