The headline is not universally true, of course, but merely a reference to my own limited experience. But let me tell you how I came to it.
Last winter, when I lived in Montenegro, I met a woman who was either old enough or educated enough to know that until recently, there had been two Germanys. While we were walking through the port in Budva, she asked how reunification was going and if there were still differences between eastern and western Germany.
I appreciated the question, because it was a new one, and was about to begin a monologue about population trends, economic figures, infrastructure, election results, etc., all of it based on knowledge obtained by reading the newspapers. It is quite dangerous to pose an open-ended question to me, I should warn anyone who has yet to encounter me in person. But that evening, I interrupted myself after a few seconds, puzzled by what I had realized:
“If I am honest, I know less about eastern Germany than I do about Montenegro.”
I had been born in West Germany in 1975 and hadn’t been to the GDR once. Before I became of traveling age, communist/socialist East Germany had the audacity to cease existing. But worse and entirely my own fault, even since, I hadn’t really been to eastern Germany.
Granted, I have been to Berlin a few times. But our preppy and well-organized capital somehow defies the dichotomy of East and West and sees itself more in a league with New York and New Delhi. Apart from Berlin, I have only been to eastern Germany twice, in Hohenstein-Ernstthal and in Rostock, each time for a court date.
But back then, my life was dominated by work, deadlines and stress, and thus I just quickly popped by and returned home, or to the next court date in another part of Germany, once the job was done. I remember thinking, in both cities: “Quite pretty, but where are all the people?” Maybe they had all gone to listen to Bruce Springsteen or another communist rally.
By the way, my lack of knowledge about eastern Germany is not at all based on some resentment of anything eastern, which I unfortunately detect in many western Germans and indeed western Europeans. Quite the contrary, I find eastern Europe more fascinating than western Europe. I simply haven’t found the opportunity yet, probably because I have been busy exploring other continents. There are even some western German states that I have never set foot in.
But for a politically and historically interested person, living in the 28th year after German reunification, it seems a culpable negligence not to have explored the other half of one’s country, which does after all have quite a different history from the half one is used to. Isn’t it weird that I have more first-hand knowledge of countries like Transnistria and Abkhazia or of far-away isles like Easter Island than of eastern Germany? Until now, I have even spent more nights at Evin prison in Tehran than in the five new German states taken together.
Today, on the anniversary of reunification, I vow to rectify this deficit. And I am not talking about a few days in Leipzig or Dresden, but I am thinking of an extensive and well-researched tour of the parts of Germany yet unknown (to me). The same way I do it with foreign lands.
Eastern Germany must not be reduced to the history of the GDR, of course. After all, a whole generation has passed since. But as a student of history, I am naturally more interested in the past than in the future.
It was actually at the University of Hagen, in a seminar about “the GDR’s short-lived summer in 1965“, that I realized how little we West Germans and now pan-Germans, I guess, know about the history of East Germany. We know nothing, except uprising in 1953, construction of wall in 1961 and opening of wall in 1989. Next to me, there sat a student who had grown up in the GDR and who told me how surreal the experience was for her: “The professor is lecturing about the GDR as if it was a far-away country or ancient Egypt. But there are people in this room who have lived there. Why is nobody talking to us about it?”
For us Germans socialized in the West, that wouldn’t be a bad idea, particularly on this holiday. If you have any friends or colleagues from eastern Germany, just ask them to tell their story.
(This story was also published by Medium. – Zur deutschen Originalfassung.)
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I really hope, dass Menschen aus Ostdeutschland ihre Geschichte hier erzählen werden, um unseren Horizont zu erweitern!!
Well. Happy reunification day. I remember on the day of the reunifiucation I was as far west as you could go in the erstwhile West Germany; I spent the day in Aachen.
It almost sounds as if you wanted to escape the celebrations. ;-)
But Aachen is actually quite a nice town, in my opinion. And it was important in Carolingian times.
I don’t remember those times, but it was quite a friendly place when I was there.
That’s my memory exactly. I was only there once for a day, but it also seemed very friendly and nice to me. And the cathedral is impressive.
That it is; an impressive place with an interesting history.
I’ve been to some places and loved most of them. There are some stunningly beautiful cities, especially the smaller ones. At the same time, the issues we constantly hear from in Eastern Germany aren’t just made up or exaggerated by the media. Probably a classic light/shadow situation.
I have been to meckpom for 6 month. I loved it 👍
Ich hätte dich damals echt besuchen sollen! – Aber vielleicht wirst du ja mal wieder da hin versetzt. ;-)
Still my favourite part of Germany – Thüringen ❤. Disclaimer: This comment has nothing what-so-ever to do with Thüringer Rostbratwurst. OK, a little bit.
And I always thought the Bratwurst from Nürnberg ist the best. Or I should say the Bratwürste from Nürnberg are the best, because they are so small that you need to eat several ones.
I found a long-distance hiking path that seems suitable for my trip:
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I read this article you wrote some time ago on medium and I am reading others about East Germany here.
I am not surprised that you knew little about East Germany at the time and you weren’t the only one.
To be honest with there was very little material available about that area and time, until recent years.
I remember that I watched a documentary on TV in the late 00’s and that’s available on YouTube and years later I met someone from East Germany that spoke very fondly about life in East Germany and these people seemed to have an organised life there.
When we West Germans thought and spoke of East Germany, we always spoke of the Berlin Wall, of the Stasi secret police and of the dictatorship.
When East Germans talk about that time, they often stress the absence of capitalist pressure, of competition and a sense of security and also solidarity.
And then, there were also a number of groups and people who carved out their own little niches of freedom. Churches, environmental groups, beatniks, and – most impressive – the illegal world travellers.
I have this article about them, unfortunately only in German, but you will probably get the idea with the help of machine translation: https://andreas-moser.blog/2020/10/18/udf/
On the other hand, we also have to consider that many East Germans look back positively at the time of the GDR because it coincided with their youth and because they were disappointed after re-unification.