BERLIN – Berlin was buzzing Friday as festivities marking 20 years since the fall of the wall got under way.
U2 had a public concert by the Brandenburg Gate on Thursday evening.
The world’s media and world leaders are descending upon this once divided city.
But beyond the party there is real life, and the question about where things stand for Germans today looms in the minds of many.
I asked a historian if the process of reunification really is complete.
“Maybe we are halfway there, because of course when you look at opinion polls or even data on industrial development, you see there is a certain difference between east and west Germany,” said Dr. Jens Gieseke of the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, the Berlin suburb where the Soviets and the other Allies used to exchange their spies, on a bridge.
All Germans have made some kind of sacrifice to bring the country back together. It has come at a huge cost—1.3 trillion euros and counting. A 5.5 percent surtax or “solidarity tax” was lopped onto everyone to help fund the project. Western coffers have carried the bulk of the burden.
At the same time, many in the east felt the rug was pulled out from under them, a social safety net that went the way of the old wall. Yes, there was jubilation and freedom. But living under a whole new system and set of rules isn’t necessarily easy, even if it is what so many “Ossies” as the easterners were called, had longed for.
There are success stories in the east as well as failures.
Hanseyachts is a success story. One of the world’s biggest manufacturers of yachts sits quietly in the Baltic Sea port town of Greifswald. Who would or could have ever thought?
“We just did it. And we had some fun,” said Michael Schmidt, who runs the company.
Schmidt, from the old West Germany, at the time the wall fell got excited about the possibility of creating jobs in the east. He said he always had a bit of a “leftie” streak in him. He also really loved Poland, from where he also runs part of his business, and the Baltic Sea. And former “leftie” or not, he is good at business.
The credit crunch has hurt the company. Its business was doing $200 million a year in sales before the crisis. Now it’s doing $90. He’s had to cut back on staff. But the owner expects business to pick back up and soon.
Schmidt says he jumped in to do business in the old East Germany at just the right time, as opportunities were up for grabs. And the timing was quite key for him personally. Schmidt, at the time, already had a boat business, but in the West, was keen to expand it, but the bureaucracy was holding him back.
He was out having a drink with a friend around the time the wall fell. They got to talking about boats and careers. Their creative juices led him to Greifswald.
“The first years were very difficult because nobody believed in what we were doing. It was difficult to get people to move over to the east because from the management side it was hard to find people here because sailing did not exist,” said Schmidt.
What he did was turn an old fishing boat building and repair outfit that employed 130 people into a yacht emporium.
Of course, although Greifswald is on the water, there was no yachting culture there in the old communist days. Boats were restricted. The government was afraid people would use them to sail out of dodge.
So Schmidt needed some forces from the west, but today, 95 percent of workers are from the east. They had to be trained on the fly and on the job. But he says it wasn’t difficult at all, as they were well-educated and good workers.
This contradicts some of what the experts say, which is that productivity was at the time of reunification, a third lower in the east. Certainly, the communists needed to boast no unemployment. So often companies were quite bloated and people did not have to work all that hard because there were too many of them floating around.
In the shuffle that has been re-unification, some old eastern firms have been pared way down. Take the story of Schwedt, about an hour and a half from Berlin. Its main employer was always its oil refinery. Half the jobs there have been cut. Upgrades to the plant meant redundancies.
The mayor of Schwedt, Jurgen Polzehl, says his city needs jobs.
Young people are leaving.
Schwedt’s population at the time of the fall of the wall was 50,000.
Now it is 35,000.
Schwedt, simply put, like many cities in the former east, is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Reunification meant a lot of federal money was poured in to clean things up and revamp the infrastructure. But jobs for the population did not follow. So Schwedt is ready for investment, praying it will come. The mayor says he is hoping to capitalize on Poland’s proximity by promoting trade and shopping with and by Poles. The locals, he said, are even learning Polish.
There is a lot of talk about the phenomenon called “Ostaglia” or nostalgia for things from the old “Ost” Germany. All sorts of polls suggesting there are plenty of Germans from the east who would like to bring back the old order.
It sure is hard to find anyone who will say that. Many from the east miss the old security of always having a job and not having so much crime. They say people were warmer and had more time for each other. But of course they omit that many of those warm friends were informing on them to the Stasi, or secret police.
Dr. Gieseke worked in the Stasi archives for a while. He said the prolific nature of the informants’ notes changed his opinion of humanity. The rate of “coverage” of each East German citizen by informants and spies was three times higher than in the Soviet Union.
He cites just one example of the lengths people would go to in order to provide something to the authorities.
“These informer files had several hundred pages, and in one an officer said that an informer told him that his neighbors had dirty curtains and so we must look out for him and is there something bad about this family?”
However, I, having been here in Berlin several days, and having traveled to the old East Germany, have not heard anyone say they want to bring back the past altogether. But they do want not to be stigmatized for the negative aspects of their old life and I have heard time and again “It wasn’t all bad.”
One former East German school teacher told me, when I asked if she longed for the old days. She said “The only thing I long for is my youth!” She laughed and then paused, adding. “And my youth was in East Germany.”
There has been some prejudice and stereotyping between the east and west.
“There are a lot of prejudices on both sides about each other. You’ve got these images of arrogant, ignorant West Germany who comes in as very money oriented and career oriented and then we have images of the East German who is lazy and oriented on state benefits. In my experience, these prejudices fad away in a certain sense but they are not gone altogether today.”
But as I discussed with another professor, a professor of law in Berlin, each country in the world has certain regional stereotypes. That is not unique to Germany. He told me this generation of students is barely distinguishable from one another, east versus west. He said they sit in his classes simply looking like Germans.
Last weekend former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, at the beginning of the celebrations to make the anniversary of the fall of the wall, standing together with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, said, “We Germans in our history don’t have very much to be proud of.” But he continued. “I have nothing better to be proud of than German reunification.”