Germany celebrates 20 years of reunification, but not Wolfgang and Britte

My friends in eastern Berlin illustrate the mental wall that still exists between eastern and western Germany, 20 years after reunification. They also reveal an east-east wall that's less talked about.

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    East German border guards watch as Berliners storm the wall at the Brandenburg Gate. On the night of November 9, 1989, the wall separating East and West Berlin fell. Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of official reunification on Sunday, Oct. 3.
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Although I haven’t talked to them for several months, I’m pretty sure my friends Wolfgang and Britte will not be celebrating the 20th anniversary of German reunification on Oct. 3.

They fall into the camp of former East Germans who have been disenchanted with reunification ever since “the people” forced out their communist rulers in peaceful demonstrations in 1989.

Not that these two dear ones, who are now retirees, want to turn back the clock. But they illustrate the mental wall that still separates east from west. According to a recent poll by Stern magazine, 67 percent of easterners do not feel like they live in a united Germany. Rather, they resent being “annexed” by the west, as one regional politician recently put it.

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Wolfgang and Britte also reflect a less talked-about divide between easterners themselves. It’s a difference in attitude and experience that separates those who were able to manage the transition to western life and capitalism, and those who couldn't.

I bumped into that east-east wall last year when my husband, Mark, and I traveled to Berlin to celebrate the fall of the literal wall. We had covered that momentous story as reporters based in Germany. I wanted to visit Wolfgang and Britte, and another eastern friend, Friedel, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly two decades. (To protect their privacy, I have not used their real names.)

Wolfgang and Britte still live in eastern Berlin, and Friedel still lives in Leipzig. They took care of me on my reporting trips for the Monitor, making up the guest bed and spoiling me with hot soups or baked, open-faced sandwiches after a long day of reporting.

Back then, Wolfgang worked as a freelance commercial photographer – unusual in a centrally planned economy – and Britte worked as a secretary in a government ministry. They detested the communist regime.

Last year, when Mark and I took the commuter train out to their apartment on the eastern outskirts of Berlin, we marveled at the physical transformation. This used to be a wasteland of look-alike, sterile, concrete apartment houses. In the intervening years, the buildings had been painted with colorful stripes; trees had been planted; sidewalks repaired. Big-box stores and auto dealerships dotted the area.

New tiles and bright lights sparkled in the foyer of my friends’ apartment house. A shiny elevator whisked us up to their floor, and they opened their door to a kitchen with a new countertop and cabinets, a living room with a new leather sofa and flat-screen TV, a study with a new IMac desktop computer – new to me, of course.

But when the conversation turned to politics, I heard the familiar bitterness of 20 years ago. “They’re all criminals,” said Britte with disdain. She was talking about today’s German politicians.

Britte and Wolfgang blamed the politicians, and West Germans generally, for their small pensions; for the promised job that never materialized after Britte's ministry was swallowed by the West German one; for the muscling out of Wolfgang's freelance work by more aggressive photographers from the west. They were both so disappointed, that they planned to boycott the coming parliamentary elections.

“What, boycott?” asked my friend, Friedel, when I told her about this the next day. “We waited 40 years for the right to cast a vote that actually means something, and they want to throw that away?”

She was incredulous, perhaps because she had risked her life in 1989 by marching in the Monday night Leipzig demonstrations. Berlin had warned of a “Tiananmen” response to the protests. But residents demonstrated anyway, despite reports that extra blood plasma and hospital beds had been assembled in Leipzig in preparation for a violent confrontation. The brave marchers stared down the secret police, shaming them with cries of “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the people).

Twenty years later, Leipzig, too, shined like new. Friedel met us at the train station, a chic shopping gallery stuffed with designer stores. As a boy, my father had bicycled to that same station to check for mail from his father – who was to summon the family when he had secured work in the “new world.” During my foreign correspondent days, I also passed through the station, which was a dreary, dark place that scared me.

Friedel’s outlook was as bright as the city she lives in. She’s grateful for clean air (Leipzig used to be covered in black soot from coal smoke). She swims in a new lake made from an old mining pit. Unlike Britte and Wolfgang, Friedel had a profession that survived the transition to capitalism. She worked as a dental hygienist right up until her recent retirement.

Yes, her rent increased dramatically, but she got a roommate. No, she can’t really afford to stay in hotels when she travels, but she goes camping instead. All in all, life is good.

Media reports this week describe the two Germanys: the one in the east, where unemployment is nearly 12 percent, and the one in the west, at half that; the one in the east, that feels trampled by the uppity capitalists next door, and the one in the west, that complains about the $1.7 trillion price tag for reunification.

But within the east are also two Germanys, born from personal experience. Some people adjusted, some didn’t. Some towns emptied out, but some are now gaining residents. I’m sure, though, that with another generation, the differences will have faded considerably. My husband and I will have to see for ourselves, when we fly to Berlin for the 40th anniversary.

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