30 years of a united Germany
“There simply was no alternative”

At the end of 1989, hundreds of thousands of East and West Germans celebrated New Year’s Eve on the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate.
At the end of 1989, hundreds of thousands of East and West Germans celebrated New Year’s Eve on the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. | Photo (detail): © picture-alliance/dpa/Wolfgang Kumm

On October 3, 1990 East and West Germany came together as a one state. So have the differences between East and West disappeared over the past 30 years? Former East German civil-rights activist Freya Klier says “we have grown together”, though, she adds, it took 30 years for “the two Germanys to find their way back to one another.” In an interview, Klier talks about reunification, the period right after the wall fell, the new freedoms it brought and whether Germans are now “one people”.

Ms Klier, by the time the Berlin Wall fell at the end of 1989 and reunification in 1990, you had already left the German Democratic Republic and were living in West Berlin. Had you anticipated the opening of the border?

Not at all, at least not with that kind of speed. Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) was still insisting that the GDR would last another 100 years. And I was figuring that the GDR, which was close to economic collapse, would probably make it another four years or so. People laughed at me for my prediction in September 1989. And then the wall fell just two months later.

Were most people happy about it?

It depends really. Many were quite pleased with the new freedoms and happy to be able to speak their minds at long last. Happy as well because they had family in the West they could finally go and visit. Others lost their power and were obviously less than pleased with events. It is important to pay close attention to who is speaking.

How were the new freedoms expressed in everyday life once everything suddenly became possible?

Born in 1950 in Dresden, civil-rights activist and co-founder the GDR freedom movement Freya Klier was imprisoned many times in the GDR and deported to West Germany shortly before the wall fell (1988). The actor and director has written a number of books about the GDR and reunification including “Und wo warst du? 30 Jahre Mauerfall” (And where were you? 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell, 2019) and “Wir sind ein Volk! – Oder?” (We are one people! – aren’t we?, 2020). Born in 1950 in Dresden, civil-rights activist and co-founder the GDR freedom movement Freya Klier was imprisoned many times in the GDR and deported to West Germany shortly before the wall fell (1988). The actor and director has written a number of books about the GDR and reunification. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/Nadja Klier Private parties were forbidden under the GDR government for example, and only allowed with SED party leadership. People began throwing grill parties pretty much as soon as the border opened. The feeling of being free was overwhelming. No one complained anymore; the limitations were gone.That was unlikely to have pleased everyone …

Those who knew what to do with their new-found freedom were thrilled. Others still haven’t figured out how to live a self-determined life to this day, including the radical far right. They only do what they have been taught. Personally I am a huge fan of democracy where we can talk about anything, argue and everyone can say whatever they like. That is the difference from a dictatorship. Not everything runs smoothly, but at least everyone is entitled to have their own opinion.

Still, the first weeks and months were not easy.

You are absolutely right. East Germans were not starving, but many had a really hard time in the beginning. Innovative people did pretty well and opened businesses like bars, for example. But of course not everyone was socialized this way. It was particularly difficult for children, who had to watch as their parents suddenly struggled to find the way forward. 

There are still a lot of inequalities today though. Wages, for example, are lower in the East than in the West. Has reunification failed here?

It is important to put that in perspective, such as to rents which are also around a third lower in the East. It is like talking about the incredible amount of money people in Switzerland earn. Yes, they do. But they pay considerably more for food, a flat, etc. than in other places. I think there is no more of this kind of inequality today. Looked at from a historical perspective, I think we can say reunification was a success.
“East Germans weren’t forced to conform to the West; they wanted to”: On the day after the Wall came down, thousands of East Berliners flocked to Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin (Cars from East Germany on Breitscheidplatz, 10 November 1989). “East Germans weren’t forced to conform to the West; they wanted to”: On the day after the Wall came down, thousands of East Berliners flocked to Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin (Cars from East Germany on Breitscheidplatz, 10 November 1989). | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/akg-images Some have claimed that the Federal Republic simply imposed its rules and structures on the GDR. Is there some truth to that?

I think it is important to look at the overall context. For 40 years the party made sure that anyone in the GDR who had a democratic mind-set could not climb the ladder. Only the children of party members could study law, for example. After reunification, former party members demanded a new constitution for all of Germany. In this case, West Germany was right to say no, we already have a good constitution that covers everything. Today almost everyone in the East sees it the same way as well.
 
Some experienced the West as too domineering in other areas though – and still feel that way today.

Initially, East Germans rejected their own culture. They stopped buying the cars made in the GDR, for example, which would have enabled them to save their jobs. I sometimes wondered if they were too blind to see that there were a lot of good things about East Germany too. A lot of people had to figure that out for themselves, and it took some time. East Germans weren’t forced to conform to the West; they wanted to.

Are there still differences between East and West today?

I don’t think it makes a huge difference anymore whether you are from the East or the West. We have grown together. But it did take 30 years for the two Germanys to find their way back to one another. This is no longer an issue for young people who can pursue their dreams without considering the question. If you ask around today, you will find that 70 percent say reunification was right and good. There simply was no alternative. Only the far left and the far right profit if we fail to come together. Otherwise the whole East versus West is not really an issue.
Racism was a problem in East Germany before and after the border opened: Young anti-fascists demonstrate against burgeoning right-wing extremism in Neubrandenburg in 1990. Racism was a problem in East Germany before and after the border opened: Young anti-fascists demonstrate against burgeoning right-wing extremism in Neubrandenburg in 1990. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/zb/Benno Bartoch Racism is an issue though.

Yes. Unfortunately racism was a problem in East Germany before the border opened too. When talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, it’s important not to lose sight of the 40 years leading up to it. There were people from other countries in the GDR – from Mozambique, Nigeria, Vietnam. So many people had fled the GDR – a total of four million by the end – that immigrants were brought in to fill the huge labour gap in East Germany. They had a terrible time of it in those days, there were attacks, many were beaten and abused. If a Vietnamese woman got pregnant, she was forced to abort the child. If she refused, then she had to pay for her trip back home – that was written into the party programme – and was not exactly welcomed there with open arms either. There was no real integration and cooperation. We had to learn how to live together with other cultures.

Your book “Wir sind ein Volk! – Oder?” (We are one people! – aren’t we?) came out in August 2020. What is your conclusion – are we or are we not one people?

Personally I would say yes, we are one people. 

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