Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
It’s already been nearly a quarter of a century since the two Germanies were reunified. An entire generation that never experienced life in a divided country has already graduated from university. Common sense suggests that young Germans are looking exclusively at the future, and the country has moved on from the debates over reunification and the fate of East Germany.
But common sense is wrong.
Born in East Germany, Marie Landsberg was only six years old when the Berlin Wall fell. When she was growing up, like so many of her peers in what had once been East Germany, she didn’t pay much attention to the past.
“It wasn’t cool,” she told me in an interview in February in Berlin. “Everyone tried so hard to be Western. At school when we did history, we didn’t really deal with the GDR past. We had so much about the Second World War for years and years, and it was like the teachers didn’t know how to touch this topic because it was still so close. The first one that tried to touch the East-West situation, the GDR, and West Germany was a very young teacher from West Germany who tried to deal with it in the lessons. But he was also a bit insecure because he didn’t want to touch anyone’s emotions. It was still very touchy business. The schoolbooks were very one-sided, very much written from the Western perspective on the GDR. We didn’t really deal with the past.”
But that reluctance among young people in former East Germany to deal with the past is changing, largely thanks to Dritte Generation Ost – Third Generation East, an organization in Germany devoted to young people wrestling with the legacy of East Germany. The organization, founded only a couple years ago, has already organized a number of important activities.
“We published a book with 33 authors of that generation talking about their experience with certain stories that they felt needed to be told,” Landsberg told me. “Last year we had a big tour with a bus through East Germany where we set up some events in each and every little city or village we went through. We had discussions on different topics and invited young people to do something in their area. That’s one problem in East Germany: our generation is leaving. They live in other parts of the world like West Germany or somewhere in Europe. The ones that left and just came back, we wanted to meet them and see what they were doing and how they were doing it. We wanted to talk to politicians. We have a lot of supporters on the political side, which is very good, people who think that it’s good for the young generation to make connections between the generations and between East and West.”
Third Generation East sees reunification as an ongoing process that it would like to facilitate through individual encounters among people from east and west. “There are still prejudices between the former two parts of Germany,” Landsberg concluded. “So, it’s important to have personal encounters, to do projects together. That’s something that we want to do more in the next years: not only talk about it from a distance, but to really go to different regions, exchange and invite everyone to do something together.”
Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell?
I was born in East Berlin, and I remember the night when the Wall came down. I was six years old. My parents really couldn’t believe it. Either it was this night or the next night, but I just remember that I was really excited because we could stay up longer. We got in our little East German Trabant and drove along the Wall in the middle of Berlin and went to West Berlin just to have a look. I was a child, so I just felt like, “We were just home and now I feel like we are in such a different place because it feels very different.” I remember there was some Turkish lady standing next to her fruit shop and the atmosphere was so different that I really felt like I was in a different country. The smell was so different.
Do you remember how old you were when you understood what the fall of the Wall meant?
I think I understood it quite early because it had such a great impact on my family. Just before the Wall came down and I was still in kindergarten I understood that there was some change and I asked my mother, “What is happening, is everything okay?” And she said, “Yes, we will get some help from the West.” That is what I remember. I didn’t understand what was happening from one day to the other. But I just got involved in it in the 1990s because there was so much insecurity and my dad lost his job. My parents had to orient themselves and see what their opinion was about this change and whether they liked it or not. To really get what this actually meant took me until one or two years ago to see how special was the place where I was living before, what it made of the people, the certain policy directions in the 1990s, how the West acted, how they dealt with it, how it was communicated, how they said it’s reunification but actually it was not, what it meant to the people, and so on. It’s not that I just started thinking about it and getting interested in it. Over the last 20 years, my family and me, we were just trying to get things done and not deal with it and not think about it. We were trying to be in the present and in the future.
Was there a point in the last couple of years when something switched in your head and you began to think about it differently?
