Berlin Wall's fall: Four former East Germans assess changed lives

On 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, those who lived behind the Iron Curtain talk of both disappointments and unexpected opportunities.

Pawel Kopczynski/REUTERS
People stand next to giant domino pieces that have been placed along a stretch of the Berlin Wall's original path Monday during day-long celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For Dana Muehlmann, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall isn't cause to celebrate.

"The wall is gone, but there is still no unification, no equality between the two Germanies," argues Ms. Muehlmann, who is working on her doctoral dissertation. "A lot of the things that the GDR citizens built disappeared."

As the world marks two decades of German unification, four ex-Eastern Germany residents welcomed the day in a more subdued way, remembering what had represented home and thinking of forward step as well as all the hopes that haven't materialized.

Understanding the perspective of people like Muehlmann is a way for Germany to heal the "wounds of the unification process," says Johannes Moser, a professor of European ethnology at Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University.

"After the wall fell, a lot of people from the west came and told people in the East how bad everything had been there. Many residents of the GDR felt downgraded, as though their own lives, their own biographies had come under attack," says Professor Moser. "But there's been a rethinking process. Everybody's looking at the different facets of unification now."

Muehlmann: Didn't want to leave

Muehlmann left her home in the Elbe Valley town of Chemnitz in July 1989, just four months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She still calls the town Karl-Marx-Stadt (Karl Marx City.)

At 16, Dana didn't want to go west. Her parents did – and had asked earlier for permission to leave. Because they were active in church and because she had just been confirmed Muehlmann was not allowed to go to high school. Despite being among the best pupils in her class she was sent at age 14 to a vocational school where she couldn't take her high school diploma and couldn't go on to university.

"My parents weren't party members. I was told my family tree wasn't right," she says.

But that wasn't enough to make her want to move.

"It was awful to leave home, to say goodbye to all my friends, thinking that I would never see them again," she says.

And life in western Germany was not easy.

'I never made it," says Muehlmann. "It's two different systems, it's like a foreign country. You speak the same language but you don't understand each other. It's like (an) asylum."

She came back east to Berlin's Prenzlauerberg neighborhood. At first she participated in the arts scene. Soon, things changed.

What came, she says, was unbridled capitalism. She says investors have tried to buy property after property in her Prenzlauerberg neighborhood, turning an affordable Berlin neighborhood into a high-rent area.

To her, unification means rows of empty buildings and abandoned factories. "This is not how capitalism should be," she says. "It's all about money. There is no taking care of people anymore."

Gabriele Flegel's friend arrives from the west

For many, reunification meant rethinking everything they had been taught throughout their lives.

On the day the Berlin Wall fell a friend of Gabriele Flegel's stood by her door in an eastern Berlin neighborhood not far from the wall.

Ms. Flegel had not seen her in years. She had heard about people crossing the border into West Berlin, but seeing her friend at her doorstep was the first tangible sign that the GDR had collapsed.

"We couldn't believe it happened so fast," says Flegel, who teaches history in a high school in the former eastern part of Berlin.

"That we managed without violence, that we're one united people, and that that happened without blood, is to me the most impressive thing," says Hans Flegel, her husband.

To him, the end of the wall meant he could fulfill a longstanding dream. "I always wanted to go to my grandfather's grave [in west Berlin]. Now I could go!," he says. "That's what I thought when the wall fell down."

The couple had been intellectuals, teachers. But the Communist regime reined them in.

"I was interested in Karl Marx but I couldn't go to Marx's birthplace in the town of Trier," says Mr. Flegel. Only with special permits that were difficult to get did one get access to books in libraries.

Still, reunification didn't bring rejoicing. "In the first weeks [following the fall of the Wall] there was no euphoria – only feeling unsure about everything."

"We were an imprisoned people," she says. "Certain things crept through you, in the mentalities."

Later, she says, she began to understand how to negotiate greater freedoms. "I learned about the immense possibilities that Europe offers," says Ms. Flegel, who teaches history to 9th graders.

Part of her job is to make sure today's youth know about the wall and about the GDR regime. But she doesn't want to give up her past.

"I was a happy teacher," she says. "I did lots of great projects with my pupils, within the frames of what the system allowed."

A world changes during vacation

Anke Burmeister only took a backpack when she took off for a summer vacation in Bulgaria with her future husband in 1989. "I thought, I'll be back in September," she recalls.

But that summer, the Hungarian border had opened. On the way back to Germany, the couple stopped in Budapest and decided to flee west, through Austria. She called her mother and told her the news. "My mother said, 'Go, and if I don't see you again for five years, that's OK.' "

Today is a day to celebrate for Anke.

In the GDR, she had been a journalism student. But she knew that her future was bleak. "I wasn't in the party. One man told me word for word: if you're not a member of the party, you'll never be a successful news agency reporter."

But in Stuttgart she got a job as a reporter for the German news agency DPA. She's been working for German Public Radio Berlin since 1992.

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