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Thirty Years after the fall of the Berlin wall:
Towards A More Unified Germany

© Mauricio Ruiz

In November 2019 the journalist Mauricio Ruiz traveled to Leipzig and Berlin to try to understand the impact of those events in German society, how the reunification process has shaped the current political and social landscapes in the country.

By Mauricio Ruiz

A little girl holds on tight to her mom's hand while a man bends over and says something to her, hello hello, then gives her a plush toy. A rabbit. A woman offers her clementines and something hard and wavy and rugged. “Peanuts,” the woman says, “have some”. The girl holds them in her fist with suspicion. She's never seen anything like it. Hundreds of people walk in the streets of Velpke as if in a daze. They stop to look at the bakery and shoemaker shop, at the facade of a big house. Some of them are singing, others are blowing their noses. They're crying. On the drive from Saxony-Anhalt to the bordering town in Lower Saxony, the girl has watched her mom sob in silence the whole way. Why, she wonders. What's happening? This is November 1989. Four days ago thousands of East Berliners have walked past stunned GDR guards and stepped into West Berlin for the first time in four decades without being harmed. The world is about to change. But what will this mean to a nation that has been split apart since 1949?

In November 2019 I traveled to Leipzig and Berlin to try to understand the impact of those events in German society, how the reunification process has shaped the current political and social landscapes in the country.

“I remember my mom going on shopping binges after reunification. Buying, yes, but sometimes just looking. It's as if she couldn't get over the abundance she'd never had,” says Franziska Jenrich-Tran, who thirty years after that day in Velpke, works now at the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig in charge of education and as coordinator of Schiller House. She studied in Berlin where she met her husband, a man born in West Germany to Vietnamese parents. In an old Caravan, she traveled with her mom to France, Italy, Austria. She's enjoyed opportunities and a freedom she couldn't have dreamed of before '89. But the efforts to acquire that freedom had begun much earlier.
“In Leipzig I joined an environmentalist group in '82 but others started as early as '78,” says Gisela Kallenbach, former Member of Parliament of Saxony and EP. Though recycling initiatives existed in the GDR – one of which was called SERO-- the focus was driven by economics and the scarcity of materials rather than ecology. “The air was thick with smog and the rivers smelled rotten. It was the sulphur and phenols from the chemical factories. We had to do something about it.” Anti-nuclear armament movements also appeared in the early 80's after the deployment of SS-20 Soviet missiles triggered NATO's decision to install Pershing Two systems in West Germany

Gisela Kallenbach Gisela Kallenbach | © Mauricio Ruiz The Berlin Agreement (1971) and the Helsinki Accords (1975) helped improve somewhat the respect of human rights in the GDR, and it was in this environment that peace prayers started in 1982 at Saint Nicholas church in Leipzig. People could gather and be informed about what was happening in the country and abroad. One of the most important reunions happened on September 4th, 1989, when activists knew reporters from the West were in Leipzig covering one of the large trade fairs in the city. “It was an opportunity for them to show the world what was happening here,” says Kallenbach. A month later, on October 9th, more than 70,000 people gathered in the streets after prayers in four different churches. To the surprise of everyone, the police did not take any action against them. These gatherings, known as the Peaceful Revolution, gained wider momentum and led to the fateful night in Berlin on November 9th.

Though these reunions in church were tolerated, the State Security Service (Stasi) kept a close eye on these groups. Nobody ever felt safe. “We lived in a constant state of fear,” says Kallenbach. “Fear of the consequences if you dared to step out of line.” At 14, she decided not to do her Jugendweihe or ceremony where one was expected to confirm belief in the values of socialism. She faced the consequences. “I couldn't go to high school. I had to study in the evenings and follow distance learning.” She became a chemical engineer but it took her much longer. There was also the constant paranoia of being surveilled. Informants could be anywhere. “You had to be someone in public, and someone else at home. Everyone developed two personae in the GDR. You just had to.” People wanting to leave the GDR lost their jobs and became marginalized. They learned the consequences of being unpatriotic. Activists were given strong, physical warnings or thrown into prison. Many of them were tortured.
“I went in thinking, 'I hope I make it alive,'” says Karl-Heinz Bomberg, Karl-Heinz Bomberg Karl-Heinz Bomberg | © Mauricio Ruiz who was an activist singer in the GDR, wrote a book about it and is now helping victims of trauma heal. “In the end I spent three months in prison but you never knew how long it could be. You had to brace yourself for the long run.” The son of a member of the Socialist Party (SED), Bomberg grew up in the state of Thuringia believing in the social values instilled by his father. “To give work for all the people was an important goal for society. People had a job, a home, and they felt a sense of security, at least in that regard.” In his teenage years, however, he began to feel torn. There were restrictions on travel, freedom of expression, the kinds of jobs one could do. “I wanted more. And my parents couldn't understand my strong opposition. They had other needs. For them the status quo was enough.” After reunification, Bomberg's father grew silent. “It was a kind of inner migration. I could sense his disappointment. He had seen corruption in the GDR. People he knew had been punished for graft and misuse of resources.” He didn't talk much about the Peaceful Revolution with his father. It was a silent agreement of the inevitable. The changes to come. “After all his life, my father had to agree that socialism in that way could not live any longer. There were a lot of ambivalences within him.”