There are different times when I had these moments. First, after school I went to France and lived there for one year. That’s when I really met people from West Germany. I think I had only one classmate in school who was from the West. Otherwise we were in our own East Berlin world. It wasn’t like the Wall came down and the West was there. The people were the same. So, when I was in France I met people from West Germany and realized that they didn’t have any clue. There was one girl who asked me, “Oh, you’re from East Germany, why don’t you speak like that?” There was an image of East Germans that was very superficial. It didn’t have anything to do with reality. Even though I didn’t feel like it, I had to defend something that I actually didn’t deal with consciously and didn’t feel like defending. But I felt like I had to defend it because it’s a part of my identity, and others just had an image that had nothing to do with the people and their past and how they see the world or this East-West issue. That was maybe the first time.
Now I’m working in an organization with all of these people of my age that feel that there must be a change in how the GDR past is dealt with and there must be different, more objective or more neutral discussions. Since then, I started to talk about topics with my parents I never touched before, about the bad, cruel stuff that happened in GDR times. This is a part of the past that before we had rather avoided dealing with, and my parents have difficulty dealing with it because it’s a very emotional issue.
I was in Norway for half a year, and they have another perspective on all of this Iron Curtain history, on the role of America and the Soviet Union. A Norwegian friend of mine found me so exotic because I am from East Germany. For them, we were part of the Communist part so we were the former enemies. I have never seen it this way. For me we were never Communistic. When I found out that they have a friend-enemy issue in Norway as well, I began to talk with people there. Talking about my past and about the GDR always happened in encounters with people with different perspectives.
You said when you were growing up that every one was pretty much like you. You didn’t really have the opportunity to confront differences.
You never had these conversations in your teenage years.
It wasn’t cool. Everyone tried so hard to be Western. At school when we did history, we didn’t really deal with the GDR past. We had so much about the Second World War for years and years, and it was like the teachers didn’t know how to touch this topic because it was still so close. The first one that tried to touch the East-West situation, the GDR, and West Germany was a very young teacher from West Germany who tried to deal with it in the lessons. But he was also a bit insecure because he didn’t want to touch anyone’s emotions. It was still very touchy business. The schoolbooks were very one-sided, very much written from the Western perspective on the GDR. We didn’t really deal with the past. No one wanted to deal with something that was just behind them. The public was told that this was a bad country and that bad things happened, so why would you want to be identified with that? It’s natural that, when you’re young, you’re not really interested in the past. You’re dealing with your own issues and about the future.
Everyone was eager to be Western. What did it mean to be Western for a teenager?
Watching all of these TV shows and getting all of this consumer stuff: toys and clothes and listening to hip hop music. I think it wasn’t that conscious. We were just growing up at that time and were influenced by the media. It was just the normal youth culture that, of course, was different from the one before. I think it was something really unconscious: you wanted to be more modern because you’re young. And modern meant being more Western.
Tell me a bit about the founding of this organization. Whose idea was it? What are the goals? The programs…?
The initiative came from Adriana Lettrari, who’s from north Germany. She started to talk about something that had been on her mind for a while. She had this experience sitting in front of the TV in 2009, watching the broadcasts of the festivities around the 20th anniversary of the Wall coming down. She just realized that there were the same old men sitting there discussing the collapse of the Wall and the time after. It was always the same people discussing East and West: always the same old men. She got angry, and I think that’s an experience a lot of people in our generation had – a point where they really get angry about the one-sided narrative. People from the opposition in East Germany are heard and so are people from the West, from the old Federal Republic, with their very special Western, Cold War perspective. We are just different, and she thought that our perspective is needed in these discussions. We grew up in East Germany, and we are close to our parents, but we have another perspective and that should be heard.
Very soon after she asked other people of this generation, both East and West, she realized that they knew what she meant and that they were really more and more upset about it. So a group of eight people formed this initiative and decided to have a conference to see for whom else it was an issue, to see if it was something that just touches us or if it touches more people of our age. They wrote a grant proposal and were successful so they could have the conference done. A lot of people came, the house was full and the press came too. It was a real success in all senses, and the feedback was positive. It was in the Collegium Hungaricum, and the Hungarian director of this Collegium was very supportive. They didn’t really need to explain much about it: he just got it and was very supportive. We had the second conference at the end of last year there. They see a connection: our issues of East Germany can be applied to Eastern Europe as well where a whole generation has gone through this transformation.
