When I lived in the States aged 16, I was asked a fair amount of weird questions about Germany. There were mostly the many variants of „Do you have X in Germany?“ [Replace X by anything from electricity to chickens. I am dead serious.] Other than that, the biggest portion of questions was concerned with German history, mostly along the lines of the obligatory „Are you a Nazi?“ I have written about this in my post on German patriotism. Today I want to address a different question I was asked back then which seems a little more unusual. It was „So are you from the good or the bad part?“
As a Northerner I should have replied: „If by the bad part you mean Bavaria, I am from the good part.“ (I am kidding, obviously. Or am I? ;)) But that was not what the question was after. I quickly translated it in my head to „Are you from the West (good) or the East (bad)?“ Although I think I just replied that I was from Hamburg which is the West, I cringe at the the many things that are wrong with the question to begin with.
A while back I sat with my temporary roommate over breakfast, conversation carried us from topic to topic, and eventually I showed her this youtube video.
It is a song by German singer songwriter Reinhard Mey, someone I have also mentioned before in my patriotism post, and it tells the history of Berlin from 1945 until 1990, finishing with the downfall of the Berlin wall. A West Berliner, Mey sings:
I lived my whole life in half a city.
What do I say now that you give me the other half as well?
My roommate, who grew up in the Southwest, in Stuttgart, and I were both in tears, and she said: „No one ever explained that to us properly. Going to school in Southern Germany you were just never told what a huge deal it was when that wall came down and why.“
It is true that not even history classes in Germany seem to pay enough attention to this part of German history (at least in my days) – possibly because they are so eager to hammer into the students the fact that the Third Reich was horrible and is never to happen again. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for teaching about that. But I am not enjoying the fact that we teach kids the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, the „good“ capitalist part of the country, but not about the German Democratic Republic, the „bad“ socialist part. And don’t even get me started on the fact that in this discussion, the countries are usually opposed not on grounds of their political systems, but the economical ones. It isn’t democracy vs. dictatorship. It is capitalism vs. socialism. And since when is capitalism the best invention since sliced bread? Both countries are one today – but does that mean that the history of only one half of it should be valid?
From my experience, a lot of people in the West don’t know anything about GDR history – neither about the political dimension of it nor about the country’s cultural and social parameters. They think the same way that I thought for most of my life: „That’s all in the past, so let’s just move on.“ I don’t think it’s quite that easy anymore.
When I was 19, I started college in what used to be the GDR. Reunification had happened 13 years previously. I didn’t think the East-West-thing would be any issue whatsoever, to be honest, I didn’t even think about it as a „thing“. Only the ignorance of a Westerner could have allowed me to do that. Because as I met people my own age who were born in the GDR, I realized that in their lives things had actually become different after the political change. And that was the thing: I couldn’t relate to that. Neither in 1989 when the wall came down nor in 1990 when the countries were reunified did I notice anything different. But these new friends of mine remembered a monetary reform. They remembered their first „West toys“. They had parents lose their jobs or, very much less often, find a new, better one. They remembered being disappointed because they weren’t allowed in the socialist Youth organization, the „Free German Youth“ – because it ceased to exist. And they told me how they were nor allowed to sing certain ideologically laden children’s songs anymore and didn’t understand why at the time.
People who are culturally interested ask me sometimes if differences between the East and the West are still noticeable. I think that’s less and less the case, but it’s not as easy as just saying that there aren’t any. Especially people who lived the bigger portion of their lives in the GDR – how could they not be influenced by that? It was a specific culture, a specific system that shaped them, and in today’s Germany, very often there is no acknowledgement, no place for that. The GDR is reduced to a secret police and lack of freedom. But there was more to the country than that – such as a well-functioning social system, or a rich and colourful art scene.
There is a meaningful and symbolic piece of information when it comes to that. The constiution of the Federal Republic of Germany is called the „Basic Law“ – and not the Constitution. This is because after World War II, it was given in the hope that one day, there would be an actual constution that would be valid for a reunified Germany. But when reunification came, there was no new, no mutual constitution. Instead the GDR became subject to the existing Basic Law. This is why some people call the reunification not that, but an annex of the GDR through the Federal Republic.
I may have a specifically emotional relationship to this topic, especially for a Westerner. I would hope that our culture would allow more room for this part of its past. After all, history has made us what we are today. I don’t think it is healthy to push aside vital parts of any organism’s past. Why should it be different for a country than it is for a person?