LEIPZIG, Germany — On a recent rainy night in the eastern German city of Leipzig, thousands of people gathered for a “Festival of Lights.” Standing in the city’s central Augustusplatz with candles in hand, they were celebrating the 30th anniversary of the “Peaceful Revolution,” the series of weekly protests that started here and helped bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
It should have been a jubilant evening, a celebration of democracy and unity. But the day’s events took on a somber tone, and not only because the rain extinguished people’s candles almost as soon as they had been lit. Only hours earlier in the nearby city of Halle, a right-wing extremist had opened fire on a synagogue during Yom Kippur services; the attack killed two people, raising new discussions about rising anti-Semitism and extremism in the country that has long sought to avoid repeating its past.
“A day of joy has become a day of suffering,” said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, addressing members of the crowd as they huddled with their candles in the rain.
That day felt to me like an encapsulation of the political debate in Germany this fall. With the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on the horizon as well as elections in three former East German states, the former East Germany and its enduring inequalities have been the foremost political topic of the year. And the strength of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the east, combined with an increase in right-wing extremist activity, have made it clear the radical right has gained a solid foothold in German politics and society.
There will of course be many retrospective pieces on this big anniversary, but with days of celebrations and events about to begin in earnest in Berlin, I wanted to take a slightly different approach. As someone born in 1989, most of my friends and acquaintances in Germany are around my age; most were either very young when the Wall fell or born shortly after.
Over the two-plus years I’ve lived in Berlin, I’ve heard stories from those people anecdotally: The eastern German born in 1990 whose mother wrote him a letter about her life in the German Democratic Republic, or GDR—as East Germany was called—and gave it to him on his 25th birthday; someone from Chemnitz who watched, horrified, as neo-Nazis took to the streets in his hometown last year; my roommates in Görlitz this summer, both of whom were born long after the fall of the Wall but still felt different than their western German counterparts.
Building on those conversations, I wanted to speak with people born in 1989—part of the so-called Nachwendegeneration, or “post-reunification generation”—to understand the extent to which inequalities and stereotypes exist for younger Germans. They are turning 30 this year, the same age as the post-Berlin Wall Germany; they have no memories of what came before, learning about the GDR either from their parents’ anecdotes or the media.
That generation—particularly those from the East—stands at a crossroads between the divided Germany of their parents and grandparents and the open, reunited country they live in today. They and their families are still working through, or in some cases only starting to work through, their past experiences and the effects they have on families today. Those post-reunification Germans, then, may be the only generation who can truly bridge the divide and work to make east-west conversations a thing of the past.
“Our toes are still a little bit in East Germany, in the old East Germany,” Johannes Nichelmann, a journalist born in 1989 in East Berlin, told me. “But the rest of us is in the new, kind of new world.”
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Johannes has spent a lot of time considering this topic: Earlier this fall, he published a book called Nachwendekinder, or “Post-Reunification Children.” It looks at the paradox of being born in a land that no longer exists and the difficult conversations (or lack thereof) young eastern Germans have with their parents about their experiences in the former GDR.
“When I talk always with all my friends who are from East Germany who were born around the end of the ’80s or the beginning of the ’90s, they all told me they have the same issues,” he said, explaining why he’d decided to write the book. “They couldn’t really understand where their family, where their parents, their grandparents are from—and why they feel themselves that they have something to do with this former GDR, that they have kind of a connection, but don’t really know why.”
Like the other young eastern Germans I spoke with, Johannes said his parents made frequent references to the GDR throughout his childhood, but more in the way of small references or lighthearted anecdotes to “back in GDR times.” On a vacation, one’s parents might note where the old border stood; or might talk about the kinds of things you couldn’t buy in the GDR; grandparents might tell a funny story about driving their Trabants, the iconic GDR auto, into West Germany after the fall of the Wall.
The difficult subjects, however—losing a job after reunification, potential work with the GDR’s government or for the Stasi, imprisonment or lost opportunities for those who opposed the regime—often remain undiscussed in eastern German families.
“The serious topics were of course kept from us as kids,” said Florian Schikowski, a 30-year-old PhD student in Berlin who grew up in a small city near Leipzig. “But I don’t think it was deliberate: People just tried to get along somehow and give their kids a nice childhood.”
As someone who’s spent his adult life researching the years after the fall of the Wall, Florian said his work gives him reasons to ask his parents about small details of their GDR life. He can mention something he read—about the quality of the food in workers’ cafeterias, for example—and ask them, is that really what it was like? “That way I can very specifically ask things and it’s all okay,” he said.
