“Wende”, turning point, is what Germans call the time that led to reunification of the two Germanys. Twenty years ago, protests and demonstrations —a peaceful revolution—ended the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) regime in the German Democratic Republic. The first free elections of the People's Parliament took place in March 1990. They paved the way to a parliamentary democracy and German reunification.
The New York Times reflected on the 20th anniversary with the article “For Some Germans, Unity Is Still a Work in Progress.” NPR,Deutsche Welle TV,and the BBC World News took an in-depth look at how Germany has been growing together. Germans, in their typical “the glass is half empty” attitude, focused on flaws, imperfections, and disappointments.
There’s disparity: the unemployment rate is higher in the East and the salaries are lower. But Germany today is without a doubt a great place to live. Germans have freedom of speech; they are well off or well taken care of with universal healthcare from cradle to grave. They retire at an early age and have plenty of vacation time.
German reunification has brought me many rewards. Throughout the early nineties, I had the opportunity to work with teachers and social-workers in the former GDR. This gave me insight into the East Germans’ state of mind. The world they knew stopped to exist; their careers were obliterated. Some felt anxious and overwhelmed. Others bemoaned the loss of security. The windows of bookstores displayed plenty of self-help books.
For the first time in history, a capitalist and a socialist economy suddenly became one. Many East Germans embraced the new freedom and the previously unthinkable opportunities that came with it. The West Germans, often lacking empathy, complained about the steep price of unification: $1.7 trillion. The country seemed split into "Ossis" and "Wessis." Alienation and misunderstandings ruled.
Maybe I understand East Germans better than the West Germans. When I moved to New York my cultural and social security blanket vanished. Feeling off balance, I had to fend for myself in an alien land. It took years before I felt I belonged. Thirty years later, as both an American and a German citizen, I still have trouble understanding the behavior and thoughts of my fellow Americans.
I benefit from personal post-unification perks: travelling to Weimar, Dresden, Leipzig, the Baltic coast, and the lakes of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. As a resident of the Federal Republic of Germany who had no relatives in the East, I was not able to visit these places before. I was only entitled to spend 24 Hours in East Berlin. Driving from my hometown to Berlin and through the GDR transit zone, I could never drive off the roads, explore the villages and towns along the way or have a picnic in the forest. I would have been arrested. The border crossings were an ordeal. The x-ray machines at Bahnhof Friedrichstraße where West Berliners crossed over to the East could have been invented by George Orwell.
Another reunification benefit: spending time with my Berlin friends in their Brandenburg forest datsha (Many former West Berliners now have vacation homes in the East.) Developing new friendships with Kathrin from Leipzig, Dagmar from Görlitz, and Anetta and Petra who grew up in East Berlin.
At the top of my list is: falling in love with Görlitz (a gem of town on the Polish border) where I bought a charming apartment in 2004 at a ridiculously low sum. I now have a German “Personalausweis” (ID) that states that I am a resident of Görlitz. I spend time there every year. With each stay, my love for the town and its people deepens. Many other Germans are turned off by the dialect spoken in Saxony. It took some time to get used to, but as a resident of the state, a Saxon and “Ossi” by choice, it is music to my ears.
As Germany was reunified I was reunited with people and places in the East kept at a distance from me in the past.