1989 – The Fall of the Wall

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    Parallel Stories
    Migrants in Reunited Germany

    The former Berlin Wall area; Photo: Stephan Kaluza © Dumont Verlag, Köln 2009
    When people talk about the social upheavals of 1989, an inter-German perspective always dominates. The point of view of migrants is scarcely taken into account.

    The reunification slogan that ‘We Are One People’ was declared as an atavistic project intended to bring together two hitherto separated states – and above all their inhabitants. From the perspective of migrants the country now really does seem united, since ‘blood’ was and still is the decisive factor governing acceptance in society, rather than a declaration of allegiance and length of residence being seen as evidence of belonging.

    In connection with this, remembering becomes the prerogative of members of the majority society. In addition, this prerogative shows that migrants are deprived of the potential for experiencing and remembering. In these social circumstances, speaking about the experiences of migrants in the Western and Eastern parts of the German Republic becomes something out of the ordinary. In doing so, the link between the new social set-up resulting from the fall of the Wall, reunification, and the re-categorisation of migrants after 1989 becomes crucial in order to understand both their past and the present situations.

    Categorisation of migrants

    Various factors are involved in re-categorisation of migrants in German society. Firstly, this is linked to the starting-point facing migrants to a new society. The central question is whether they came to Germany as hired workers or students, or are the offspring of earlier migrants. Being at home in the new social structure must also be taken into account in order to be able to understand the different forms of belonging. That concerns the extent to which migrants and their children adopt the guidelines, values, and norms of the new society, comprehending them as their own way of seeing things, as their own world, and acting accordingly. The question of whether a positive sense of being a part of Germany is achieved also depends on the readiness of the majority to comprehend new arrivals and their offspring as part of its society. The picture is only complete when both sides are taken into account. So we speak here of categorisation rather than of location or opinion. The concept of categorisation puts the emphasis on the social realm, which is charged with unfamiliar ideas and assumptions about migrants, further intensified by the great changeover. The groups involved operate in this realm and have to develop an attitude towards it. This way of seeing things, and therefore categorisation too, is shaped and constituted by multi-dimensionality. During the period of reunification and the years that followed, the social realm was shaped by a revitalisation of nationalistic feelings whose excesses led to a reduction of Germany’s inhabitants to their ethnic origins. This intensification only allowed for adaptation to a new social structure on the basis of a constricted sphere of activity. Migrants no longer responded as Germans in the making but rather as outsiders. However, existence as an outsider took various forms, expressed differently in different generations, and in West and East. The question is whether this difference represents itself as an exceptional situation, or as part of the history of German reunification and thus at the centre of society rather than on the periphery.

    Generational comparison

    It seems certain that the new social constellations, sparked off by the events of 1989/90, could not be creatively deployed in the form of a new definition of belonging. So of what significance are they for those who are excluded? Changes become particularly clear in comparisons between generations, such as intergenerational relationships within the Turkish community. When comparing the first generation of migrants with that of their children, one thing is quickly apparent: in evaluating reunification, the first generation is concerned with the loss of jobs, the decline in economic status, in brief: with the world of work, which changed for the worse for them after 1989.

    Safiye Kargi, who was pensioned off after the changeover when her company moved production abroad in order to reduce costs, describes that situation in an interview as an economic setback, especially for the younger generation which had few chances of finding work, despite their mastery of German. ‘We are the first generation here, and perhaps we can’t speak the language so well, but even the second generation, which can read and write German much better, has had difficulties finding work and was somehow excluded. Turks worked hard here for years and were taken by surprise by the changes. The atmosphere became colder. It may be normal that priority be given to one’s own people, to the East Germans. But the consequence was high unemployment among Turks.’