Others said their parents were more open with them about their GDR experiences or the more difficult post-reunification challenges they’d faced—but that even today, they’re surprised by some of the things they’ve only recently learned.
Sarah Pagung, a 30-year-old daughter of farmers from a small village in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, said her parents were always very forthcoming with her about their histories; they didn’t gloss over negative or critical stories about the GDR. The Communist regime had repossessed the farm her family had owned before the country’s split; as a result, she said, her parents and grandparents were “waiting all their lives for the GDR to come to an end.”
The generation born shortly after the fall of the Wall stands at a crossroads between the divided Germany of their parents and the open, reunited country they live in today. These post-reunification Germans may be the only generation who can truly bridge the divide and work to make east-west conversations a thing of the past.
So even though both parents struggled professionally after reunification—her mother lost her job and father earned low wages for a western German company that took over the factory where he’d worked before—both were so happy to be free of communism they were willing to accept their fates.
But a few years ago, Sarah mentioned to her parents a recent museum exhibition she’d seen about people who fled the GDR. Had they ever considered fleeing to the West, she asked? To her surprise, her mother said she had—although not after Sarah and her sister were born, and never very seriously because she knew Sarah’s father wouldn’t want to leave. He, listening in, gave his wife a look and said, “You never said that.”
“I was really shocked,” Sarah told me. “I was like, ‘You have never talked about that for the last 40 years? I have to ask you now?”
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The Wall once divided Berlin in half, drawing an uncrossable line through communities and families. But standing at a bridge on Bornholmer Strasse in the capital’s trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood today, it’s difficult to tell the Wall stood just a few hundred feet away. The spot was the site of one of the first border crossings to open 30 years ago; today, trains and trams ride through here across the old divide. A memorial stands on the eastern side of the bridge, with photos showing what happened there the night the Wall fell.
Down the street is where I met Florian, the PhD candidate living in Berlin. Always drawn to east-west themes in his studies, he is now writing his dissertation on the fusion of the East German people’s rights movement and the western German Greens in the early 1990s. Like several other eastern Germans I spoke with, he told me he identified far more as “eastern German”—or even “European”—than “German.” Of the family stories and anecdotes he had heard as a child, the ones about the GDR or East-West tales stuck with him most.
“It’s easier to say ‘I’m East German’ than ‘I’m German,’” he told me. “Of course I’m German, but that’s not special, it doesn’t have any particular worth. As an East German, I’m part of a smaller identity, one that’s also more interesting.”
Perhaps that sense is heightened by the fact that like nearly all the other young eastern Germans I spoke with, Florian said he can often tell quite quickly upon meeting people whether they’re from the east or west. Sometimes it’s references to childhood vacations or some other small details, they told me; sometimes it’s far less tangible, more the way people talk or carry themselves. (When I mentioned that to some of the young western Germans, they were surprised: They don’t do this, at least not consciously.)
Sarah, from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, told me her heritage as an eastern German “always has a place” in the way she considers her identity, since the GDR was such a topic in her family and throughout her childhood. “I have this quite strong eastern German legacy,” she said. “That has always been quite strong with me—I think stronger than with a lot of people my age.”
As a result, she’s bothered by the sense that western Germany is the “default” when it comes to culture, identity or politics—and that eastern Germany is therefore some sort of strange deviation.
“I think what I find more troubling is the fact that one side seems to be the much more powerful one,” she said. “German identity kind of comes from the West German normal, and it’s so normal it’s not even called West German, it’s called German.” (She sometimes feels like “the funny, strange little auntie who it’s funny to listen to, but who isn’t the norm,” she added.)
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In western Germany, things for the post-reunification generation were—and remain—different. Young people growing up in the west say Germany’s divisions were rarely or never discussed, leaving their childhoods largely untouched by the challenges of reunification. None of them considered themselves to be “western German,” if they identified with any sort of German identity at all; like the young eastern Germans, they, too, thought of themselves more as Europeans than Germans.
Natalie Uhlenbusch, a researcher in psychology who lives in Hamburg, grew up between wealthy southern Bavaria and the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. She says the first time she truly engaged with the idea of a divided Germany, and what it meant for the people living in the east, was when she learned about it in school.
“Before that, I actually did not have a lot of contact with people from eastern Germany,” she told me while visiting Berlin recently. “It was more like a thing that I kind of knew existed but without being personally touched by it.”
