German reunification: Young Germans in search of their eastern roots

By Damien McGuinness
BBC News, Berlin

Image source, Getty Images

They were the first babies of newly reunified Germany. Some were born in a vanished state, East German communist symbols stamped in their birth certificates. Others shortly after German reunification, exactly 30 years ago. They are as old as modern Germany.

Although they have no memories of the communist East German state, the GDR, many still see themselves as East German. They don't want communism back.

But East German history, culture and traditions are part of their identity.

A state erased from the map

When I talked to Valerie Schönian, she had just celebrated her 30th birthday.

At her party she played Kling Klang by 1990s band Keimzeit, a retro classic for East Germans her age. But it's largely unknown in western Germany.

Image source, Lena Meyer
Image caption,
Valerie Schönian was born shortly before East Germany disappeared as a state

She believes this is just one small example of how East German experiences are being erased from the national memory.

"When we talk about West Germany, it's always just 'Germany'. But when we talk about East Germany, it's 'the East'. Helmut Schmidt (former chancellor of West Germany) is part of 'German' history. But Egon Krenz (East Germany's last communist leader) is 'East German' history."

Media caption,
The last Communist leader of East Germany

In other words, "normal German" generally means coming from former West Germany. Anyone from the East is the other.

'I feel East German'

Valerie Schönian has written a new book called Ostbewusstsein - East Consciousness, in which she talks to the children of reunification about their identity. She cites a 2019 study among Germans her age that suggests a fifth of people from the ex-GDR see themselves as East German, rather than German. There is no such trend in western Germany.

"The more time passes since the fall of the Wall, the more East German I feel," she writes. "I also feel strongly European and like a global citizen. But first and foremost I feel East German."

So why do some young people, who never knew the GDR, still define themselves as East German?

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
For many, the ropey Trabant car symbolised much of what was left behind in the old East Germany

"This is a region that for 40 years was a completely different state," she tells me. "We have a different experience. We have less to inherit, lower incomes."

But that comes with advantages, she says. Parents may not be able to buy their children a car or an apartment, or line up an internship with a buddy from the tennis club. But there is also less pressure to conform to career expectations. And lower rents and fewer inhabitants mean more space for fun and creativity.

"We have even grown up in a different environment. The pavements are different. The horizon, with the East German tower blocks, looks different. What we think is beautiful is different. We have a different history. My parents knew two political systems. My grandparents knew three."

A different divide

Ms Schönian has met with resistance, particularly from her parent's generation. "What do you know about the East?" her father said to her bluntly.

Perhaps it's not surprising many older people feel uncomfortable.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The German chancellor grew up in East Germany and has described life at the time as "almost comfortable"

The debate in the western German-dominated national media about "East German issues" generally focuses on problems, such as the rise of the far right or depopulation or unemployment.

Philipp Amthor, a conservative MP in Angela Merkel's CDU party, is also ambivalent about the idea of an East German identity.

"Yes, I describe myself as East German, but from one particular part of eastern Germany," he tells me. He was born in 1992 in the north-eastern coastal region of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. Today he represents a constituency there and is a high-profile rising star at the conservative end of Mrs Merkel's party.

"I feel North German too, so I also have a lot in common with someone from Hamburg (in north-western Germany)."

Philipp Amthor
Tobias Koch
The divide is not between East and West. It's more between global winners in hip, urban centres, and people attached to their homeland in structurally weak rural regions
Philipp Amthor
Christian Democrat MP

'Every family was hit'

Today, immaculately restored East German towns and cities are booming, while some rural regions are suffering from depopulation and a chronic lack of services and jobs.

But Philipp Amthor accepts that history has an impact on life today.

"East Germany's history is full of breaks and fractures. Entire careers were thrown overboard," he says. "Every family was hit, mine included."

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
This graffiti painting by Dmitry Vrubel on the Berlin Wall depicts Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing East Germany's Erich Honecker

It's hard to overstate how radically life suddenly changed for East Germans after October 1990.

Whole industries were shut down overnight, for the first time regions were hit by mass unemployment and for many people their careers, qualifications and experience suddenly meant nothing.

Schnitzel with tomato sauce

Large sections of the population never fully recovered.

That was the case for Konrad Erben's mother. "She was a single-parent, which in the GDR wasn't a problem because of state support," he says. "But after reunification she had no access to jobs or training and never really got back on her feet again."

Image source, Felix Adler
Image caption,
Konrad Erben identifies as an East German but is pleased with reunification

He was born in 1989 in Jena. His father was from Senegal and today he is an activist for German People of Colour.

Mr Erben also sees himself as East German. He prefers tomato sauce with his schnitzel, rather than the mushroom sauce common in the West, and he likes the look of the prefabricated tower blocks he grew up in. But as a person of colour his experience is also different.

Racism in the east

In the 1990s, neo-Nazism became a dominant and visible youth culture in eastern Germany, which meant high-levels of racist attacks on the streets. Today far-right rhetoric also targets Muslims and refugees.

Konrad Erben says he encounters less racist violence today, but that other groups, such as people of Middle-Eastern appearance or women with headscarves, are increasingly victims of abuse and violence.

How does he feel about Germany's reunification celebrations?

"I'm happy I grew up in democratic Germany and not in the GDR, so I'm pleased that reunification happened. But from my work I also know that patriotic events spark racist violence, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall there were racist attacks. It wasn't all positive. So I feel unease when I see these German flags being waved around."

The pictures and stories of reunification generally portray the experience of white Germans. But for generations Germany has been a multicultural, diverse society.

So many Germans say they feel excluded from celebrations like this. Their experiences are rarely talked about and they can't help but think of the racist attacks that followed reunification.

Thirty years ago, German unity meant East and West should become the same.

But modern Germany is diverse and the experiences of people living in the region that was once the GDR are incredibly varied.

Perhaps real reunification will only be complete when Germans accept their differences.

More on this story

Related Topics