Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Ordeal of Being German

For most of my life being German felt like an ordeal, a full-time job. We dealt with our parents’ and grandparents’ guilt, the heavy load we had inherited. On American TV, my compatriots were Nazis, deranged psychiatrist, or Bavarians in Lederhosen. They were either barking orders or slapping their legs doing the Schuhplatter dance. That certainly didn't help me to feel any better about being German.
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was a life-changing event for me and for Germans no matter where they lived. The image of Nazi Germans was suddenly replaced by joyous Germans infecting the world with their good will and spirit. For the first time, I felt great being German and proud to belong to my nation. Overcome, I sat glued to the television with tears of joy streaming down my face. The next day everyone at work hugged me and congratulated me as if I had been responsible for bringing down the wall. Strangers invited me for a drink to celebrate the end of the Cold War. The parents of a Korean child in the school where I worked as a counselor brought me a flower. “We are happy and sad,” the father said. “We hope we are next,” his wife added.
After enthusiasm and celebration reality set in. Two million East Germans left their homes to seek their fortune elsewhere. In many parts of the former GDR, unemployment is in the double digits. East Germans earn 20% less than West Germans. The catch-up might take another twenty years. Germans are no longer surrounded by a cement wall but twenty years later a mental wall still exists. Many West Germans complain that their lives were better before reunification. Some East Germans feel nostalgic about their life in the GDR. The 1.3 trillion euro investment in the former East Germany—more than the entire Marshall plan for former West Germany—has not yielded the desired results.
With the exception of hosting the 2006 World Soccer Cup, Germans have not displayed joy and enthusiasm in large numbers. But now, at the twenty year anniversary of the fall of the wall, we allow ourselves to feel good once again. Here in New York, many events —readings, films and a dance performance —celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Columbia University hosted a conference “Freedom without Walls.” “Words without Borders” organized a reading and panel discussion at Idlewood Bookstore on November 10th to launch their new anthology The Wall in My Head. The book includes writers who witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain and those who grew up in its wake. [Milan Kundera, Peter Schneider, Ryszard Kapuściński, Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin, Péter Esterházy, Andrzej Stasiuk, Muharem Bazdulj, Maxim Trudolubov, Dorota Masłowska, Uwe Tellkamp, Dan Sociu, David Zábranský, Christhard Läpple.]
At Idlewood, Polish writer Dorota Maslowska, German writer Kathrin Aehnlich and Romanian writer Dan Sociu read excerpts and spoke about how they witnessed the events at age six, twelve, and thirty-two. Eliot Borenstein, Chair of the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, moderated.
Dan Sociu, a younger poet of the so-called “2000 Generation,” a movement Romanian literary critic called “Miserabilism”, brought down the house with his deadpan humor. Dorota Maslowska (Snow White and Russian Red) spoke about the difference of her generation to older, more established writers. “They want to write pretty literature; we want to rape literature,” she said. Kathrin Aehnlich read a hilarious segment from her latest book Everyone Dies, Even the Paddlefish in which teacher Aunt Edeltraud rules the children in an East German kindergarten with the iron fist of a prison warden.
Kathrin Aehnlich, a Leipzig native, was the only one old enough to not only have witnessed the fall of the wall but also to have actively participated in the Monday night demonstration that she believes prepared the fall of the wall.
The room was jam-packed. The audience asked a lot of questions. Most people stayed and engaged in lively conversation after the event. They polished off the hors d’oeuvres and drank the last drop of wine. The mood was festive. When the bookstore closed many were not ready to go home. I joined a group of German and American journalists and writers, a Dutch restaurant owner and a Canadian real estate agent at the Old Town Bar. There we continued our discussion over greasy bar food and Paulaner Beer.
My advice: have a beer, some mozzarella sticks, or if you prefer a piece of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. Indulge in being German. Bask in the fact that the fall of the wall was one of the few positive developments in recent world history. Be shameless. Who knows when we'll find such a good reason to party again?