Is there still such a place as "East Germany"? An activist tells about what remains of the land of his birth

 

The Third Generation East Germany bus in search of a vanished country

THE BERLIN WALL FELL twenty-three years ago and the Germans who once lived behind it have been struggling to fill the void it left behind ever since. Systemic underdevelopment, unemployment, crime, xenophobia, and depopulation have all come together to make many regions of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) into the nation’s poorhouse. Although the Cold War itself is feeling more and more like ancient history every day, its legacy is visible all across the East. But the East is also a place of innovation, renewal, and stunning natural beauty. Yes, the unemployment rate is still twice that of the western states, but the fact that both Germany’s President and Chancellor are products of the former GDR shows that the region hasn’t been entirely left behind by history.

But what does it mean to be an East German today? In late May of 2012 a group of activists set off on a twelve-day “Third Generation East Bus Tour” throughout the territory of the former East Germany to talk to young people about their lives and hopes. According to its mission statement, the project

serves to connect and support the third generation of East Germans throughout Germany as well as exchanges with other interested persons. Our goal is to establish a discussion among people of the third generation in order to promote involvement, the exchange of knowledge and experiences, and reflection.

That is why the project is aimed both at those who have stayed behind and those who have departed {for western Germany}. Building both real and virtual networks, the project pursues the aim of encouraging and supporting the third generation of East Germans with their special competencies. It actively shapes societal processes and thus also the future.

The project intrigued me for what it suggests about Germany’s recent past and its long-term future, so I contacted author and cartoonist Alexander Fromm (38), one of the organizers, to discuss the program over tea at my Berlin flat.

Alex, we’re now living in the year 2012. Is there really still such a place as “East Germany”? After all, there is now an entire generation of young people among us who were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We certainly do have an eastern Germany, just as we have a southern Germany and a western Germany, regions that differ from one another in a variety of ways. We’re dealing with a forty-year history, and the 1989 revolution also has a special history, that distinguishes this region from the West. The people there speak differently and they experience different things. As long as we still have people around us who experienced the GDR, there will be an East Germany.

The five eastern German states plus Berlin

I understand what you mean about the other regional differences, but they mostly go back a lot further. West Germans in the Rhineland have a history dating back to the era of Roman settlement, and Bavarians are special due to a number of historical factors, particularly religion, which has its roots in the Reformation and other events. Do you think we’ll still be talking about a separate eastern identity twenty-three years from now?

I’m not a prophet. But one thing we learned during the Third Generation Tour is that when people talk about the East, they are mainly talking about clichés. When you get hung up on certain platitudes, you don’t see reality being expressed through language. And unless we start speaking openly, and really lay our cards on the table, it could be that in twenty-three years we’ll still be saying the same things.

You took part in the Third Generation Bus Tour. Who precisely is this “Third Generation”?

It’s a sociological concept used to describe the GDR. The first generation were the pioneers, that is to say, our grandparents, who built it up after the war. The second generation were our parents, the first people to be born in the GDR, who also lived and worked there. The third generation is us: People who were born in the GDR and experienced their childhood there, but then experienced reunification and became part of united Germany.

And what was the aim of the tour?

We staged a very successful conference last year called “Third Generation East” and wanted to continue the project in 2012. The problem was that everything always takes place in Berlin and with the same set of academics, so we were just stewing in our own juices. That sort of thing doesn’t take you any further. So the idea was to do a bus tour where we would drive around the East in the shape of a giant figure eight. This allowed us to visit all five federal states, plus Berlin. And we didn’t just want to go to Leipzig and Dresden, but mainly to marginal areas. We went to places like the Erz Mountains and in Upper Lusatia in an effort to see what was happening with the Third Generation.

 

Bonjour tristesse: Prefab mass housing in Hoyerswerda, Upper Lusatia, early 1990s

What kind of response did you get from young people?

We met a lot of dedicated people along the way. And yet I found that we had a hard time actually reaching the Third Generation. Part of this is certainly due to the fact that many of them are simply no longer present, since they have moved westward in the quest for jobs. I think part of it may also have to do with the fact that the format of the bus tour looked very professional, rather like a government-sponsored campaign of some sort. We were sponsored by the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship, which paid for the bus and our accommodation, although not our food – it was hardly a first-class trip, I might add – but we mostly ended up speaking to the Second Generation. I’m not quite sure how we should approach the Third Generation – we might need to launch a new tour where we send out individual teams who would try to live in a place for a week or so and figure out what’s really going on under the surface. We only stopped in each town for a day. It’s like touring Europe – you can’t really discover Europe that way either.

