Thursday, October 3, was German Reunification Day, celebrating the coming together of East and West governments back in 1990 to form the new Germany. I’ve been asking people about this holiday, the main celebration of which is at the Brandenburger Gate, which was a symbol of the division of East and West Berlin when the Wall existed. They couldn’t use 9 November, which was the famous night when the Berlin wall was dismantled by activists and beamed out to an astonished world, as it is also the date of Kristallnacht, in 1938, a shameful day in German history. I arranged to meet friends there, thinking there may be some fun. It was absolutely freezing, 3 degrees, and I didn’t get there until after 7pm. It took a while to negotiate the barriers and get around to the front of the show, but when I got there, there was a huge stage, spotlights up to the night sky, and the tackiest kind of pop music. All around, there were beer stalls and Snell-Imbiss (chip wagons), and empty bottles underfoot. A very mixed aged crowd tried dancing in their overcoats, but it was reminiscent of the dregs of Saint Patricks Day (without the drunkenness). The whole event was sponsored (and it was emblazoned in huge banners everywhere) by Coca Cola. Any Party Faithful from the East side must have found it very tasteless.
I innocently imagined that what happened in 1989/1990 was that the East Bloc pushed for change, especially Hungary, who opened a border with Austria. After that, the wall was dismantled by people on both sides of the border of East/West Berlin. Helmut Kohl seized the day, with Gorbachav’s blessing, and announced a 10-point plan for German reunification, without consulting either his own Coalition party, nor the Western powers. And they all lived happily ever after.
I was far away on the other side of the world when the wall came down, so only heard about it second-hand. I knew that the West was a bit disgruntled about having to foot the bill for a virtually bankrupt East, but I only learned last week that they never had a referendum to ask the people (East or West) if they wanted to be re-married. Politicians simply went ahead and decided on what would happen. I suppose they knew that if they asked, it may not have happened. The West were the ones with money, so very generously offered an amazing exchange of mark-for-mark, virtually. But as we all know, he who pays the piper calls the tune, so East Germany’s creaking industrial bases, which couldn’t compete with the West, were closed, and workers (mostly older) were given generous welfare payments instead, and the prospect of unemployment for life. East Germany’s factories formed the framework of the community, and their loss was huge, symbolic of the loss of the country. However, Honecker (the DDR Chancellor) had the country in hock (to Western states) to an incredible level, so it was only a matter of time before it would have collapsed anyhow. A huge proportion of young people, who had the benefit of a tremendous education, left for the West to find work, so the DDR has lost up to 20% of the population and is left with a largely older society.
One of the things I hadn’t heard was that a substantial proportion of the people revolting in the DDR in the 80’s wanted an independent state, and not to just be the poor relation of West Germany. All the other countries in the East Bloc had a hard transition from being under the Soviets to being independent (and some are more successful than others), but East Germany got swallowed whole by West Germany. The transition from East-communist values to West-capitalist values was undertaken by the (western, not always popular, often seen as yuppie carpetbaggers) Treuhand (Trust Agency), who closed down many factories and privatised (sold to the West) 14,000 businesses. People who lost property post-War were allowed to come back and claim it, often from families who had lived there 30 years. Those who look back nostalgically to a less individualistic, more values-based community in the DDR have conveniently painted out the invasion of privacy and unhealthy atmosphere of subterfuge that was the reality. Viewed from the other side, the East lost everything to the West after the war, and were left stuck in an unhealthy relationship with Moscow. However, being “embraced” by a sometimes resentful or know-it-all West German public, and having it as the only option, was another sort of trauma.
People are not very comfortable talking about this. There’s a lot of feeling around this that nobody wants to address. A couple of the political parties in the recent election wanted to make pensions equal in West and East, which I found astonishing. There must be still a kind of invisible wall there still, so that if you live in the poorer East, you get a smaller pension. How do they even tell? Oh you’re from Mountmellick, so you get less pension to spend because it costs less to live there than in Dublin? Lots of people may have mixed feelings about reunification, but generally they keep their own counsel, but the society has to watch out for the burgeoning of neo-Nazism. Younger people said to me that they finally feel close enough to their Eastern brethren to actually give out about them, just like real brothers and sisters. It’s very healthy to have Angela Merkel in charge, from East Germany, and I guess the new Germany is still very new. Another generation will make all the difference in terms of what is remembered and what isn’t.