In Germany, strangers are now countrymen
EXACTLY one year ago, on the day the Berlin Wall went down, I sat in front of the TV and cried. Pictures of the falling wall, of people crying when meeting relatives, friends, or neighbors after 40 years of separation were so very touching. I didn't think about German reunification then. Like people all over the world, I simply felt very happy the East Germans were becoming free citizens. And it was great that Berlin wasn't divided anymore. I had visited West Berlin several times and had always felt the injustice of splitting this vivacious city. But I never had really visited the German Democratic Republic - the GDR - this foreign country where the policemen were said to be the toughest in Eastern Europe. And I never had felt the need to have my country, West Germany, unify with it.
This feeling of the strangeness of the GDR has remained with me until now, despite unification of the ``Germanys'' on Oct. 3. I don't even know how to name this new part of my enlarged country. The GDR doesn't exist anymore. And the name `East Germany' does not mean the same to Germans as it does to Americans. That phrase is really linked to the period of the cold war, or else to the former so-called eastern areas in today's Poland.
Some years ago, at an international meeting in Prague, I met an East German student. We chatted about our countries and somehow I didn't say ``GDR'' but used the term ``East Germany.'' The girl shouted angrily at me that this phrase was a typical example of the arrogance of all ``federal Germans'' who still believed that the GDR was a part of the ``German Reich.''
In no other European country have I ever felt so strange as in the former GDR. Once, on my way to Prague, I had to cross through the GDR by train. In my compartment were sitting two students and a couple with two children, all going to Dresden. At first, everybody chatted. That changed immediately when I had to show my West German passport to the conductor. As if by command, everybody stopped talking. Until we reached Dresden nobody looked at me, nobody talked to me.
For more than 40 years, Germans in East and West generally did not talk to each other, except for family visits permitted under d'etente starting in the 1970s. On the rare occasions when Germans met, speechlessness and misunderstanding often ruled. It was as if the people could not forgive each other the fact of their being divided - divided into rich and poor, free and unfree.
For the younger Western generation, which had not known the war, the GDR became a neighboring country, like German-speaking Switzerland or Austria. For the East Germans kids, things were much more complicated.
On the one hand they were taught and finally came to believe that their socialist fatherland was superior to West Germany and one of the best countries in the world. On the other hand, they admired and envied the wealthy Western life style.
In the former GDR, as in most Eastern European countries, the totalitarian system has led to a very intolerant, narrow-minded climate. Typical for these countries is also the aggressive social envy caused by a society of deficiency. So, for an East German, it is often the norm to feel hostility toward foreigners and minorities. Friends of mine living in Berlin tell me that the situation for immigrants has become very difficult since the city's unification.
For East Germans, the confrontation with the Nazi past hasn't been very profound. They were told after the war that all bad fascists had gone to the West, so they did not need to worry about being guilty or responsible as a German. In consequence they cannot understand why somebody should feel uneasy about German unification.
But I do. I have always felt ashamed to be German, to belong to this nation that has killed millions of people. My dream was to learn languages, to become a tolerant cosmopolitan and to lose the stigma of being German. Now, after the unexpected unification, I find myself being more German than ever, with the whole world looking at us.
I don't think a united Germany means danger to the world. After World War II, almost nobody believed that the Germans could ever become good democrats. But they did. And we should not forget that it was the East Germans themselves who fought for democracy last year.
But there is no reason, either, to start reunification with blind cries of hurrah. One month ago came political unity. Now we Germans have to find spiritual unity. That could take much more time. People on both sides of the artificial but bitter divide need time to heal old wounds, time to get to know each other. These questions are of much more importance than the old question of free markets vs. socialism.
After the war the former arch enemies France and Germany started an extraordinary exchange program. Every year, several hundred children spent their holidays in a French family, and vice versa. Some of these friendships have lasted for whole lifetimes. Why not start a similar German-German program. I think we really need it.