Our goal is to change the public discussion by introducing our perspective. There is neither good nor bad, there is something in between and we want to explore that. We want to really talk about something without feeling there are things we should not talk about. I don’t think there are words we should not say because they are not PC. We want to just find things out. We want to talk with our parents’ generation because there are so many people who still don’t want to or just can’t talk about it. It’s a matter of communication.
We published a book with 33 authors of that generation talking about their experience with certain stories that they felt needed to be told. Last year we had a big tour with a bus through East Germany where we set up some events in each and every little city or village we went through. We had discussions on different topics and invited young people to do something in their area. That’s one problem in East Germany: our generation is leaving. They live in other parts of the world like West Germany or somewhere in Europe. The ones that left and just came back, we wanted to meet them and see what they were doing and how they were doing it. We wanted to talk to politicians. We have a lot of supporters on the political side, which is very good, people who think that it’s good for the young generation to make connections between the generations and between East and West.
How did you get involved?
When I was driving to Leipzig, I heard two speeches from the first conference on the radio. They were broadcasting presentations from two scientists. I’d never really heard people dealing with such experiences in such an open and direct way. There was one scientist who was talking about the feeling of the Wall coming down. She thought, “Yes, it’s good that we are now unified.” She began to study at the university in West Berlin and then realized, “but the image they have of me is totally wrong.” So she started to be East German even though she wasn’t feeling that way before at all: she felt German living in a unified country. But she put it in a very scientific way that was very interesting for me — to get away from the emotional part and look at it as a matter of what actually happened. I was very interested, so I looked up the organization and found that they were looking for people to help with the organizing. I applied, and then organized this bus tour.
Were there stories or encounters from that bus tour were just really surprising to you?
Every day we were in another place, every day we met different people, and every day we had an event going on. It was very exhausting, and you got so many impressions from one day to another. One experience that touched me very much was the prison we went to in Bautzen. This was a part of East German history, the Stasi prisons, that I somehow had avoided dealing with before. It was really exhausting talking about the past, but this part surprised me that it touched me so much. I started to wonder why I hadn’t dealt with it in the last 20 years, with how they treated prisoners and how they did business with political prisoners and so forth.
I was also really surprised by how much was going in Oberlausitz in the east close to the Czech Republic. There are many brave, young engaged people that have different projects and really want to do something there. There were Western Germans there because they feel like they have some freedom from their hometown. This mixture of people was very interesting, and there were these beautiful mountains and so much space where you can do so much: you can really make your dreams come true if you like. Of course, you have to be more engaged than in other parts of the country where the infrastructure is better. But we saw an old pasta factory that they’d restored and made a cultural house out of, where they have meetings and regional art shows.
There were so many good things we saw, so many people trying to make the best out of a very special situation. In the north it was sometimes a bit difficult to find people who are optimistic and want to do something and really see their responsibility for the country as a whole. That’s something that’s still missing. People complain: they don’t see that they are responsible for part of it.
Before you took the job, what were you doing?
I organized seminars for journalists from Asia and Africa on development policy. It was a little international institute for journalism, which was part of an international organization for economic and political collaboration. It’s one of the big associations in Germany dealing with the development policy. I was the first person these African and Asian journalists were talking to when they came here and didn’t know how things worked.
Some people here have told me that in Bavaria or in Bonn they don’t really think much about unification or what happened. That seems to be a real obstacle to changing the discourse: they don’t even seem to care. Do you encounter that?
