Losing One's Country
The Shock of Reunification
What exactly were the differences between East and West in terms of mentality and way of life, and how do you successfully bridge these differences and learn to live with them?
For me, the year 1989 was one thing above all: a shock. My homeland, albeit one I had already left behind, in a risky undertaking, with constant disappointment in my baggage, disappeared in a matter of seconds, and immediately there were emotional pictures of people rejoicing, people who claimed to have wished for nothing else and were delighted with the new state of affairs. I sat stunned before the television and hoped that I would survive this loss without damage. Which, of course, was impossible. Thus began a more complex and difficult process of disengagement from the GDR, the outcome of which was, eventually, a good one, and one which left me enriched by this particular experience. It is not an essential experience in a person's life, like disengaging from childhood, from one's parents, or deciding on a career. But when one is given this opportunity, a process of transformation takes place that covers the most comprehensive of themes; one that brings with it many treasures, tremendous clarity, and tremendous gains. Especially as the GDR, within Germany and also in the context of Europe and the world, dragged with it into an unmarked grave both the socialist system and a dictatorship that, as I came to realise over the years, had influenced every fibre of our beings, just as democracy and capitalism do. The experiences of German Socialism and its attempts to mould a distinctive state and national character were kaput, outdated, useless. I had no background any more. If I turned around, all there was behind me was emptiness; if I looked forward, I stared into a foreign land.
I had left East Germany in July. I had, unusually, been given a visa for a 'single visit to the German Democratic Republic for fourteen days'. I was unmarried. I had no money. I was young and had a university degree. I had friends in West Germany who had, like me, previously lived in Leipzig. Experience showed that these were all extremely problematic when it came to trying to get permission to travel. But I wanted to visit my friends in their new home, and for this reason I had, more as a kind of test, applied to the police for permission, ostensibly to visit a relative for his birthday. This desire to visit them, this idea of travelling to a country in which so much seemed to be so completely different, most probably originated in such a deep part of my subconscious that the granting of permission for a 'single' trip, the issuing of my blue passport, plunged me into intense despair of a kind I had never previously experienced. I stood in the office of a policeman, who was as usual arrogant and rude, and wept. I was barely able to calm down. I knew that I now had to answer the question: what do I do with this?
Until then, in the GDR, my homeland, I had generally known what I wanted to do. Primarily: go to school, live in my own flat, maybe travel later on. Aside from the turbulence of puberty and youth, and the confusion that can sometimes result from studying arts subjects, in this country I was always on a clear path. I went to a very good school, I learned a skilled trade, I studied the subject of my choice at a university. A good career for a daughter from a working class family. A perfect example of success and of obstacles overcome; and both state and Party never tired of smugly presenting themselves as the first and only ones to realise this concept. Unquestionably, it is a great and commendable thing to make it possible for everyone, regardless of their class or background, to go on to further education. Without this it would scarcely have been possible for me to be an author today. But the propaganda surrounding this feat was very powerful indeed, and, as I later came to understand, it had exerted upon me a great amount of pressure. Every individual in East Germany was a historical subject. It was not I, Roswitha Haring, who was following this path, from this family, in this direction; rather, a revolutionary imperative was being realised in me, and thus I became as big and as weighty as this concept. The history of the working class was being confirmed in my unimportant fate. The conflicts, doubts, discord and setbacks that such journeys bring with them were simply neglected in the greater revolutionary context, because everything was already prepared, resolved, possible. As was the case in many areas of society, the anti-fascist Communist powers, the people, the men above all, had fought for me during the Second World War, many of them paying for me with their lives. Now it was my turn to perform some extraordinary feat, to implement the achievement and confirmation of truth and validity. Everything in East Germany was always great. Everything was realised: equality, peace, security, friendship.
Reading, travelling, and feelings of guilt
But these insights came later. At this point I was still hopeful, curious, and had few doubts. In the course of my studies I read Marx, Hegel, Kant. Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer. Freud, Kafka, Sartre. This reading, and of course a great deal else besides, presented me with the big wide world I had been seeking. So it was there. The reading room of the German Library in Leipzig - a building completed in 1913, the year my father was born - increased in size and beauty according to what I was reading. A library too could stand for possibility, affirmation, the future. I travelled to Czechoslovakia, on as far as Romania and to some of the republics of the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe is big. To this day I have never been to Vladivostok, Murmansk, or to the southernmost limit of that former world. I experienced the reality of other languages and cultures and was confused. In part by the foreignness and fascination of a different architecture, landscape, and way of living; in part because I sensed that the friendship between nations and community of states that was always being talked about in the historical dimension described above was worth less than falsified papers. It started at the border - on our own, East German side, mind you - where passport and customs control could feel more like being accused of a serious crime, with several hours of having one's luggage searched and being pedantically cross-questioned. These actions triggered in me a sense of guilt; or rather, as I learned, they intensified a sense of guilt that the system had always known very well how to use to oppress the people. Similar to the guilt and sense of obligation towards the anti-fascists and Communists, both those who had died and those active today, I now experienced a sense of guilt for travelling, guilt for being free, being cheerful, for doing something simple and pleasant. The expressions of reproach on the faces of the border guards would not have been out of place in the theatre or on the big screen.