Like Natalie, Conny Lotter, an engineer living in Munich, was very rarely confronted with the East-West topic during her childhood. It took meeting her boyfriend, a journalist from the eastern German state of Thuringia—and visiting his family there over the last few years—to understand how differently her peers in the East grew up.
“I was surprised how often they talk about it,” she said. “Not like a discussion, but… making jokes.” If something is especially fancy, she said, his father would call it a “Wessi” thing; if his mother made a recipe from a western German cookbook, she’d joke that she had to double the portions or everyone would still be hungry afterward.
Still, some young western Germans who had family in the East have had the kind of adult revelations Johannes and others from eastern Germany described. Sabine Oberpriller, a journalist from Bavaria who now splits her time between Germany and Italy, told me about visiting her extended family in Berlin as a child. She remembers being shown around the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, where one of them had worked in restoration.
But throughout the short trips to Berlin and amid her family’s recollections about the GDR, it wasn’t until this fall that Sabine learned her great aunt had been imprisoned for three months in the early days of the GDR. “They mainly told these nostalgic stories about her work in the palace and avoided the critical stories,” she said. “Of course in retrospect, I wonder… how much did this arrest affect this whole wing of the family?”
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Unfortunately, the enduring divisions between east and west have also become increasingly apparent in politics. In the past six years, the far-right AfD has capitalized on voter frustration and the 2015-16 influx of refugees to win seats in the Bundestag and all 16 state parliaments. Its message is especially resonant in the east, where the party just recently won a quarter of the votes in state elections in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia.
The disproportionate strength of the AfD in the east has led to new stereotypes about people who live there. And it’s prompted new conversations for young eastern Germans, who are now treated much like, for example, a young American from the Rust Belt who’s constantly asked in major coastal cities to explain why Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.
Since the AfD entered the German Bundestag in 2017, “there was kind of an inquiry: ‘Please explain the east to me,’” Jeannette Gusko, a 35-year-old from East Berlin who works in the city’s startup scene, told me. “It turned from, ‘Hey, tell me about your experiences, which were probably different from mine,’ to like, ‘Please explain to me.’” (She said there was an undercurrent of problem-solving in those questions: People hoped that such explanations would lead to “the silver bullet to make it go away,” she said.)
That is part of the goal of a new initiative Jeannette helped found with other young eastern Germans, called Wir Sind Der Osten (“We Are The East”). The group, which launched in mid-October, is putting together a database of biographies of eastern Germans from diverse backgrounds, professions and generations—all with the aim of showing that eastern Germany is far more nuanced and diverse than media portrayals often suggest, and ensuring more eastern German voices are heard on the national stage.
“If we think about what the future for Germany and Europe should look like, these people are a major force to be considered because they lead in their fields,” Jeannette said. “They already have a lot of responsibility, but they can also take on more.”
Sarah, too, felt the recent shift in her conversations with western Germans and foreigners when they ask about eastern Germany. Her sense that the east is some sort of deviation from a West German norm “became even stronger during the last three years, when this east-west thing is really constantly touched upon, constantly talked about,” she said. “And I think for me it’s really difficult because at some point I do not understand why so many people in East Germany are so xenophobic, why they vote for AfD. I don’t get it.”
Like others I spoke with—all of whom, admittedly, were no fans of the AfD—said they somewhat resent the fact that the party’s rise is often deemed just an eastern German problem, rather than a force to be reckoned with across the country. It’s easy for western Germans to simply dismiss all eastern Germany as Nazis, but hard for them to acknowledge that the rise of right-wing populism and extremism are a challenge for the entire country.
“It’s a huge problem in East Germany, but it doesn’t help to divide the country into east and west when we talk about this,” Johannes said. “That makes it easy to just say it’s an East German problem and it’s because of the GDR. I think there are more reasons for it… to solve these problems, we shouldn’t only watch east Germany.”
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Leipzig’s festival of lights marked only the beginning of a season of remembrance and commemoration. People are celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall all this week, culminating in a major event at the Brandenburg Gate on the actual anniversary on November 9.
The young Germans I spoke with consistently said they’re glad these issues are being discussed in a significant way, and hope the topic doesn’t just disappear from the public debate after the anniversary celebrations are over. But more than that, they—especially those born in eastern Germany—hope there comes a day in the not-too-distant future when east-west dichotomies are no longer necessary or relevant.
“The next generation will hopefully… not have to do anything with the whole thing because for them it will really just be a big part of history,” Johannes told me. “My nephew is now three years old, so I’m really wondering how in 10, or 15, or 20 years—how he’ll ask his grandparents about the country where they’re from.”