    As a result, Turkish migrants were living in worse accommodation and were no longer able to offer their children a good education. The focus on economic changes is also shared by migrants to the former GDR, known as contract workers. In addition, they emphasise that their residential status was under threat after the GDR came to an end. Phan Huy Thao, who came to the GDR from Vietnam in 1988 as an interpreter, tells how new arrivals found things already organised for them. Interpreters and teachers were provided who accompanied the workers in their dealings with bureaucracy and on shopping trips, even waking them up in time for work, effectively doing everything for them. After the changeover contract workers were no longer able to orientate themselves in society, since such assistance no longer existed. The fact that their residential status remained unclear for a long time eventually led to many of these workers having to return to their home countries. Dedicated organisations and individuals finally succeeded in establishing a right to stay for a number of contract workers, including Phan. Today he works as an educationalist for Reistrommel e.V., an organisation that looks after the needs of Vietnamese migrants in East Berlin.

    New violence against migrants

    The world of work seems to be a central issue for the first generation of migrant workers from both West and East. The original reason for migration and later the legitimation for staying here – both linked to enhanced economic status – lapsed after reunification as jobs were no longer available. In what was a dynamic period for Germany, their prospects came to a standstill. This standstill was overshadowed by the arson and other attacks that started in East Germany and later spread to the West – to a shocking extent, particularly for a democratic country. Migrants were the declared target in the Eberswalde disturbances (24th/25th November 1990) and in the arson attacks in Hoyerswerda (24th/25th September 1991), Rostock-Lichtenhagen (22nd August 1992), Mölln (23rd November 1992), and Solingen (29th May 1993). Augusto Jone Munjunga, who came to the GDR in 1987 and worked in the Eberswalde slaughterhouse, still has vivid memories of the attack that ended fatally for his friend and workmate Antonio Amadeu. During the night of 24th-25th November 1990, right-wing extremists surrounded the Eberswalde pub that was already known in the GDR period as a meeting-place for foreigners. That evening Augusto Jone Munjunga and his friends were having a farewell party for some of his Mozambican colleagues.

    ‘My colleagues were dancing, as always, and at three a.m. – if I remember rightly – things came to a close and everyone (‘Are We the People too?’ migrants in reunited Germany) wanted to go home. Germans from all around had come to Eberswalde to hunt down foreigners, but we knew nothing about it; no one said to us, ‘Take care,’ or anything like that, no one. Sometimes people, colleagues and mates, would say, ‘Things don’t look too good for you, please don’t go out.’ Sometimes mates would take us aside to give us information like this, but this time no one said anything. My colleagues wanted to go back to their hostel, the Mozambicans too. They were so happy: ‘Tomorrow we’re flying to Mozambique!’ The German youngsters knew where the hostels were and they blocked all the streets. My colleague Antonio Amadeu became the first victim of reunited Germany … And the police were hiding somewhere; there wasn’t a car in sight.’

    Munjunga also described how the workers didn’t immediately realise what was happening. At first they thought the youngsters were returning from a party. ‘Amadeu was in the middle when they started shouting ‘nigger’ and ‘foreigner’, but he didn’t react. How are you supposed to react when you see that no matter where you go there are people everywhere – there’s no place for you. Our situation was absolutely terrible, you can’t say anything any more. They took Amadeu anyway and started beating him up. There were in fact some police there – we heard that in court – but the policemen said, ‘Leave it, the boy’s dead already.’ Apparently the police were afraid themselves, that’s what we heard in court.’

    Shortly afterwards Antonio Amadeu died in hospital of his wounds. The attack that engraved itself so deeply on Augusto Jone Munjunga’s memory was a formative experience for migrants in the East and later also in West Germany. These attacks were seen as an outcome of the process of nation-building, and thus of the Wall coming down and of reunification. The danger of becoming a victim of attack was very present at that time. Bearing that situation in mind I would like to take a brief look at the younger generation of Turkish migrants. This second generation, heterogeneous in its attempts at social categorisation, directs attention towards a highly interesting and crucial point which distinguishes it from the parents’ generation. Its members speak of a worsening of their social situation, of exclusion and lack of recognition; like my interviewee, Ayten S., who had the benefit of an academic education and was in her late thirties at the time of the interview.