Ambivalences I: Perception and Change

During talks about the current political polarization across Europe, some West German friends had said to me, always with nuances, that many people in East Germany, especially the older generations, had grown too dependent on the state to conduct their lives. I wanted to dig deeper into the origins of this perception. Was it accurate, and if so, were there other aspects that ought to be considered?

Uwe Schwabe Uwe Schwabe | © Mauricio Ruiz “This is a delicate matter these days,” says Uwe Schwabe, who was a protagonist in the Peaceful Revolution. “Whenever there is some sort of self-criticism about the GDR, many people feel attacked. I thought by now people would take their destiny in their own hands, that they would be more proactive. A certain segment of the population is asking for somebody to solve their problems.” Schwabe believes the transition in 1990 was too quick, that more time was needed to understand what was being changed and why. People were caught in a whirlwind of tasks: finding a new job, understanding market economy, a new social and educational system. “Many East Germans have spent their lives under two dictatorships, and this has consequences. More time was needed for reflection in society as a whole. And this reflection would have worked as a purification.” Schwabe admits many of the ideals he fought for have arrived: rule of law, respect for human rights, freedom of expression. “Many things have been successful in these 30 years. But the reunification process is not finished yet. More dialogue, more self-reflection is needed.”
Change is often marred with obstacles. It is not impossible, far from it, but the older one gets, certain routines become incrusted and it is harder to let go of them. But was this what happened to society in East Germany after hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs in the 90's?
“After my mother lost her job at a metal-recycling factory in 1991, she did try to learn other skills,” says Cornelia Winkler, who grew up in East Berlin. “She worked at a water treatment plant, and she was good with kids so she was placed in schools. She redesigned schoolyards.”
In the analysis regarding the years following reunification, it's inevitable to hear about the tide of changes hitting many East German families. But what was it like in practice? “My mother received about 800 East German Mark, while my father a little more, around 1000,” says Winkler. “I remember we had to pay 75 Eastern Mark for rent, including water and heating. After reunification, prizes went up rather quickly. In 1991, for instance, I remember the rent was already 300 Mark. Very soon things became tight for us, especially after my dad lost his job at the factory too.”
Winkler was 11 when the Wall fell and was later able to move to Frankfurt and England to study. She benefitted from opportunities her parents could not. “Even if she readapted, my mom never recovered from the loss of her job. Reunification didn’t happen in a right way for her. There was disappointment in how things were turning out for many families, economically and otherwise. She became withdrawn.”
In Leipzig alone, there were about 100,000 manufacturing jobs at the end of 80's. In the 90's that number came down to 10,000. Statistics show that roughly 80% of East Germans of working age had to redefine themselves and change job after reunification.

Cornelia Winkler Cornelia Winkler | © Mauricio Ruiz The federal government has invested in developing infrastructure in East Germany, as well as giving incentives to start-ups to foster innovation and business creation there. Yet a recent survey showed that 52% of East Germans believe the reunification process was not fair. Where does this feeling stem from, and is it justified towards West Germans? “West Germany has helped the East in many ways, and I am grateful for that,” says Bomberg. “We have a strong democracy now, and many people have opportunities for self-development. But it is true that many people in the East have had a difficult time. It would be important for the West to acknowledge that too.” Among the people interviewed, many expressed the view that after reunification several things in the East were discarded blindly, considered useless without a careful analysis. “The recycling called SERO worked well, for instance,” says Winkler. “Why not further develop it instead of tearing it down?”
Dissenting opinions, however, state that by the time the Wall fell, people in the East wanted the same life as those in the West, and they wanted it fast, they just don't remember it now. Human memory is imperfect, and it might be difficult to recall with accuracy what one wanted at first, especially after the widespread layoffs in the 90's. Some indicators show that certain decisions were taken with sweeping speed. Why? External political forces – some leaders in France and the UK were not overly enthusiastic about reunification – plus internal election dynamics in Germany played an important role. There was also the privatization process of state-owned companies in the former GDR, for which a trust was formed (Treuhand). From a market economy perspective, there were inefficiencies that had to be addressed in many of those enterprises in the East. Redundant labor, outdated machinery. But how does economic theory account for the social and psychological effect of people having a job and feeling useful in society? Many people did ask for immediate change, they wanted to have many of the things they had seen on TV, but they were perhaps not ready to see their whole beliefs system thrown overboard so quickly. Many advocated for a 'third way', which meant a smoother transition. Some people from the West, not all of them, came to the East thinking that they knew how the way to make things work, and everything else was not relevant.

