Freedom and prejudice

Dr. Sandra Krull, Head of Postdoc Office

I was born in Potsdam and grew up in the outskirts of East Berlin. When the Wall came down, I was a sixth-grader and "Thälmann Pioneer" (one of the GDR youth organisations). The day of the Wall coming down of course had us all mesmerized, accompanied by insecurity and excitement, and nobody was able to explain to us children what it might mean for our future.

The author's pioneer badge, exhibited in 1987.

My impression at this time was that things became difficult for the grown-ups. My mother was a pedagogics PhD developing new learning methods for students. Her academy was closed down and the staff made redundant. My sister was notified that her two years of studies would not be recognized and that she needed to start over from scratch. In my high school class, students told me how their families suddenly were evicted from their homes, because Western heirs laid claim to the property. Our savings dwindled as they were exchanged 1:2 to the new currency. As a child, it was hard for me to understand these things.

For my father alone, "the West" was not a completely new territory. Already in 1988, he had worked for a while in West Berlin. As a bomb squad engineer of the GDR's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Service, he was charged with clearing the measure points for a border adjustment between East and West Berlin. He received some meal money, which he invested instead in buying presents for us kids. 

After the Wall came down, it remained unclear whether the EOD Service would be kept in place. The fact that all squad members had been cleared of collaboration with the State's Home Security ministry (Staatssicherheit, Stasi) did not guarantee them ongoing employment. Thus, my father switched to a West German company for Explosive Ordnance Disposal looking to found a new branch in "the East". His new boss was an extraordinary person, insofar as that he believed in equal pay for Eastern and Western employees, and that he made my father Head of the branch, even though he came from East Germany. It made this boss a huge exception to the rule, and my father remained with this company until his retirement.

For me, coming from a system with factual gender equality, this was the ultimate culture shock.
Dr. Sandra Krull
Sandra Krull Head of Postdoc Office

After the Wall came down, it was I who had it easiest among all my family members, because I was the youngest. I suddenly had all the options available to be. At the age of fourteen, I travelled the UK to learn English. I was free to develop as I wanted, and I went to southern Germany to study biology. Here, for the first time, I encountered fellow students who had grown up in a system that appeared ancient to me. Female students told me: "I don't study to work later on. Why should I work? I have a husband! I only do these studies to show to my family that I have a diploma.". At first, I had difficulties believing such statements to be sincere. But more and more often I met female fellow students who openly admitted to merely be looking for a high-potential future husband at the university, to then stay at home with the kids afterwards. Child care could rarely be found, since it was considered a given that mothers would stay home. For me, coming from a system with factual gender equality, this was the ultimate culture shock. I could hardly believe that this would be possible in modern-day Germany.

While my family granted me all the support to develop as I wanted, and while the new freedom to travel enabled me to work in places like Sweden or France, the things "back home" stayed difficult. After the Wall came down, many companies and institutes in East Germany had been closed. In those remaining, the complete leadership had been exchanged with West German staff, often people who had not managed to build a career in West Germany. In the Eastern part of the country, they were now supposed to show everyone how things should be done. The term "Besserwessi" (Know-it-all Westerner) was often heard. My own boss in Heidelberg told me that "first of all, you need to teach the Easterners how to work". This kind of prejudice was long-lived, and still today, East Germans are underrepresented in leadership positions throughout Germany. It is my hope that this will finally change within the next 20 years. Also, because the next generations will only know the GDR from their school books and maybe their family histories.