Of course, we encounter that. I think that’s one of the main things that’s disturbing for us. There seems to be such a lack of interest on the Western part. It’s not everyone. We have people in our group from West Germany who are very much interested in it, and some of our friends in West Germany are also interested in it. But if it’s geographically far away, you do not feel the changes yourself. I also have more difficulty being interested in what happens in Japan than what happens next to us in Great Britain. So I can understand this, but I think people in Germany need to deal with it because it is a part of German history. I had nothing to do with West Germany, but when I was in seventh grade I learned the names of the chancellors from the 1950s on. This felt strange because it had nothing to do with me or my story or my parents. But it is part of Germany and part of me. The East German history should be part of what they know about Germany as well.
Do you have any ideas, personally or organizationally, about how to change that? Not just the mindset of people here in Berlin, but I mean for people in Bonn and Munich. How do you change their minds?
If you want to change the mind of the majority and you’re a minority, you have to be very loud and bang your hand on the table and say, “Hey listen to us, we have something to tell you and you should deal with it!” All minorities have to be very loud, like the Turkish minority. If they want the majority to listen to them, they can’t wait. We have to ask for it very strongly and show a lot of self-consciousness.
There are still prejudices between the former two parts of Germany. So, it’s important to have personal encounters, to do projects together. That’s something that we want to do more in the next years: not only talk about it from a distance, but to really go to different regions, exchange and invite everyone to do something together. That brings people together and makes it easier to understand the other’s perspective.
Have you heard any negative responses from the older generation, from older GDR people who don’t really want to talk about these things, who want to pretend the past didn’t exist and to just go forward and think about the future?
We do, but not in the sense of “please don’t talk about it.” The older generation wants to talk about it, but they have difficult really talking about it because it’s really so emotional. I’ve tried to get behind why it’s so difficult for the older generation to talk about the GDR. Of course, there are people that don’t really like what we do. But then they notice that we’re not in the usual position of trying to explain to them how their GDR was but that we just want to know how it was and that we aren’t judging anyone. It’s a matter of where we come from that we don’t have to say that this was good or this was bad or that we know better. The more you talk with people the more they understand that it’s okay. But we are always asking people to talk openly about their experience, and still there are some people who just stay mute or feel easily offended. It’s a very sensitive thing. You have to be especially careful because we grew up with the Western thinking so we ourselves are using words or comparisons – like comparing the GDR with the Nazi regime — that can be too much for people. I can understand formally that they were both dictatorships, but that’s too much for people who have their own GDR that was somehow positive for them because they had good experiences and they didn’t want to notice the bad parts of it or they got used to the bad things.
Have you been to the GDR museum?
I went through, but not too much. We know the director because we had a reading from our book there. I just had a short glance, so I can’t really tell you much about it. I think it’s a “GDR for tourists,” but I have to go through it to really say anything about it. I feel a bit bad when I see something put in a way like: “this is the GDR show and look how funny socialism was.”
You mentioned how, when you were in Norway, your friend treated you as an exotic person.
He called me “exotic” and that stayed in my mind. What I connect with “exotic” is tropical islands. I think it would be strange for you if there was a museum of the United States that put the whole U.S.A. with the history of the last 40 years that tells stories of the political dimension and the bad things that are happening and the good things. It’s just generally strange to go into your own country’s museum. You can’t tell the whole story. Something will always be forgotten.
You’re the third generation. I am curious to know if you’ve had any encounters with people who were born in the eastern part of the Germany who are younger than you. They are just now becoming teenagers. Do they have some of the same questions that you have, or are there a different set of questions?
On the tour, we went to schools and had workshops with young students. They were really sweet, between 12 and 16. We had, for example, a workshop where we asked them beforehand to bring photos of their family that they connected with the time before the Wall came down or the 1990s or something that means something to them concerning this topic. Then we talked with them about it. They were telling us that their parents are still talking a lot about this time, and the East-West issue is still there. But since their parents were talking so much about it, it was not an interesting topic to them. When they talked to us and, more so, with each other, they realized that exchanging their experience is different from just listening to their parents. To talk with each other and exchange the experiences of their families, especially of the 1990s, is more an issue for them because it made them realize that certain insecurities and certain East German issues were the same in all families, even among their classmates
What I found a bit strange is that some people in this very young generation still make a difference between them as east Germans and west Germans. I was talking to a west German man who had his children in school in Leipzig, and they were treated a bit differently because they were from the west. On the one hand the pupils at school don’t know anything about the GDR because they don’t learn about it and, of course, like us at that age, are not very interested in it. The younger generation told us this was not a topic for them, it doesn’t make any sense to them. On the other hand, something is still passed from one generation to another, maybe am abstract feeling of otherness. I hope that prejudices are not always passed from one generation to another. However, I don’t know if it’s going to be different so very soon because a political and economical system changes the mentality of people. So, people are different in some parts of the east and west. I don’t think that’s a problem. It’s always regarded as a problem and we should all be the same, East Germans should be more like the West Germans. But why?
