To mark the 30th anniversary of the reunification of Germany, author Catherine Hokin looks at what – and why – divisions still remain in the country.
Ask most people which singer they associate with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the top answer you will get is David Hasselhoff. His performance of Looking for Freedom on New Year’s Eve 1989, while balanced on a crane hovering over the Brandenburg Gate and wearing what appears to be an electric leather jacket, is a bizarre sight that, once seen, can never be forgotten.
That was a night for celebration: the old order was gone and the new freedoms David – and more importantly, the citizens of the now defunct GDR – was looking for were finally in sight.
Six months earlier, however, on 19 July, a very different concert had taken place, when Bruce Springsteen played to a crowd of over 300,000 ecstatic East Germans at the Radrennbahn in the Berlin’s Weissensee. It was that event which revealed, perhaps more clearly than any of the other protests occurring in East Germany that summer, the depths of the division between the old forces and the new.
By 1989, the GDR’s government was keen to offer their teenagers music concessions that would keep them in line and avoid a repeat of the PR disaster two years earlier when David Bowie fans who had gathered close to the Wall to listen to his concert in the West were beaten by riot police. Paranoia about letting ‘decadent’ western stars in remained, but blue-collar working-class hero Springsteen seemed the ideal compromise. The concert was advertised (without the singer’s permission) as a fund-raiser for Nicaragua, the old men in grey suits were happy.
And then double the audience than the tickets sold turned up, Springsteen gave a speech in German hoping for the day “all barriers will be torn down”, led into Chimes of Freedom and – in the words of historian Gerd Dietrich, as quoted in Erik Kirschbaum’s wonderful book, Rocking the Wall – “made people… more eager for more and more change… showed people how locked up they really were.”
Bruce Springsteen was no more responsible than David Hasselhoff for the fall of the Wall and his concert wasn’t the only demonstration of a wide-spread desperation for change.
The Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and the protest in Alexanderplatz on November 4, which attracted half a million people, are equally as moving to watch, particularly when you consider how the GDR’s security forces could have reacted.
Down, however, the Wall came and, 11 months later, on 3 October, Germany became – on paper – united again. The process was not, however, a merging of two countries, but a continuation of the FDR. The GDR declared its accession to West Germany, accepted the FDR’s financial, political and legal processes and vanished as a physical entity, if not as a cultural one.
And, in the immediate aftermath, not everyone was celebrating. There were complaints that the resulting purge of academia to root out communist party members cost ex-East German citizens thousands of jobs; that security of tenure on homes had been lost; that publicly owned assets were privatised and bought up by the West. Freedom, for some at least, came with a hefty price tag.
So where is Germany now, as the 30-year celebrations start? Are the citizens of the former GDR, and their descendants, soaked in Ostalgie – the longing for the simpler life often ascribed to the country, if not its political system – or have the separations that were more obvious in 1990 now become as much a part of the past as the GDR itself?
It’s probably fair to say that the jury is still out, not least because expectations were set too high at the start, stoked by the then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s promise of “blooming landscapes” to come.
As historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk put it in his book The Takeover (the book is only available in German, but he has written some excellent articles on reunification): “People thought that they would now be living in a television commercial…many were entirely unprepared to accept that not everything was so shiny in the West, that there were also problems.”
In reality, the shift from a highly industrialised, if moribund, economy in the East to one where their products could not compete, and from a communist system where the state provided everything from cradle to grave to a capitalist one with far fewer safety nets, was a shock. For citizens of the East everything changed; for their now fellow citizens in the West hardly anything did. The promised blooming landscape was choked full of weeds.
To quote Angela Merkel, who herself grew up in the East, “German unity is not a state, complete and finished, but a perpetual process.”
Successive opinion polls over the last twelve months have reported positives. Most ex-GDR citizens who responded to a Die Zeit newspaper poll described themselves as satisfied with the level of goods and services they can access, with movement and free speech, and with the improvement in their overall standard of living since reunification. They are less happy, however, with job security, with 73 per cent saying it was worse and – ironically given that they lived with the Stasi – protection from crime.
Another report, written by Marco Wanderwitz, the government ombudsman of the former GDR, also found major gaps in the way easterners and westerners view childcare, wages and trust in political leaders and state institutions. Their negative impressions are seen as playing a major part in the rising support for extremist far-right political parties in many eastern areas, which has made the AfD the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.
Perhaps the real issue here is that the physical Wall was pulled down but not the other one many German writers talk about, which existed in the minds of the citizens who lived behind it. The GDR and the FDR had very different identities and cultures: in replacing one with the other, and focussing on the very negative aspects of GDR life, did the baby get thrown out with the bathwater?
She has also written a number of Historia features, including:
- An appearance of serenity: the French fashion industry in WWII,
- The ‘hidden’ Nazis of Argentina,
- Concentration camps and the politics of memory,
- and reviews of The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan and The Bone Fire by SD Sykes and the film Outlaw King.
Monday demonstration in Leipzig (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1211-027 / CC-BY-SA 3.0): via Wikimedia
David Hasselhof singing at the Berlin New Year’s Eve celebrations, 1989: via Ribbon Around a Bomb
Berlin demonstration, 4 November, 1989 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1104-437 / Settnik, Bernd / CC-BY-SA 3.0: via Wikimedia
West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989: via Wikimedia
Angela Merkel’s GDR driving licence, 1980: via Wikimedia