How did the project begin?

The “Third Generation East” initiative was the brainchild of {32-year-old German political scientist} Adriana Lettrari. One day she was watching a TV broadcast marking the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 revolution. The talk show, hosted by journalist Anne Will, featured six people. Five of them were West Germans and only one of them came from the East. And she started wondering A) why are there so many old people sitting here? B) Why are there only men on the panel? C) Why is it just West Germans talking about what kind of society the East had been? And she saw a discrepancy, because what these talking heads were saying had nothing to do with her own reality. She saw these old men sitting there and decided the discourse needed new wind in its sails.

You yourself are part of the Third Generation. How does your age group differ from its contemporaries in western Germany?

Actually, we had Wessis {West Germans} on our strategy team, so it’s not as if we’re an exclusive club of some kind. But what the eastern generation share is the fact that they got to know two systems: Childhood in the GDR, a socialist dictatorship, then the disruption of the revolution, followed by youth in united Germany. What a lot of us experienced was our parents’ confusion: They were born in the GDR, adjusted themselves as best they could – some better than others – then came the collapse. They had no idea what to do, were frequently unemployed, their school degrees and professional qualifications were suddenly worthless. It was an ordeal that probably was never experienced in such a collective way in the West.

The Third Generation team in action. Eastern Germany is a heavily agricultural region. 

How do you regard the overall situation in the East these days? The region’s development seems to be extremely uneven.

That’s certainly the case in the periphery. In Western Pomerania and the Erz Mountains the young people all move away. There’s a massive drop in property values, because there are no jobs to keep the economy going. So when the Third Generation takes off for greener pastures, there isn’t a fourth one to take its place. But there are also boom regions, like much of Saxony. And often you’ll have beautifully restored central cities but no young people to move into them.

One major motive for the tour was to check out local job markets. The prevailing view is that the East suffers from chronic unemployment and all the young people are heading West. But there’s also this idea of “Go East, young man.” Our first stop was in the town of Schwedt, a planned city of prefab high rises built by the communists on the Oder River that is centered around the oil refining industry. The industrial plants have been entirely modernized since reunification. We spoke with industrial leaders there, and they said that within the next ten years they will be needing around 600 professionals. The current staff is gradually retiring and they’ll be needing new people, young people. So the question is, how do you get people to move to Schwedt? Aside from the prospect of new jobs, how can we make the city attractive enough for people to want to move there? We organized a discussion on that.

Prosperous Jena, Thuringia, with its iconic "Jentower" 

Then there's the town of Jena in Thuringia, a popular university town and the home of the world-famous Carl Zeiss optical works and other high tech industries. Jena has no problem with jobs, but rather a shortage of housing. It’s located in a valley and there’s little space for growth. They'll have to depend on commuting. So there are boom regions, but there are also rural areas that are drying up – and the same goes for the West these days, too.

You talked about clichés. What do people normally talk about when the subject of the former GDR comes up?

Most people talk about the Stasi, about dictatorship. It’s very polarizing. You can see it in movies set in the GDR: Everything’s always gray, the weather is always bad, there’s a certain similarity to the Third Reich. In reality there are always nuances in a dictatorship, but the GDR is always reduced to a blunt tyranny. On the other hand, people who actually lived in the dictatorship don’t recognize themselves in this scenario, so they tend to drift off in a nostalgic direction, where they excise certain aspects from their consciousness. For example, because consumer goods were always scarce, they lovingly tell old stories about how some acquaintance of theirs would reserve certain products, such as books and phonograph records, for them under the shop counter in exchange for some other favor. Basically, when people talk about the GDR, they usually do so in clichés. That’s why our generation, who also experienced the GDR in our own way, also has to start being included in this discussion.

And what’s your personal view of the GDR? Was it only a gray and inhuman dictatorship, or are there aspects about it you miss?

