Recently I came across a book that deals with the generation of East Germans born between 1975 and 1982. The author, Sabine Rennefanz, an East German herself, argues that those born between the mentioned years are so called Eisenkinder (“Iron Children”) which also is the title of her book. The book retells the story of her teenage years in the eve of German reunification but largely dwells upon her life in the 1990’s. This as much is interesting but what’s more encompassing is her hypotheses which is directly linked to what many say is Germany’s most spectacular court case since the 1970’s when Germany trialled left-wing Baader-Meinhof-Group who shook up Germany with a series of terrorist attacks. The trial against Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt (the latter two were found dead two years ago) started in May and deals with the murder of at least ten people with ethnic background over the course of more then ten years. What is common to all three accused is that they were born in East-Germany or the former German Democratic Republic, to be precisely, and they have a far right wing background being members of neo-Nazi groups. And they are Iron Children. According to Rennefanz those born between 1975 and 1982 in the former GDR are a kind of lost generation that easily fell into the arms of extremists of either colour. Rennefanz herself fell for Evangelicals and found herself doing missionary work in Russia. But, she writes, it could have easily been neo-Nazi groups as well. It was just a matter of whom she came into contact with first. The reason why she and many others fell for extremist ideas, she argues, was that they were neglected by their parents who were struggling to cope with the new situation and had no time for their children. Instead they were occupied with finding their way into a new political system, mass consumption but also mass unemployment. These were the realities in the early 1990’s and though the word reunification implies the merging of at least two entities it was rather the West taking over the East. At least this was how many East Germans felt it was and still feel today.
Which brings me to myself. Born in 1979 I was ten years old when the wall came down but I feel neither lost nor iron. Maybe because my life took a different direction. In September 1989 the World Gymnastics Championships took place in Stuttgart, West Germany. My mother being a gymnastics coach had the opportunity to go there as a visitor which was unusual even more for the fact that she was 28 years old at that time. Normally the GDR would only allow pensioners to travel to the West or those loyal to the system. I only found out in the early 2000 years just how thoroughly she (and the rest of my family including me) was checked by East Germany’s secret police Stasi before her departure. I also remember that my parents were openly discussing leaving the country and my mother’s visit to Stuttgart would have been an opportunity. My father and I could have joined her later – a common strategy for many East Germans who desperately wanted to leave the country, but also not an always successful one. It was in that week when my mother visited Stuttgart, that Erich Honecker, East Germany’s last leader, stepped down from office. She returned home and the following weeks Eastern Germans wrote history.
I remember November 9th, the day the borders were opened, in particular. I was already in bed but from there I could look into a mirror through my open bedroom door and see the telly though mirrored. My parents were watching West Germany TV news (as almost everyone in East Germany unless you were a party loyal to the heart, a Stasi officer or you lived in one of the two areas in East Germany where West German TV was not accessible due to the topographic conditions). By the way, on Monday mornings at school we could always tell and mock those who were not allowed to watch West German TV because he or she was not able to chat about last night’s movie with us. Children can be cruel. As soon as the news broke my parents were off to West Berlin joining the celebrations.
The following weekend all three of us headed for West Berlin. We waited hours at the border not because passports were checked but because traffic was a nightmare. On this day or weekend every East German was granted one hundred Deutschmark “welcome money”, no strings attached. In reality the system was so loose that no one actually controlled who already had received the money or not. It was just a matter of queuing at the bank but queuing was not new to East Germany as they were used to it every year around Christmas time when they queued around the block for oranges. I admit my parents were among those and hence we did not end up with 300 Deutschmarks but with a tiny little bit more. What struck me most on this day were all the different colours on the streets, in the shops or on large ads. The first thing I bought was a children’s suitcase that was transparent but looked like an aquarium with plastic fish “swimming” in it if you gave them a little squeeze. I was so proud.