Since the age of twenty-one I had lived in my own flat, which as a member of a cooperative I had been able to rent legally. In this I was, unlike many others, extremely lucky. The world was not perfect, but it was big, it was growing. I began to perceive it through the language of art as well. Christoph Hein's Der fremde Freund [The Distant Lover]; Brecht's Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe [Roundheads and Pointed Heads] directed by Alexander Lang at the Deutsches Theater; Heiner Carow's film The Legend of Paul and Paula; East German rock music, and many other artistic productions told me of feelings and thoughts that I did not come across anywhere else. When the character of Claudia in Hein's novella says, 'I'm fine,' she is lying. Lang put absurdity and despair on stage. During her pregnancy, Paula sews herself a new dress for each day, out of sheer happiness. There is the pink day, the green day, and so on; and she sings, sitting at the cash register, so loudly and infectiously that all the customers in the store join in. So much happiness in such a simple, everyday life. Art gradually became like a home for me. Art said something. Art had feelings. Above all, art asked questions, subtly and, in a way, politely, and did not even expect a reply. Without art I would have died in East Germany, died inside; and when I was no longer able to frequent that buffer zone between reality and the ideal - university - because I had finished my studies and was working in a cultural organisation, the system of hope, curiosity and friendly acceptance collapsed. Not even art could help me now.
Again and again I saw how privileges and yet more privileges, together with ridiculous forms of secrecy, were regarded as the right of the powerful. At this time, 1988, Gorbachev had been in power for four years, and had primarily created fear and annoyance among the cadres in both party and state who had appointed themselves for life. They were not interested in renewal. They only feared for their position.
I once saw a performance by the Leipzig artist Hans Schulze. He developed a theory of Communism, inscribed it on paper among other things, then declared, as he completed his work, 'And this process will last another six hundred years.' My life, then, was a tiny unit of time en route to an outcome that neither I nor even my children, if I were to have any, would ever see. At the end of 1988 the dictator Ceausescu was awarded the Order of Karl Marx by the leaders of East Germany. Even if one were inclined to pay little heed to this because of what it represented - the front against Gorbachev - Ceausescu was a criminal; he had reduced his country to poverty, its people were humiliated, they were emotionally and physically sick. I had seen this on my travels. I was profoundly shocked by the presentation of this medal, as I also was by the banning of several films from the Soviet Union that should have been screened during the annual festival in Leipzig in December 1988. For a few months in early 1989 a visa was once again required to cross the border into Czechoslovakia or Poland. The price of a Wartburg car went up to 35,000 marks, which I considered a fraud by the state. I had known for a long time about the demonstrations in front of the Nikolaikirche. Why were people not allowed to live where they wanted? My friends' emigration some years earlier had, over time, raised questions in my mind that I was no longer able to answer, other than with pointless restrictions, incomprehensible laws. Art was no longer a consolation. In the space of one year, understanding these necessities had come to seem to me more like a mute, resigned attitude, an impotence that did not suit either the end of the twentieth century or someone who had been permitted to have an education, to enjoy thoughts of freedom and happiness.
On July 8th 1989 I arrived in the Federal Republic of Germany. I felt that I was pretty well equipped for a new, foreign country. I was happy that I could discern no difference in the vegetation. I was happy to encounter people's occasional, unexpected friendliness, happy to see the collections in the museums and the programmes at the cinemas. I went to Amsterdam, Brussels and Hamburg, became familiar with parks, houses and apartments, and understood less and less. People spoke completely differently: they said 'I'm going to the cinema', instead of 'Shall we go to the cinema?'. I had to learn that it was possible to say, 'I'll come too'. They laughed about different associations, representations, events; sometimes these are still strange for me today. Some behaved with a nonchalance that seemed to me more like negligence. I missed respect. Parents spoke differently with their children, and children too behaved differently. I saw circumspection and distance instead of closeness and togetherness. Couples discussed things which did hardly deserved to be discussed; in general, people seemed put themselves under such pressure for nothing. But older people, walking about in light-coloured clothes, enjoyed their free time and had fun and were neither surly nor bitter.
