I was sitting in Leipzig, East Germany, in my tiny room in the student hostel when I got the news. The Berlin Wall was open. Two of my good friends were Berliners. They did not care about the lecture the next morning at Karl Marx University where we studied. They took the next train to Berlin. Berlin was the place to be but not for me. I went to Eisenach, my hometown, a three-hour drive on the motorway south from Berlin.
I remember being overwhelmed with excitement but also a bit fearful – not for myself but for my dad who had believed in the communist ideal all his life. He had proudly helped build the first fences that would later become the infamous Berlin Wall as a “Volkspolizist”, a so-called peoples’ policeman in 1961. The two of us had had painful arguments in the previous months as thousands of GDR citizens had escaped East Germany via Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I so dreamt to see the world like them while for my dad everyone who had fled the socialist society to live in the West was a “traitor”.
|East Germany’s October ‘Spring’|
Things had changed dramatically in the two months before November 9, when the wall came down. Party and country chef Erich Honecker was no longer in power. The little old man with his funny dialect had always been a good source for jokes. He was never really feared but had we known that he personally wanted to send tanks into the centre of Leipzig to end the demonstrations there, we would have stopped laughing about him.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
For the first time in my life, I was about to travel west. I had travelled but only on the east side of the Iron Curtain. As a 13-year-old, the school had organised a trip to Leningrad. For my “Jugendweihe” present, a secular celebration designed to replace Christian rites of passage in atheist countries such as the GDR, my parents had taken me to Moscow. I had been to Hungary and Romania. But I’d never been to Hamburg in West Germany where half of my mother’s family lived. Her two brothers had been stranded there as refugees after World War II in 1945 while the three sisters with their mother had found a new home in the East of the country in Eisenach.
Only my grandmother could travel. Our authorities were not worried about the elderly. Being old allowed you the privilege to travel freely. The younger ones would have risked their careers if they had kept any contact with the West. My mum was scared to ask for permission to attend her brother’s funeral in Hamburg in 1982.
View from the castle
My hometown was the last exit on the motorway before you reached the inner German border. It was the last exit before the Iron Curtain which had divided Europe since the end of World War II. Eisenach is still famous for its Wartburg castle on top of a mountain with a spectacular view. My dad used to take me to the castle every weekend. There, I could see the West. It was so close but I had no hope to make it to the other side.
In November 1989, I was sitting with my dad in our old East German “Trabant” car and we were driving through the “Sperrzone”, the area close to the border but only accessible with extra security documents. It wasn’t easy to find our way in the West as most roads had been blocked for 40 years and only a few had been opened in the past couple of days. I tried to convince my dad that this was all like a wonderful dream, but my dad spoke hardly a word in the car. When we reached the first town in the West, it was full of “Trabant” cars. There were four times as many people from the East as people who lived there in town.
Soon after, I made a trip to Hamburg where I discussed with an elderly lady the possibility of the reunification of Germany. From the perspective of a 21-year-old, I could not imagine this could happen. The old lady smiled and listened as I explained that there would be a new GDR, a democratic state. Only one year later, the GDR did not exist anymore. It had joined West Germany with Helmut Kohl as the first Chancellor of a united Germany.
For my pensioner parents, the biggest worry was their apartment. Without a doubt, their rent was going to be increased. They had to leave what had been their home for the past 40 years and move into a tiny apartment.
The winter after November 9 felt chaotic. Many students from Karl Marx University didn’t bother to come back to study. The world out there was too enticing. A small job in the west seemed better than a diploma from an eastern university. Before Christmas, the students were asked to help out in hospitals across town as so many medical staff had gone West that they desperately needed people to look after the old and handicapped. Our lecturer at university didn’t seem to know what to teach us any more. Marxism and Leninism were now outdated.
Not everyone was happy
For my pensioner parents, the biggest worry was their apartment. Without a doubt, their rent was going to be increased. They had to leave what had been their home for the past 40 years and move into a tiny apartment. At least their pension was safe. They did not need to worry about their future like so many 40 and 50-year-olds at the time. From 10,000 workers in Eisenach’s car factory, only 2,000 kept their jobs in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Millions and millions of Deutsch Marks had to be spent to restructure the economy and the infrastructure of the East. It was called “Solidarpakt” – solidarity pact – and not everyone was happy about it.
Much later, I read a story about a new generation of young Germans who never experienced the Wall and who do not care any more whether someone is an Ossi or a Wessi (nicknames for people from the east and the west). And yet, it would be a fallacy to suggest that remarkable differences do not still exist between those two parts of Germany today. In the east, for instance, the unemployment rate is much higher, and workers typically earn less than those in the west. Moreover, East Germany, after 40 years of state-monitored atheism, is still one of the least religious places in the world.
Nevertheless, there are good things about the east, too. The state provides better child care, and it is a place of innovation and advanced technology. Some would say, the beer tastes better there too.
A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dream of living in the west is no longer a dream. You might find better jobs there, but every Friday evening, there are huge traffic jams on the motorway when Ossis come home to spend their weekends in the “old east”, now just on the fringe of a united Germany. The number one holiday destination for Ossis remains the Baltic Sea, the coastline of the former GDR. I still go there regularly. One ought to be allowed some nostalgia. Forty years of separation don’t simply get erased by bringing down a wall.
Karin Lukas is a TV journalist and presenter who has been based in Berlin, Moscow, and London as a correspondent for the German television news channel n-tv.