No one ever says the West Germans should be more like the East Germans?
No. No one really says that, except maybe some people living in the eastern part.
If there were two people on either side of you, one from North Korea and one from South Korea, what would be your recommendations to them as they consider their own reunification?
They should take it easy. Have it happen in a very slow way, don’t do it too fast. The reunification in Germany was just too fast. But it was also because it was this politician Günther Schabowski accidentally saying at an international press conference that everyone could travel freely from then on, even though this was wrong. So, make it a slow process, do a lot of public communication. Tell them how it is: if it’s unification, if it’s really two systems coming together and making something new, taking good things from both systems, then explain that and make the best of it. But if it’s one part taking over the other and putting its system, with the bad and the good, on top of the other, then you should also tell that to the people so they don’t have the wrong expectations. Otherwise, they’ll get disappointed. They’ll think, “this is not unification, we are just being taken over.” Take the wishes of the people seriously, otherwise you will have to deal with the results of it 25 years later when some people don’t want to participate in a society they don’t identify with.
You’ve talked a lot about the importance of talking and sharing stories and not having taboo subjects. Is it too late to consider taking the good parts from the GDR history and making something new here in Germany, or was that opportunity over in 1989-1990?
There was some ambition to have a real reunification at that time. But this chance is over. What you can do now is make little changes in the system, like dealing with current problems. It would take a deep, deep, deep crisis – some kind of revolution, even if it’s peaceful — to make that huge change, to have a totally different idea realized. The situation is still too good in Germany. Maybe in Greece or Portugal or Spain there are chances to change things fundamentally. Here people, even though they don’t really participate in society, have their house and car and family. People have food. They still are satisfied somehow, so the crisis is not deep enough and the energy of people is not big enough to make huge changes. It is clear that the current situation in our globalized world strongly needs amelioration and change. But that mustn’t mean changing the system itself totally. To have a democracy is so important. But democracy is not used enough by the people: many don’t realize that they themselves can make things better. And I don’t have real solutions to the mechanisms of today As long as we don’t have an alternative, we should work with what we have.
Were there other changes within the system that you would advocate for based on your experience?
What I found in Norway felt a bit like in East Germany – the strong value of equality. For example, in Norway they publish every year in the newspaper how much the richest people earn and how much they donate. I could not imagine that being done here. But they have that strong expectation that everyone who has more should give something back because with money comes responsibility for the community. From my background and from my family, everyone was the same, and really you didn’t feel any better than anyone else because of what you did at your job or where you came from. The payment for different jobs was more equal in East Germany. I still can’t understand why someone working at a hospital as a nurse gets so much less money than someone working in a bank. Salaries and the value of jobs for the common welfare: this is something I would like to think about from the GDR perspective.
If you look back at 1989 at everything that’s changed until today, how would you evaluate everything that has changed or not changed in Germany over that period of time on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being the least satisfied and ten being most satisfied?
I would put it at 4.5.
Same time period, same scale: your own personal life?
I think my personal life would be a 7.
Looking a couple years into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects in this country on the same scale?
I can’t look into the future. With the whole Euro crisis I can’t really tell what the impact will be in Germany. Some people say it can only get worse. I think generally we have hit a limit for development. I would also be a bit more pessimistic. Maybe keep it on 5 because we can still make changes.
Berlin, February 7, 2013