I came to the GDR from Ethiopia in East Africa in September 1987. I had been selected by the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) at Addis Ababa University (AAU) to continue my musicology studies in Germany. I spent the first ten months in Leipzig, where I attended a preparatory language course at the Herder Institute. In September 1988, one year after my arrival in the GDR, I came to Berlin and began to study at Humboldt Universität that October.
On November 9, in my third semester, I was out with friends near Berlin’s Alexanderplatz when we suddenly heard loud crowds of people in the distance. We couldn’t make out exactly where the noise was coming from, and were slightly scared by this inexplicable and unusual sound. Thinking we might be in danger, we decided to go back to our student dorms. Once home, we turned on the TV. It was only then that we realized what we had heard: The Berlin Wall had fallen, they were saying. Earlier that evening, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) politician Günter Schabowski had spoken at a press conference about new travel regulations that were coming into force. But his statement contained misleading information. The result was masses of GDR citizens storming the border crossings – and these were the crowds of people we had heard at Alexanderplatz.
For me, the changes were quite immediate. The cost of living, for example, went up. This had to do with the negative economic developments that accompanied the abrupt monetary union of 1990, when the East German mark was replaced by the West German deutschmark. There were also some changes to the education sector, and this was where the East-West conflict really became apparent to me.
In my department of art and cultural studies, I witnessed the doubts that were often expressed about the quality of education offered in the GDR. This offended many of the teaching staff, and they expressed these feelings to us in their seminars and lectures. The demotion of recognized GDR teachers opened the door for scientists from the West to take over professorships at former East German universities.
Coming from Ethiopia, experience had taught me that these sorts of historical changes and shifts in power structure were usually violent and cost many lives.The fact that such a historically significant process of change could take place without this bloodshed and, as I saw it, in a “peaceful” manner was a positive experience for me. My definition of “peaceful,” however, refers here solely to the fact that those in power did not resort to the use of physical force.
But I did experience a different form of violence. When I think about it today, it is clear to me that the psychological pressure created by the West questioning the value and merit of the material taught in the GDR, and thus also its teachers, was itself a type of violence. It left these teachers feeling the constant need to justify themselves before the Western education system. The subtext was clear: Everything that was taught in the GDR was either useless or inevitably connected to socialist ideologies, while the Western system of education was a shining example.
East and West come together in the Treuhand
I went on to experience a similar power struggle in my first job. In 1992 I was working as a student trainee at the Treuhand Liegenschaftsgesellschaft (TLG). The TLG was overseeing the privatization of former GDR companies, and it was therefore involved in the transition from the previously dominant planned economy to a capitalist market economy. This gave me a good vantage point to observe the conflict between employees from the East and the West. Employees from the West were quite belittling toward their colleagues from the East, and presented themselves as superior staff members. This, in turn, caused anger and frustration among the “Ossis,” and it quickly became clear to me that, although the physical wall had fallen, the wall in people’s minds was only getting bigger and was highlighting major differences. The actual reunification of Berlin, therefore, did not take place on the evening of November 9, 1989; it is an ongoing process, aspects of which still continue to this day, 30 years later.
Wounds left by the Stasi
I would like to mention one further incident that I also experienced during my time at the TLG, and that involved the repercussions of the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, after the fall of the Wall. This ministry was founded in 1950 and functioned both as a secret police and intelligence service. Over time, the Stasi developed into a surveillance system designed to detect and underpin political resistance within the GDR against the then dominant SED party. This organization became so large and obscure that neighbors ended up spying on each other and family members betrayed one other. The trustworthy coexistence of GDR citizens was thus constantly put to the test. In 1990, one year after the fall of the Wall, the Protestant pastor and later Federal President Joachim Gauck was appointedSpecial Commissioner of the Federal Government for the Files of the Former State Security Service and took over the Stasi archives. All GDR citizens were granted access to the Stasi’s documents – meaning victims of the Stasi could finally view their personal files and learn the truth about various events that had occurred during that time.
Although I was not directly affected, and therefore cannot say exactly what information these documents contained, I can report on what I witnessed at work and on the isolated consequences of the disclosure of this information. I saw colleagues suddenly dismissed after years of cooperation because of their former Stasi connections, and I saw tears shed when these actions were based on unfair and premature conclusions.But I also know that the “Gauck agency” had a positive impact on many former GDR citizens.For many, being able to inspect these files was an important part of healing and processing what had happened. Many people, after several years of uncertainty, were eager for transparency and clarity about the information contained in these files.
In conclusion, the changes that took place with the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago were a formative experience for me. I witnessed changes in politics, in culture, in social affairs, and in daily life and the quality of life. I now see it as an experience that taught me a great deal.
© picture alliance/dpa-Zentralbild/Eberhard Klöppel