Germany: Reunification – one word, two lies

Detail from the "East Side Gallery", a surviving section Berlin Wall, 2007. Photo : Brozzi / Flickr
Detail from the "East Side Gallery", a surviving section Berlin Wall, 2007. Photo : Brozzi / Flickr
6 November 2009 – Cicero (Berlin)

Eastern Germans have too been too busy adapting to a new society to settle their accounts with the former German Democratic Republic. And upholding the myth of reunification will only serve to stifle any real debate, comments the writer Thomas Brussig.

Ever since my debut as a writer back in 1995 I’ve been saying that efforts to come to terms with the GDR got bogged down – or more precisely, stifled – by German unification. Unification turned virtually every East German’s life upside down; it would have been a luxury to sit around discussing “what happened then”. People had to take out the right insurance policies first, train for job interviews, get acquainted with those creatures called “landlords”. Life after the Wende (turnaround) was of such an unromantically worldly cast for East Germans that looking back at all would have been counterproductive.

I started out studying sociology to put behind me for good all the stuff the commentators from Neues Deutschland (East German Socialist Party’s official newspaper) had rammed down my throat. Only those who couldn’t make their way in this strange new world could afford to think back on East Germany – which was devoid of all the problems that are tripping us up now. That was when the wave of nostalgia for East Germany first got rolling, picking up momentum as it swept up all those still alienated by this new life and unable to find fulfilling lives after the Wende. There were more of them than is generally assumed in the West, and they were not only ex-Stasi (state security) operatives and other die-hard red riffraff. The photographer Joachim Liebe, who had taken pictures of the autumn 1989 demonstrations, managed to track down some of the demonstrators years later: of the ten subjects who were willing to talk to him at all, only one now has a good life to show for it after all these years. The others scrape by, pulling through somehow or other. That only one of us East Germans can be chancellor is clear enough, but unification could have treated us to a better success rate than one out of ten.

GDR – not the Third Reich

Since 1995 I have also been saying that I don’t see any chance of a genuine debate about the GDR comparable to the ’68 generation’s reckoning with their parents and the Nazi horrors of the past. East Germany simply did not leave behind such monstrous and concomitantly eschatological questions; it did not begin a war of aggression or commit genocide. The worst thing about the GDR was that it lasted so long. Nor should we underestimate the demographic component: while in 1968 a whole generation was putting its parents to the acid test, nowadays at most one-fifth of Germany’s student generation can put their parents in the dock: the rest really had nothing to do with the GDR.

Yet now the debate is going full tilt. Is this the long-awaited day of reckoning? Unfortunately, no. Now that the politicians have joined the fray, it looks likely to get mired in hollow formulas. We’re not getting anywhere now with buzzwords like “state injustice” and “totalitarian regime” here, “not everything was that bad” there. However, at least two aspects of the debate are indeed new and desirable: First off, the West finally has to put up with being assayed and assessed by the East – it was always the other way round in the past. Yet the Wende gave East Germans a moment of freedom to rethink and reshape their situation. And secondly, word seems to have got round by now that the instruments used to dissect the Third Reich are not well suited to picking the GDR apart ex post facto.

Time for a new helping of history

West Germany insisted on an unconstitutional adherence to its constitution, and quashed any debate about how pan-Germany ought to look with the deathdealing slogan “No experiments!” The capital was moved and a solidarity tax imposed, to be sure. But for the rest the watchword was: Everything stays the same in the West. Reunification? One word, two lies. There was nothing “re” about it, seeing as Germany within its 1990 borders had never existed before. And accession is not the same thing as unification. “Capitalism hasn’t won,” said a piece of graffiti in 1990, “it’s only left over.”

Since then East-West German relations have been a minefield. Now as then, the only issue in the East is the “unification shock” and its repercussions, which is generally hushed up in the West. The fact that the East is unhappy with the West and the West unhappy with the East cuts us all to the quick. Unification was achieved with so much hope and optimism, with so much fellow feeling and mutual affection! And now?

There was 1968, there was 1989. Periodically speaking at any rate, it ought to be time for another hefty helping of history again now. And indeed there is something that could be served up on the table: everything that got swept under the rug back in 1990.

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