Had it not been for the 9th of November and assuming that things would have continued without technical innovations, then I would now be a vocational school teacher for clerical assistants. I would be teaching young people the magic of shorthand and how to take dictation, allowing them to write three to five times faster than with traditional longhand.
On November 9, 1989, I was 18 years old. I had graduated from high school in my hometown of Prenzlau that summer and was in the small town of Strasburg in the former district of Neubrandenburg. There I was a special case. I had an employment contract as a housemaster in the apprentice dormitory. At the same time, I was an apprentice myself. In the GDR, one had to be “delegated” from a vocational school to the university in order to study business education. Normally, you first completed an apprenticeship and then took your Abitur exams later. For me it was the other way round, but that was also possible. In view of the results of my exams, it was decided that I should complete the training in one year instead of two.
“Sudel-Ede” and Crazy Otto
At 6 a.m. on the dot, a bell in the apprentice dormitory made sure that everyone got out of bed; lessons started at 7 a.m. In the afternoon I had to fulfill my duties as a “housemaster” which, thankfully, often led to office work. However, the dorm director, who was also my supervisor, was a terrible person. I was to make sure that the young people showed up every Monday evening at 9.35 p.m. in the “culture room” to watch the political propaganda program “Schwarzer Kanal” (Black Channel). At first I thought this was a joke, because in Prenzlau we considered the program to be political cabaret at best. It was the autumn of 1989! Nobody took “Sudel-Ede”, as host Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler was known across the Republic, seriously. Except for the dorm director in Strasburg. We got into arguments, and I can still hear him shouting. Everyone hated him, including the cleaning staff. Once a cleaner stuck her head in the office and asked if Crazy Otto was still there. When I said no, she said with great relief: “Thank God, we all prefer seeing him from behind rather than from the front!” That really struck a chord with me, because I felt the same way. Nevertheless, I was astonished to learn that instead of hanging pictures of their favorite bands, like Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Cindy Lauper, Wham, and Modern Talking over their beds, some apprentices hung pictures of Sudel-Ede! At first I thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t.
Time of opportunity
When the Wall fell on November 9, 1989, I was in Strasburg at the movies watching Dirty Dancing. When I returned to the apprentice dormitory at around 10 p.m., a completely distraught Ines from the first year stood on the stairs in tears. I asked her: “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” And she answered: “Just imagine, the Wall has fallen.” To which I replied: “So why all the tears?” And she said: “What’s going to happen now? Will World War III break out? How long will that last?” She was deeply unsettled, and even among those who were happy to see this change, uncertainty was always the flip side of the coin.
But it was really a time of opportunity, which we (ex-GDR citizens) didn’t use – for money rules the world and we had been “taken over.” But most of us also allowed ourselves to be taken over. That became clear to me when we were allowed to collect our welcome money and the masses now only had one thing in their heads: consumption. There were so many things that we hadn’t had before, from jeans to citrus to trips to capitalist foreign countries. All the other much more important things quickly faded into the background with a fundamentally condemnable dictatorship that we all just wanted to get rid of completely, as quickly as possible. The question of how we could use this situation to not throw the entire “GDR experiment” onto the rubbish heap of history, instead extracting the good things and continue practicing them, or possibly even rolling them out, was quickly forgotten.
It puts me in a reflective mood to think that it took 30 years until the whole of Germany realized that children’s holiday camps, for example, were not such a bad idea after all to ensure work-life balance. Or that children do not necessarily suffer permanent damage if they attend kindergarten before they are 3. Today, we are striving for things that we actually achieved 30 years ago, from inexpensive public transport to training in professions that society urgently needs. Particularly with regard to the East German production of goods with a long shelf life, which would better serve today’s much-lauded “sustainability” efforts.
Lots of tinsel
For me personally, the meaning of words became a fundamentally new experience. While in East Germany, a wrong turn of phrase may have had significant consequences, in West Germany the other extreme applied. No one was interested. You could scream things from the rooftops or talk to a wall, it didn’t matter – that was freedom of speech! Nothing confused me more than this. And nothing was more difficult for me to listen to than melodious but meaningless blah-blah. It was as if you couldn’t recognize the Christmas tree for all the tinsel. The tree itself didn’t matter anymore – only the tinsel.
Democracy also had to be learned, with all the attendant disadvantages of long decision-making processes based on participation. But the advantage is that these decisions are then also widely supported.
Like the proverbial coin, nearly all things in life have two sides.
© picture alliance/Collection Christophel/© Vestron Pictures