    ‘All of a sudden, much that concerned Turks and other minorities, and which had previously been highly topical, simply vanished from sight, politically speaking. And what politicians have to say, all their speeches about the people, the German people, and about our sisters and brothers over there, and all the rest of it – well, you ask yourself: we’ve lived here for so long, what are we worth, what about us?’

    This question picks up on the doubt about one’s own situation – a doubt also encountered by other interviewees, when their position was fundamentally called into question even before the changeover, as with Bulent T. ‘Yes, suddenly I ask myself that question and wonder whether even before the Wall came down there were already people who thought negatively about Turks and foreigners but never said so, because that simply wasn’t done. The atmosphere in Germany was a bit different then. People weren’t yet self-possessed, they didn’t simply reveal every negative image of themselves to the outside world.’

    Setback for integration

    Evaluation of one’s own situation before and after reunification and fundamentally calling one’s own perspective into question led (alongside the annoyance mentioned here) to 1989 being seen as a turning-point in the relationship between Turkish migrants, their children, and German society. Efforts to become part of this society were considerably upset by reunification. A number of interviewees told me that prior to reunification they had definitely seen themselves as German. They did not conceive being German in terms of biological determination and a status reduced to the question of descent; it was seen as a process ending with acceptance into society. This idea of transformation, a transformation from being Turkish into being German, initially came to an end with reunification. Freedom of action was reduced to being Turkish, thereby strengthening the emphasis on being an outsider.

    The search for new sources of reference follows on from the end of an era primarily characterised by efforts towards transformation. What does one orientate oneself by, if no longer exclusively by the tasks set by this society? In this search, the original parental idea of a return home appears in a new light. So too do the enclaves, districts with a high percentage of migrants, which are interpreted in a different way. None of my interviewees has actually returned to the home country, but the fact that they have thought about this parental idea shows that there has been a change in their own sphere of reference and interpretation. The same is true of the way in which enclaves are viewed. Before reunification they were seen as places that obstructed endeavours to become a part of this society, but since then they have been assigned the function of granting protection against attacks and prejudice.

    These displacements in the younger generation’s world of interpretation can be evaluated as a reaction to a new social situation in the post-reunification period. What is different about this situation could also be explained in terms of visibility and invisibility. The younger generation pre-1989 strove for transformation to make their origins invisible, but reunification has turned them into visible outsiders. That is why ideas of a return home and enclaves acquire new interpretations, reformulated in response to the current situation. On the other hand, so-called contract workers in the GDR had to find their way in a society that no longer provided them with the assistance they had had initially; their unclarified residential status left them in a social vacuum. However, at the same time reunification also meant that state regimentation could no longer interfere with the organisation of one’s life. This freedom had to be learned anew.


    The fall of the Wall and reunification are to be seen primarily as events that could be described as a process of democratisation, since Germany regained its sovereignty. However, if the focus is switched to the experiences of migrants and their children, a contradiction becomes apparent. Does democracy entail the transformation of great joy over the fall of the Wall and reunification into the ‘nationalisation’ of society, thereby making part of the population a ‘target’? Or is the fact that the process of democratisation in Germany also created the ‘other’, excluded from social achievements, a necessary evil willingly accepted by society? These questions point not only to the attitude of migrants, but also to the way society comprehends itself. Whether migrants’ histories are comprehended as a history of the country or as a special, different history depends on the nature of that society. With a self-comprehension far removed from rediscovering nationalism, that proclamation of reunion, ‘We Are One People’, could have been interpreted differently – as ‘We Are a United Population’.
    Nevim Çil
    carries out research into migration and family relationships. Her current project is devoted to Turkish migrants’ imaginings of Europe. This extract is taken from the book 1989 / Globale Geschichten [1989: Global Histories], edited by Susanne Stemmler, Valerie Smith, and Bernd M. Scherer, Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2009.

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    December 2009

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