Yesterday’s anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was a hugely significant date for the millions of Germans whose lives were changed by the events of 1989 – but what about those who are too young to remember? Writing from Leipzig, Kate Rothwell examines the views of the first generation to have no recollection of this historic occasion
A historical anniversary is usually something rooted so far back in the past that it is a matter of ancestral interest for only the few who peruse centennial newspaper supplements, and tune in to once-off television documentaries on the dates in question. The stereotypical student, whose interests lie mainly in the here-and-now, rarely falls into this category. November 2009 however, plays host to the anniversary of an event which took place within the lifetime of most people who will read this article: the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Media attention worldwide has focused on how Germany is commemorating one of the defining historical events of the twentieth century, and how those who lived on either side of the Berlin Wall remember the buildup to yesterday’s momentous anniversary. Yet there is a generation of Germans too young to have any personal recollection of 9th November 1989, but have grown up with an ingrained appreciation of its importance.
The question remains as to what sort of impression this generation has of the anniversary, and of the intensive media attention and countless commemoration events that have come with it.
Students were certainly out en masse as part of the protests that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but while their modern day counterparts might not be playing a huge role in the calendar of commemorative events, that’s not to say they don’t acknowledge the importance of such remembrance.
Juliane Wicklein, a 22-year-old Masters student from Thuringia, maintains that students have a keen interest in the events which affected the same age group as their own just twenty years ago, especially when the history relates to their home town.
“It’s fascinating to find out what happened in the city that you live in.” Julia studies in Leipzig, a city which boasts a particularly remarkable past. Home to the ‘Monday Demonstrations’, the violence-free protests which grew from weekly peace prayers to large scale public demonstrations, Leipzig is often cited as being the place where the revolution began.
Robert Friedrich, a 19-year-old History and French student and a native of the city, was one of the estimated 100,000 people who turned out to commemorate the Peaceful Revolution at the city’s Light Festival last month. However, he doesn’t feel that his level of interest is shared by everyone. “Unfortunately there are a lot of people, students included, to whom history and its anniversaries don’t mean anything.”
Joachim Schaudt is a 23-year-old student from Pforzheim, near Stuttgart, who believes that the commemoration of events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall is of great importance – especially because it is the remembrance of something positive. “Germany also has some historic dates that we can’t be proud of. Anniversaries are, in my opinion, an emotionally difficult issue for German people. Some people don’t want to remember anything, while others don’t talk about anything but the difference between east and west.”
This year’s commemoration has been a topic of great interest for both German and international press, with plenty of media attention being given to the reflective views and modern day perspectives of former citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The television footage of mass protests and the joyous first crossing of the borders makes for moving viewing, as 23-year-old-Markus Jantosch from Nord-Rhein Westphalia points out: “It helps my generation to understand what it was like in the GDR a lot better.”
Yet there is a sense of overkill tainting the extensive reporting. For Joachim, some of the coverage was just telling people what they already knew. “Every German knows what happened at that time – I hope, at least. The excessive and very emotional reporting of the entire event by the private TV channels was almost ridiculous.”
Bettina Poenisch, a 24-year-old student from Dresden, also views the private channel coverage as being somewhat meaningless. “I think that a lot of what is shown on private TV stations has become pointlessly commercialised. The public service stations such as ARD and ZDF have really good documentaries, but the private channel programmes are often just uncreative and stupid.”
Commercialisation is, as Robert explains, a contentious issue that always threatens to mar even the most poignant of remembrances. “Anything that is successful eventually becomes commercialised, and unfortunately that includes this kind of anniversary.”
Another aspect of this anniversary that has been subject to commercialisation is the concept of ‘Ostalgie’. A combination of the German words ‘Ost’ (east) and ‘Nostalgie’ (nostalgia), it stems from the desire of some citizens to return to life as it was in the GDR, where they maintained that the lifestyle was simpler and more financially secure. While this is not something that today’s students will ever be able to relate to, they are certainly aware of the commercial phenomenon. Ostalgie parties, the affectionate remembrance of the ‘Trabi’ (the Trabant, a common family car in the former East Germany) and merchandise shops selling typical GDR grocery products, novelty t-shirts and ‘Hits from the GDR’ CD compilations are all part of the twenty-first century.
For Bettina, the sense of ‘Ostalgie’ fuelled by the release of GDR reminiscent films is the closest that her generation will ever come to understanding the true ‘nostalgia for the East’.
“I experienced Ostalgie at the time of the ‘East Film’, when Goodbye Lenin! and similar films were released. Then even people who were too young to have experienced the GDR suddenly wore GDR clothes, bought GDR products, or wanted to watch GDR Films. I can’t remember earlier Ostalgie; my parents never glorified the GDR in that way.”
Glorification of the GDR is a matter of concern for many Germans who, as Markus states, realise that the GDR “was a dictatorial state, and not a paradise.” The future of Ostalgie, like any retrospective trend, seems to be limited. Robert views it as being irrelevant to his age group (“Ostalgie has no great meaning for my generation. Why would it?”), while Joachim believes it’s just a matter of time before Ostalgie itself is a thing of the past.
“As soon as the generation of eyewitnesses is gone, the concept of Ostalgie won’t exist anymore.”
‘Ostalgie’ is a sense of reminiscence, but an anniversary is also to do with comparing the past to the present. The outcome of ‘die Wende’ (‘the change’) was Germany’s political unification, but two decades on the question still lingers: are there notable differences between ‘East’ and ‘West’? The simple answer is yes – but any country with a population of over 82 million is never going to have a uniform culture.
As Markus points out, “Yes, there are definitely differences, but not just because of the Wall. Germany has a lot of regional cultural differences.” Joachim agrees that regional variety is important to bear in mind, but also thinks that the stark financial differences between the two regions must be taken into account.
“For most people in the West, especially in the south in areas such as Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg, that theme [of the difference between East and West] is no longer relevant and tends to get very little attention. However, that is also to do with the fact that the economic situation in the south is much better than the situation in the east.”
The loaded nicknames ‘Ossie’ and ‘Wessie’, used to describe people from the ‘East’ (Ost) or ‘West’ (West), have a history of negative connotations, and are terms that any non-native German speaker would be wise to leave out of their vocabulary. Though old-fashioned, they are still sometimes used by both younger and older generations today, but there is a definite self-awareness of how they are used.
Joachim maintains that the terms “are no longer used in daily or polite conversation,” while Bettina occasionally uses them, “but only for fun.” Robert regards the ongoing use of ‘Ossie’ and ‘Wessie’ as a sign that total unification has yet to be achieved. “Yes, they are still used and unfortunately there are still prejudices in my generation. Unification isn’t everywhere, even twenty years after the Peaceful Revolution.”
9th November 2009 wll not be the final chapter in the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall – this is a perennial occurrence that will continue every five and ten years into the foreseeable future. So since anniversaries contemplate the future as well as the present and the past, how do German students envision the 2019 anniversary?
Robert sees the potential for another light festival in Leipzig, while Bettina is concerned that commercialisation will have reached a new level, “because by then many of the emotions will have been forgotten.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a once-off event, but its story still has a future, soon to be retold by generations who have no personal recollection of life before 1989. Yet as that unique 9th November slips further into the past, there is no reason for its importance to fade – as Markus explains, the future will always depend on the commemoration of history.
“There can’t be a positive future without remembrance of the past. It should never be forgotten.”