I also remember being responsible for the notice board in my classroom, the position was called ‘Aktivist’, whatever that meant. In the days after the wall came down I wrote a page long article for the notice board hurrahing the opening of the border and what a joyful moment in history this was. I did not really think about the consequences also because I was raised by my parents to be open-minded and critical about the world (they also told me to never ever use the word “Zone”, a diminutive and derogatory term for the former GDR, at school. At home they were constantly shouting it, and you know how children are when it comes to picking up words). Now while I was pretty proud of my article my school teacher wasn’t. She was a very good teacher but she was also a loyal party member or a “red sock” as they were called back then. I do not remember if I was sent home for the rest of the day but I do remember that my parents were called in at it was an episode that was to repeat itself very often in those days.
To understand the situation it is important to know that a majority of those who rallied on the streets of East Germany in 1989 calling for freedom of speech or freedom of travel did no think of Germany’s reunification in the first place. Many wanted the system to change to a more democratic one. The situation in East Germany in the late 1980s was not only one of a highly undemocratic political system but also one of economic mislead. East Germany was more or less broke and was to a large extend dependent on West German grants since the early 1980s. Today many people cannot imagine how it was to walk through cities like East Berlin, Dresden or my hometown Leipzig. These cities were virtually falling apart. It is no exaggeration that if East Germany would have existed for few more years many of the cultural heritage sites we so much cherish today would have been demolished and replaced by typical East German prefrabricated social housing. But to return to the thought, many people wanted a different GDR but not West Germany and there were many who thought that the events in autumn 1989 would soon be over and the old system would restore itself.
Soon after November 9th my parents asked for permission to leave the country, a process that would normally take up years but under the new circumstances we were granted to leave after just three weeks. Again we were called to the town hall where they tried to convince us to stay because soon things would be better. Things actually got better but not in the direction they were thinking. The German reunification is a historical event where the power of the people and the circumstances outran rational thinking. In terms of political and most of all economics terms it would have made much more sense to slowly reunify the two countries. A lot of politicians thought so but no one dared to say it aloud. Only one left wing politician, Oskar Lafontaine, actually dared to say this during the election campaigns back then and guess what? He lost. Helmut Kohl then German chancellor could not have been luckier. West Germany was facing mass unemployment in the 1980s, a slow economic growth and opinion polls were not looking good for him either. Reunification was not really on his political agenda but he gladly took it up and became ‘chancellor of the reunification’. The term that is attributed to him but to be honest it more or less was forced upon him, he was not really the driver of the process he is often accredited with.
In December 1989 we had to hand in our GDR passports and were given identity documents that left us stateless and three days to leave the country. Since there were still two countries we had to undergo the normal asylum seeker process, though a special one I have to say. For two days we had to live in a camp in Giessen, north of Frankfurt, where we were given new identity cards, passports and Coca-Cola vouchers. I particularly remember those because on the site of the camp was a large Coca-Cola can, something I have never seen before, where we could turn in our vouchers. My parents could also choose the Federal state they wished to live in and decided for Rhineland-Palatinate because that is where we had friends, former neighbours of my grandparents who had left the GDR two years earlier.
So we continued our journey and ended up in a small town near the French border, Bad Bergzabern. We stayed there only for a few months before we moved to a larger city nearby but I was later to return to that small town and eventually graduated from school there. The Red Cross provided us with a small flat or actually it was a holiday apartment and it had a foldaway bed yet another thing I had not seen before in my life. School was very different. This being the other end of Germany I was probably the first East German the other children and teachers ever saw. I on the other hand was amazed about a school subject I had not encountered so far: religious education. It amazed me and most of all it amazed the teacher. It just did not occur to them that there is a ten year old who knew almost nothing about Jesus or Christianity in general. Of course we celebrated Christmas and Easter in the GDR but without the religious background if you know what I mean. Religious faith was not part of the state’s ideology and hence pushed to the fringes of societal life. By the way this is also a reason why the church played such an important role in the events leading to the opening of the wall in 1989. At the age of fourteen, the legal age in Germany to choose your faith, I dropped this subject and took ethics where we basically did the same but without the religious undertone. Still today I have knowledge gaps and sometimes envy those who had a proper education in this field since it is such an important part of our history and culture.
