I have spent time in Berlin, Leipzig, Görlitz, and my hometown of Moers these past three months. There is plenty I enjoy about Germany and the Germans: Pflaumenmus, Weizenbier, ecological awareness, the time they take to cultivate friendships, and the outdoor pubs where no one sits alone frantically pounding laptop keys, blackberries or i-phones. There is plenty I find annoying: stupid TV shows like "Wetten, dass...?," washing machines with 90 minute cycles, prejudiced attitudes toward Muslim citizens (as evident by the headscarf debate), and the obsessive complaining.
In my opinion, the Germans have no reason to complain. They enjoy a high standard of living and an unparalleled social safety net. People the world over would trade places with them anytime.
There’s one issue in particular that makes me feel that Germans live in a different universe: their attitude concerning reunification. Many Germans don’t seem to appreciate the gift of freedom, the bloodless revolution and coming together of a nation that’s been separated by barbed wire and “The Wall.” Shockingly, according to a recent survey by the Opinion Research Center Emnid, twenty-four percent of West Germans and twenty-three percent of East Germans wish, at times, to have the wall back. Sixteen percent even think it’s the best thing that could happen to the country. Eighty percent of the citizens in the East and seventy-two percent of the citizens in the West can imagine living in a socialist state like the former GDR as long as there is “work, security, and solidarity.” Freedom as the most important political goal is named by twenty-eight percent of the East Germans and forty-two percent of West Germans.
Who are these people who feel this way? Are they all born after 1970 into relative wealth? Do they all live far away from the wall and Berlin? Have they never known Berliners who suffered because their families were separated by the wall or former GDR residents who spent years in jail for expressing their opinion or trying to leave the country?
I have friends who have spent time in an East German jail or who were lucky to escape in the trunk of a car with the help of a paid escape agent. I have friends in Berlin, who from one day to the next, were unable to see their grandmother or other relatives in the East. They could no longer play in Treptow Park with their childhood friends. I remember the dramatic stories of people trying to escape from East Germany in the newspapers and the evening news. Doing research for my book I have immersed myself in the events of the early sixties for the past two months. The tragic stories of the divided Germany are fresh in my mind.
There are countless heart wrenching pictures and stories. People jumping from their third and fourth floor apartments, some of whom were saved by a fire department’s rescue net, others, not so fortunate who died. An engineer crawling through the sewers to freedom. Two young men arriving naked without any belongings in West Berlin. They swam to freedom. Newlyweds from the West walking up to the barbed wire to show themselves to their parents in the East who couldn’t attend the wedding. The wife's mother shouted across the barbed wire “Celebrate, but don't forget us.”
There’s one story in particular that haunts me. On August 17, 1962 two young men tried to jump over the wall. One made it into the west unharmed; the other, 18- year-old Peter Fechner, was hit by bullets in his back. Seriously wounded, he fell back to the eastern side of the wall. There he lay for 80 minutes without anyone coming to his assistance. West Berliners stood and watched in shock, unable to come to his rescue. Peter Fechner died a long, tortuous death. “Help me, please help me,” he shouted while the East Berlin Vopos let him bleed to death.
A stable job and a decent salary, health insurance, social welfare, and social security mean nothing if I don’t have freedom. The freedom of speech, the freedom to practice my beliefs, the freedom to live my life the way I want to.
The answers a quarter of Germans gave to the Emnid Institute make me feel ashamed of my fellow citizens. Is this dissatisfaction the result of the belief that unification has had a negative impact on social welfare? That life was better before unification?
Perhaps I have lived too long in the US, a country that has given refuge to millions of people persecuted in their homelands for their religion, political beliefs, or their ethnicity. I can live without security and wealth, but could never do without freedom.