From my point of view, the GDR was always crap. This has to do with family reasons. I was cut off from part of my family because of the Berlin Wall and the inner-German border. My father was politically active, he fed me with knowledge and historical background, and so from a very early age I had a good sense of what was wrong with the society and I learned that you can challenge certain things. As for me, I was delighted when this GDR collapsed. But in my school many of the kids were extremely naïve. They were satisfied with things as they were and didn’t care about politics. 

As far as missing anything is concerned, the one thing I remember fondly from my childhood was the school system. It was well structured and each level was logically built on top of the previous one, so that the textbook you used in first grade was already anticipating the one you would use in the tenth. Yes, it was static and ideological, but at least they weren't constantly changing everything around. I experienced my last two years of high school in the new system. Each year we had new books. They were printed on glossy paper and weighed twice as much as the ones we used to use. But we didn’t get much benefit out of them: The teachers first had to learn the new curriculum and there was little point to the whole thing. The earlier school system provided you with security and a solid grounding in practical knowledge.

The press regularly describes the East as being full of right-wingers and neo-Nazis. Do you see a danger of the region succumbing to far right politics?

I don’t see any such danger. People have been conducting this discussion since the revolution. Of course, in the early 90s you had these cases where, in Rostock and Hoyerswerda, hostels for foreigners were attacked by right-wingers armed with Molotov cocktails. It happened in my own hometown as well. People in the East have had less contact with foreigners and thus are more attracted by right-wing ideas. They fear change and a loss of status as a result of the changing social order, and thus project these threats onto Muslims and other strangers. I notice these ideas occasionally among people I know, although they are usually expressed in a half-baked manner without any political intent.

And so when the press announces that twenty percent of the people in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania are voting for the (far right) National Democratic Party, they give the impression that these folks are all violent people with shaved heads, which doesn't reflect reality. Much of this is a sort of half-baked protest against the established parties, which the people feel have abandoned them.

It’s also important to recall that the three professional right-wing parties that set up shop there soon after the revolution – the National Democrats, the German People’s Union, and the Republicans – were heavily financed by Western neo-Nazis. Sure, you need some local people to hand out leaflets, but all the bosses came from the West. Right-wing radicalism is a network. It isn’t an East German thing, but a general German problem. I think the press is doing a lot of projection and is trying to draw attention away from the fact that there are a lot of problems with right-wing structures in the West as well.

After taking this tour, how do you think the East-West gap can be healed?

People have to talk with each other and move beyond the clichés. We're drowning in clichés. We have to dump them and start opening our eyes, ears, and mouths. Otherwise we’ll keep rehashing the same discussions we had ten and twenty years ago.

 

Reposted from Open Salon, August 28, 2012

 

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Comment by JMac1949 Memories on December 29, 2012 at 7:01am

I read and came to the conclusion that East and West, 21st Century Germany has developed a corollary society to that of  the late 19th and early 20th Century USA's North and South after our Civil War.  Both societies experienced the devastation of "total war" and "economic collapse"  and turmoil, but one (the German West and American North) recovered more quickly and became the economic,political and social media center of the nation.  In both countries disparities linger; but nonetheless, both the struggles of both nations resulted in "progress:"  In America we ended slavery and over a century after that we elected an African American to the presidency twice.  In Germany they ended the centuries old tradition of the authoritarian regime and the reunification cemented the formation of the EU which we all hope will continue to prosper and bring about the permanent end of millinial of tribal warfare in Europe.

Maybe next time you want to hear the voices of the 3rd generation, you should pass up on the  Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship , hand out some digital cameras, i-phones and cash to the kids in East Germany and let them speak for themselves. I rather imagine you'd have no trouble seeing and hearing them loud and clear.

Comment by Kathy Knechtges on December 30, 2012 at 10:09am

very interesting! thanks for this!

Comment by Heidi Banerjee on January 5, 2013 at 10:18am

I have not been in the Eastern section after the fall of the wall but I have encountered the Eastern tongues everywhere.Noticable was the fast assimilation to Westerh standard whereas the people who had remained in their homeland suffered severely in economic and other respects.A lot have lost their identity,and the ones who had been in good positions in the East have filled very attractive posts in West Germany.

And the West?Solidarity payments  were the result.The people who have moved here have received very high financial support which enabled them to build houses whereas people who had lived here all their lives did not get the same support.

East-West-corollarysociety?I wonder about that even today,after two decades.

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