Ambivalence II: Losing means winning

Alexander Finger's grandparents came to Saxony from the Czech Republic as part of the wave of German-speaking people having to leave several central and east European countries at the end of WWII. It is estimated that about 25% of the population in East Germany is a descendant of that wave of refugees. When Finger's grandfather arrived, he was granted a plot of land by the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD). This gave the family the possibility to start anew. Finger's great-uncle migrated to West Germany where he had to start from scratch. “This resulted in my grandfather doing better than his brother,” says Finger, who works as a guide and translator at the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig. “It turned out to be an advantage to come to the GDR instead of West Germany.”
After reunification, many of the people in the East who suffered from acute health problems, chronic illnesses, had the opportunity to receive treatment in the West. Their lives were improved. In the times of the GDR there were qualified specialists who could have treated him, but there were just not enough of them. It would take a long time to get an appointment. Reunification brought an amelioration to the health of thousands of people living in East Germany.
Do we still feel the "wall" today? Do we still feel the "wall" today? | © Colourbox

Ambivalence III: Representation

Recent statistics show that 100% of deans at public universities come from the West, and the same applies for 97% of directors of institutes of higher research. Within the 14 federal ministries, only 3% of leaders are from the East. But what does this mean, and what are the implications?
Gisela Meyer Gisela Meyer | © Mauricio Ruiz “It is not clear to me if that matters,” says Gisela Meyer, who grew up in West Berlin meters away from the border with East Germany. “I would have thought by now whether you are from the West or East, you do what is best for your country. Is that not the case?”
Representation is not straight forward. The clearest example can be seen in the US where Asian or African American women wouldn't be represented by a woman with the ideas of Anne Coulter, or the Hispanic community could do better than to choose Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz as someone who'd look after their needs.
So what is at stake in Germany behind the issue of representation? How does it impact life? “I'll give you an example of why it matters,” says Member of Federal Parliament, Anke Domscheit-Berg. “The ministry of the interior had no budget for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. They hadn't even thought about it. I can tell you that if it were led by someone from East Germany, there's no way something like this would have been overlooked.”
For Domscheit-Berg, examples can be seen across the board. From the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the German Embassy in Mongolia (the GDR had a representation long before), to the choice of bands in an 80's music festival. “Guess where all the bands came from? It's as if the music from East Germany had been eliminated from memory, and this makes me feel like a 2nd rate citizen. We had some good things in the GDR. Much more gender equality, good education. Why has that been forgotten?”
There was also a representation-related controversy when Federal Research Minister, Anja Karliczek, decided to grant a 500-million-euro battery cell research factory project to Münster, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia. Minister-president of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Manuela Schwesig, criticized the decision, stating that Federal Minister Karlizcek, who comes from the Westphalian town of Ibbenbüren, had to look beyond her constituency. “There are areas in the East where projects like this one could go,” says Domscheit-Berg. “Why doesn't it happen?”