Some things were little short of phenomenal. I was once part of a group that was listening to the comments of a tour guide in Aachen. 'That sign there on the wall,' said the guide. I couldn't see it; I thought, I'll come back here afterwards and look for the sign. Suddenly a woman said, 'I can't see it, where?' I was stunned. From the midst of the group a person had declared that they were unable to do something, and no one had made a fuss. From this moment on I understood how strong the pressure of the group, how strong every kind of social pressure in all kinds of situations had been in East Germany. For the people in the group this episode was completely insignificant; for me, it was the start of a long process of extracting my self from a multiplicity of influences, prescriptions, ideals. My Self was suddenly in demand on all sides, and I began to revolve.
Some people spoke, for example, of their political opinions. They said that what Töpfer (the West German Minister for the Environment at the time) was doing was great. I had never given any thought to the idea that politics could be connected to individuals. But of course in a dictatorship it never is; there too the group, the pressure of the ideology is paramount.
Others spoke about being a mother, about environmental issues, about their work, about the things that were important to them, in a way that was so serious and so absolute, so comprehensive and so extreme, that I could not understand why people would seek an ideology in a system in which so much intellectual freedom was possible.
I did not search for another ideology; I sought to progress as far as possible with freedom of thought and ended up, once again, in the realm of art. Georg Baselitz' 'Die große Nacht im Eimer' ('The Big Night Down the Drain') nearly plunged me into a crisis. I almost ran out of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. This too was in the summer of 1989. I felt abandoned and hoped I would never see it again. These ruptures were hard, but obviously necessary, because I at least was not aware of an art that rejected things so strongly. The aesthetics of Eastern Europe were, in my opinion, never destructive, in the way that picture seemed to me then. Nowadays I like Francis Bacon, though it took me several years. I can see in his paintings something that also relates to myself. Initially, that would not have happened. And I observed the position that was accorded to writers in this system: an inferior one. Again I despaired. But not for long this time, because I understood the advantage of this position. Whenever Christa Wolf or Stefan Heym or any outstanding East German author said anything in an interview or during a reading, on any topic whatsoever, this was always of tremendous importance, impact and durability. In West Germany this burden did not exist, which worked in the artists' favour.
A more successful integration
Walking around Cologne I saw how people from other countries had been able to settle in this city. To my astonishment I discovered Turkish removal companies, Turkish cafés which were only ever frequented by men, Asian food shops, restaurants serving Yugoslavian, Arabic, and African dishes which were also prepared by people from Yugoslavia and from Arab and African countries. How had foreigners lived in East Germany? Many people from an incredible array of countries had studied at the University of Leipzig, and with some of them I had had close and frequent contact. But in Leipzig there were also foreigners who had come to the city for vocational training, from Vietnam, from Algeria, from Mozambique, and who had stayed on afterwards and worked in the city. None of them would have been allowed to start up a removal company, a restaurant, or anything of the kind. They lived - blue-collar workers in particular - somewhere, somehow; they had hardly any relationship with the lives of the people of Leipzig; there was hardly any contact between the two. The friendship between nations so enthusiastically propagated by the politics of East Germany never in fact existed.
In my new daily life in West Germany I immediately encountered questions that I would not previously have been able to ask myself with such clarity. In a system determined by competition, market and profit, many people's reflections, comments and behaviour revolved around emotional issues, around feelings, but also around duration, the question of existence itself. I remembered something I had once read by Klaus Mann, that he missed the metaphysical in the Communist Eastern European systems; and I tried to comprehend these reflections. Things that cannot be defined, things that are apparently unclear, hard to grasp, things left unsettled, have as significant an influence on our lives as laws and concrete things. But anything that eluded definition, that was not conclusive or unequivocal, had no place in the East German system. A squad of mostly old men who had been continuously in power single-mindedly controlled the destiny of a country and its people according to the psychological and existential experiences of their youth: the fight against Fascism - tough, secretive, a matter of life and death. One can almost say that East Germany vanished in the same way. Suddenly, on the 9th of November, it was all over. All at once the DDR was gone. For four months of 1989, from July to November, my homeland lay as if behind a forest of thorns. I would never be able to reach it, because I had left it illegally and would be arrested were I to set foot in it again. An almost unthinkable burden. But losing it so completely made it somewhat easier to come to terms with the loss. Now it really was no longer there; not artificially, not barricaded away. I learned to integrate my experiences of both countries in my life, and in so doing art and literature have always remained the place of greatest freedom.
born in Leipzig in 1960, now lives in Cologne. After completing an apprenticeship as a skilled garment worker, she gained a degree in cultural studies. Her novel Ein Bett aus Schnee [A Bed of Snow] was awarded the Second German Television Prize for best literary debut.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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