In the time leading up to November 9, I was doing my civilian service in a psychiatric hospital in Remscheid in North Rhine-Westphalia. This meant a lot of work, but also many excursions with friends.
In October and November, there was a palpable tension in the air. We didn’t know what the outcome of all the demonstrations and calls for democracy in the GDR would be. A civil war? A violent change of government? We talked about it a lot and would quiz acquaintances who had relatives “over there,” or ex-GDR citizens who had received an official exit permit. No one could say exactly what would happen; few (actually nobody) imagined a peaceful revolution with the eventual merging of the two states.
The afternoon of November 9, 1989, was completely normal for me. In the early evening, I traveled to my parents’ place and found my father glued to the television. The screen showed a massive flood of people crossing the border into West Berlin. Everyone was happy and being greeted by equally happy people in the West. That evening with friends, I talked about how incredible it must be for the older generation to experience the fall of the Wall in their lifetime. I think they were the ones in the West who relished the fall of the Wall the most. I didn’t quite realize that this marked the end of the GDR. I thought it just meant that the GDR would now be an open state to which one could easily travel, in order to visit its cities and countryside. I found this a nice idea.
The excitement continued in the days following the opening of the Wall, because everything changed so quickly. West German politicians began patting each other on the back with visible joy. The only growing concern was how the victorious powers of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and France would react. My sister was living in London at the time, and said that the UK saw reunification as a nightmare scenario. With Germany capable of growing into a huge economic power, she said, there were fears of a return to great-power ambitions like those of the Nazis. We were also nervous to see how Gorbachev would react. There were doubts as to whether he would release the GDR from the Warsaw Pact. But the reforms he had introduced in the Soviet Union made people hopeful.
Berlin – a city in flux
I moved to Berlin in April 1990 and found the city in complete upheaval. Shops in the West were empty, while in the East, apartments, cellars, old halls, factories, and former functional buildings such as the post office had been converted into (illegal) pubs, concert halls, and artists’ studios. People were living in a kind of power vacuum, as the state police also no longer really knew what was permitted and what was not. It was a period of awakening, as the East attempted to bring its quality of life up to meet that of the West, which was (supposedly) higher. The mood was very much one of “anything is possible.”
But there were also much ressentiment on both sides: The common “Ossi” (Easterner) was lazy and would simply sponge off the West, whereas Western capitalism was massively intervening in the structures of the former GDR in order to position itself advantageously.
Life in Berlin was extremely exciting for me, as my year was one of the first where “Wessis” and “Ossis” studied together. We learned together and, in our spare time, talked a lot about life on the other side. I listened with fascination as people talked about exotic-sounding degrees like shepherding. I also learned that studies and the school system in the GDR were far more straightforward, and heard a lot about the constant suspicions surrounding who was listening in or spying on others. It was inconceivable to me that friends would betray you in order to get trivial benefits like a larger apartment. I also found it strange and hard to understand that an apartment would be “awarded” to you.
Reunification and the period that followed was an exciting time. I experienced and learned a lot – including that reunification itself should have taken place more cautiously and been less dictated by the West. I had friends who had been socialized in the GDR, so I was able to speak frankly and without prejudice about the pros and cons of both German states.
© picture alliance/ZB/ddrbildarchiv/Manfred Uhlenhut