Ambivalences IV: Escaping the GDR and making new friends

In the film Goodbye Lenin, a family in East Berlin watches the parade of the GDR's 40th anniversary on TV.  The mother, Christiane, who despite being a member of the SED, has no qualms in criticizing all the things that could be improved. Her son, Alex, is skeptical and is longing for change. The tanks are passing by outside and everything is rattling in the room. While ironing a skirt, Christiane says to her son, “Nothing will change if everyone emigrates.”
While people like Gisela Kallenbach, Uwe Schwabe, Karl-Heinz Bomberg, and many more decided to stay and try to bring about reform within the GDR, millions tried or hoped to escape. The decision wasn't easy. There were the risks of being shot or tortured, and it also led to families being split, with a mother or uncle or sibling living in the West.
Susanne Rindt Susanne Rindt | © Mauricio Ruiz “I was fifteen when I escaped in the trunk of a diplomat's car,” says Susanne Rindt, who was born in Halle and now lives in Berlin. “My mom's brother had escaped in '58 or '59. In the trunk I was together with my mom. Dad and my sister would come later. This was 1983.” Rindt's father was a biologist and worked at Halle University, while her mother worked at the East German Academy of Science doing lab work. The Helsinki Accords offered the human right for family reunification, and Rindt's family applied to be reunited with Susanne's uncle. The application was dismissed, twice, and Rindt's father lost his job as a consequence. “He was told he was a bad influence for students at the university, then he was laid off.” He was able to make a living one way or another, making pottery and selling it here and there. “My parents were unhappy,” Rindt says. “They felt locked in, and they were worried that  my sister and I wouldn't be able to do our baccalaureate because we were a family close to the church. They made the decision thinking about our future, but also theirs.”
When the trunk opened, Susanne and her mother were in West Berlin. They went to a cafe on Kurfürstendamm (Kudamm) and met her uncle. “There was so much to take in. I didn't cry or scream with joy. It was like all my emotions were suddenly hidden inside. Suppressed somehow.” While in the trunk, Susanne had heard a language she didn't recognize but later learned was Portuguese from Cape Verde. A sum of 100,000 Mark had to be paid by Susanne's uncle. A couple of days later she went to Kudamm with her aunt who thought it would be a good idea to buy her some clothes. “There were so many options of everything. I was so overwhelmed I started to cry. I couldn't stop. This is when the emotions came back. I realized I had lost all my past: my friends, my house, my city. I had a feeling of being lost in a new world.”
In 1987 Dietmar Schultke was thinking of ways to escape when he received a letter summoning him to become a border soldier. A few weeks later he was sitting in front of an officer learning about military rules. Dietmar Schultke Dietmar Schultke | © Mauricio Ruiz “There were 7 levels of trust. I got the one before the lowest.” He was stationed on the Brocken Mountains in the Harz region, and still toyed with the idea of escaping but felt bad for the consequences his comrade would suffer. They were also surveilled and spied on. “Every 10th soldier was a Stasi informer.” Frustration grew and one day he left his riffle in the woods, a grave penalty for which he was degraded near the end of his service in 1988. He was confined to patrol the barracks. After the Wall fell he moved to West Germany in February of 1990 and applied for citizenship, which he received after only 4 weeks. Since 2017 he's been Historical Education Officer in the Dahme-Spreewald district and has written two books about his experiences in the GDR. Like him, many Ossies who moved to the West in the 90's have now returned. “I think we miss a feeling of solidarity, which is something we developed in the GDR. It was necessary you might say, but it was there. It is much harder to find in the West.”
On the 14th of November 1989, Bernd Meyer crossed the border into East Germany with his camera for the first time since 1952, when West Berliners were banned from entering the GDR. He and his wife, Gisela, had lived for decades in the district of Lichterfelde wary of the barbed wire, the watchtower and the dogs only a few meters away from their home. “In November of 1989 I knew we were living a historic moment,” says Meyer. “That's why I brought my camera and filmed the first instants of reunification.” He kept going back to film all that was happening and the GDR guards became curious. They asked him what he was up to, and whether they could see the result. “They came and sat in this very living room. Four border soldiers. They had coffee and watched the video I had made. The same soldiers we had been afraid of just weeks back were now in our house. Two of them kept coming back to our house. That's how the wall fell for us.”

Looking into the future

It would be hard to argue that the open market economy model works equally for everyone in society. GDP per capita and life expectancy have increased, especially in metropolitan areas, but one only needs to look at cities like San Francisco, Portland, Paris, Brussels, to see the number of people living on the streets. The wealth generated after the fall of the Iron Curtain has not been shared fairly. Differences between rich and poor continue to grow, and the disempowered look for ways to express their discontent. Populist and far-right movements claim they can offer a solution to those who feel neglected. But is it a real solution? “The AfD knows very well that there are two Germanies,” says Franco DelleDonne, PhD in Political Communication from Freie Universität Berlin. “They are experts in capitalizing the discontent that has brewed in the country for several reasons after reunification. But do they have a solid platform to address climate change? The challenges that Germany and Europe will face in the years to come? It would be wise to ask these questions to them.”
The benefits and costs of reunification have been shared across German society. Some, however, bore a higher cost than others. Those born in the 50's in East Germany were more than half-way into their productive life when they had to readjust to a new way of living. Their pensions suffered due to the unemployment years they went through towards the end of their careers. Younger generations were able to learn and readjust, but scars in the social fabric were inevitable. Thirty years have passed leaving painful lessons that ought to be talked about and learned from. They need to be acknowledged to be able to move on as a unified nation.
“I learned to give importance to self-development, which you can say is a form of egoism,” says Bomberg. “But I also know that once I have developed myself, I can give back to the community and improve society. It's a balance. And that's what I've learned through these years.”