Wall reflections

The 9th of November has passed by quickly, and with it the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a young East Berliner at the time, the event was of great importance to me, although the true extent would only reveal itself many years later.


TV Tower on a foggy day

Mine is an in-between generation. We were too young to really understand what was going on during the Wende. At the same time, we are probably one of the last years that had their childhood and early adolescence very much coined by the GDR. Germany reunited in October 1990, but it was really until the mid-1990s that a new sense of normalcy began to prevail (for some, it hasn’t returned still).

I had started school the year before the wall came down. I remember being shocked at news reports that many of my fellow East Germans were fleeing across the green border to Austria in the summer of 1989. I wrote what could have been my first essay asking them to stay — because if not, who would inhabit our small country if everyone had left?

Unfortunately I cannot clearly remember the 9th of November itself. We kids were probably in bed by the time the border crossings opened. The one at Sonnenallee was just three kilometers away from our house in Treptow.

We usually went to the countryside each weekend, to the place where my parents come from, between Berlin and Hamburg, very close to the iron curtain by the river Elbe. I remember (perhaps my parents told me many times) that we kids were reluctant to go that particular weekend. Of course we wanted to go to West Berlin!

But I think my parents were keen to avoid the crowds or had something scheduled for that weekend. So we had to wait until Monday or Tuesday the week after when we finally crossed the wall to go for our first visit. We crossed the Sonnenallee checkpoint and wound up in scruffy Neukölln.

From here we took the U-Bahn (I vividly remember my first exposure to the subterranean smells in the West, different to ours in the East) to Kurfürstendamm. I think there was an office somewhere where we each claimed our 100 Deutschmarks Begrüßungsgeld (“welcome money”).

My brother and I chipped in to purchase a Sony cassette recorder with which we could copy tapes, something our more affordable GDR models weren’t capable of. A few years before, my sister had to spend all her “Youth Consecration” money (more than one thousand East German marks) on a single tape recorder.

I remember the ample lights (it was already dark by the time we arrived), the colourful shops and the Western-made cars everywhere. It was as if the volume had been turned up. As a young child, it must have been a sensory overload, perhaps explaining the scant memories I have from these days.

For years, the only vision of capitalist consumerism I had was in the Intershops. These were hard-currency shops on the territory of the GDR in which those with Deutschmarks (usually presents from relatives in the West) could purchase all sorts of foreign goods at inflated prices to shore up the East German capital account.

But a few months after the fall of the wall, on my way to school on the 1st of July 1990 (the day of the monetary union), our local shop had changed its entire range of products overnight. Now that people in the East paid with hard currency Deutschmarks, they expected to buy mainly Western goods too.

By now the West had come to our doorstep. It is a bit of a pity that most of my memories are about the superficial, and that I wasn’t yet old enough to ponder the wider significance, on freedom perhaps, of the events.

I came to take many things for granted that must have appeared a bit like sci-fi to someone in my place just ten years earlier: My year was the first one to study English as our first foreign language instead of Russian. My first trip to the Western “abroad” was to France, to Euro Disney. I took my first flight in 1992, to Tunisia, and a three-week language course in the UK followed the summer after.

At the same time, our parents were in the midst of it. They were in their late thirties, a bit older than we are today, experiencing reality around them change tremendously, especially in their workplaces, but not only there.

My sister, nine years my senior, also had much more “open” eyes to understand what was happening back then. Hers was also the generation that took the freedoms available to them, celebrating their youth and young adulthood in a liberated East Berlin, in squats and on wild parties. Much of the party culture we dived into many years later, in the late 1990s, built on that heritage.

When we visited one of my sister’s first flats she moved to in in the early nineties (in Prenzlauer Berg’s Meyerheimstraße), it felt like we were going to a bombed-out part of post-war Berlin. There were bullet holes everywhere. This area was a particularly run-down part of the city that is today unrecognizable and rather sanitized.

Now in the US, the 9th of November has somehow slipped by without the fanfare that took place back home in Germany. Nonetheless, we celebrated the occasion and went to a play staged by a local theatre company. It was about a job office clerk from West Berlin whose boring life is turned upside down not by the fall of the Berlin Wall (which was a side event to the plot) but by the discovery of the music of Bob Dylan.

This somehow echoed the beginnings of this essay by Jenny Erpenbeck, about the different meanings of freedom; and that freedom can and often is a very individualistic concept. (Strangely, the essay, although widely shared by people on Facebook, spoke very little to me – perhaps, but definitely not only, because of the difference in generation.)

I was born in a different country, one that does not exist today anymore. My early life, not only until the fateful 9th of November, but somehow beyond that, took place in a Germany quite different from the one that we know today.

I have very fond memories of these times: my grandparents were still part of my life, and although our freedom was confined, the world seemed endlessly big back then. I think that people are nostalgic about their lives in the East because they realize they are getting old.

For us in-between generation, the memory of the DDR is the memory of our childhoods. We are probably the only ones for who the memory of this country is very real, and almost completely innocent.

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