While I was adapting to a new school system my parents tried to find new jobs. Both were into sports, my mother as I said before a gymnastics coach, my father a football coach. Both had to learn lessons in the following years but eventually both found respectable jobs. My father works as head of physical education in a forensic detention centre and my mother still is a gymnastics coach. The reason I am telling you this is that from my perspective they are ‘winners’ of the events of 1989 in the sense that their lives moved on in a positive way. Their private life did not and they divorced in the mid-nineties but still as far as I can say both are happy today. What amazes me though is how different each of them perceives life in the GDR and life in the aftermath of the 1989 events.
A few years ago my father gave me a copy of what we call in Germany ‘Stasi-documents’ meaning copies of the files that were collected about him, my mother and me by the former East German secret police. Many passages are blackened to protect the names of former unofficial agents (if you want those names you have to file another application) and most of the pages deal with my mother’s journey the Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart in 1989 I mentioned earlier. The documents are full of detailed accounts of our family life, how we get on with each other, what we do on weekends, how we live etc. A lot of the information is also false. For example they assumed we must have a garden outside the city where we spend our weekends. Truth was that my mother usually was away on a competition, so was my father and I often had a swimming competition at the weekend or was either with my father or my mother. For sure we did not have a garden. Now, one could laugh at this if it were not so real. Of course it is past but it is also real which frankly gives me second thoughts about the whole issue of Edward Snowden’s recent revelations.
Keeping this in mind, it is completely different whether I talk about the GDR with my mother or my father. My mother and I more or less agree on issues about the GDR, that it was a totalitarian state spying on its people, confining freedom of speech but also personal freedom since you were not allowed to travel anywhere you wanted. I think she could not wait to leave this country. Talking to my father about the GDR is different. Sometimes I have the feeling he tries to defend it by comparing present day Germany and its policies to the former GDR. He complains about the down sides of capitalism and how this or that isn’t better than it was back then. In many instances I agree with him. I also think that many policies or developments in Germany are taking the wrong direction. But what I also tell him is that today we have a choice. You can vote for a different party or the same if your desired party is in the opposition and the chance for a political change is always there. And that is a fundamental difference to the GDR. If you are unsatisfied you can speak it out aloud, something that was not possible in East Germany before 1989. Sometimes I wonder if it has to do with the fact that the former GDR is after all an important part of his life. He was born there, he grew up there, he had a good job. And now everyone is telling him the country where he spent more than thirty years of his life was a totalitarian dictatorship. The saying goes that the more far away historical events are the more we are apt to turn a blind eye on its negative sides. Maybe this is what is happening. But then I have very deep and joyful remembrances of my first ten years in the GDR too. Still, that does not mean I can’t be critical of the GDR.
After graduating from school I moved back to Leipzig in east Germany to go to university. I always wanted that, not only because Leipzig is my birthplace but the city has taken a lot of efforts since 1989 and it is one of the most beautiful and most vibrant cities in Germany today. I returned to the East almost ten years after my parents and I left which makes me neither East German nor West German. I guess it makes me German after all (I actually prefer European but that is a different story). Thus, knowing “both sides” I have a pretty relaxed attitude toward East-Germans and West-Germans, “Ossis” and “Wessis” how they are called. Of course one can still see differences in attitude and mentality but this also makes this country so interesting after all. Sometimes I envy those born after 1989, not knowing what the GDR, the wall and all other things were from first hand experience. They do not care about differences in East and West because they never experienced them. What I do not envy them about at all is that they could not be witness to an event that changed not only my life but also those of million others.
The Guardian published parts of this article on 7 November 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/guardianwitness-blog/2014/nov/07/-sp-berlin-wall-readers-memories-its-hard-to-remember-how-scary-the-wall-was