An undivided country?

A very personal story — part 1

Photo by Max Letek on Unsplash

Last autumn, I was attending a conference in Tallinn, Estonia, with participants from every corner of Europe. When people became aware of the fact that I had been living in Eastern Germany, a lot of them (mostly those from western countries) began to ask questions about that time when the wall came down 30 years ago.

For me, it was a very intense period of my life with an abundance of changes in a very short time. Each day, something that seemed fixed for eternity gave way for something new. Every morning I awoke with curiosity.

At this conference in Tallinn, I realized that many people outside of Germany are still very interested in this fundamental change in the heart of Europe.

So I decided to write some of my experiences and memories down and post them on Medium (which I think is an excellent platform). These will be very personal and, therefore, subjective. I do not want to write a historical treatise. My experiences will surely differ from those of other people under other circumstances. But they might give you an idea of how it feels when the country you live in ceases to exist.

I was born in 1963. Both of my parents were refugees within Germany. My mother was born in Hamburg. She had to leave the city with her mother after the bombings of the summer of 1943 (“Operation Gomorrah”). She found shelter at some relatives’ house in Wismar on the Baltic Sea. My father came from the east — from Stettin. His family had to flee when the Red Army advanced toward Berlin in the winter and spring of 1945. They met in the middle in Rostock.

After getting through the worst years immediately after the end of the war, they settled in and decided to raise a family. About nine months after the wedding, I was born. One of my first memories is our first television. It was a clunky, black-and-white set with a tiny screen. But it opened a whole new world for us. A bit later — and with the support of some electronic and antennae bricolage — we were able to watch West-German TV. At that time — around 1970 — this was not exactly forbidden, but the state did not look well upon it. Sometimes members of the communist youth organization — the FDJ — climbed on the roofs and tore down antennas that faced in the wrong direction. So one of the first rules my parents instilled in me was never to speak about it in school or elsewhere.

My grandfather on my mother’s side had been MIA on the eastern front and was declared dead a few years after the war, so my grandmother could remarry. My grandpa on my father’s side was someone who shouldn’t have existed in a communist country anymore: he was an entrepreneur. He owned a small factory that produced paper bags. Plastic bags were not available at that time in the east, so this was a good business. But of course, the state didn’t like people in private companies making money. It was against the heart of their ideology. For reasons unknown to me, the state didn’t simply expropriate my grandfather and the few other private companies. They choose a more elegant approach: he was to give part of the ownership to the state, so they would have a better understanding of what was going on. But after a few years with an ever-increasing share for the state, they finally took over. In 1973 nearly all remaining private corporations were confiscated. They became a “Volkseigener Betrieb (VEB)” — a company owned by the people.

But there was a crucial lesson I learned from early on: do not trust this state and its ideology. On the other hand, my family tried to get along. We were not part of any opposition. I learned how to keep my mouth shut when needed and how to use the essential ideological phrases in school. The goal was to remain under the radar.

Apparently, we did well. To my surprise and that of my whole family as well, I was even accepted for high school, which was usually reserved for students from families of workers and farmers who were politically correct. I don’t know why the authorities made this decision, but I was happy to have the chance to get a better education and to study.

My time at the high school came nearly to a premature end two times: the first time, as a classmate of mine, committed suicide at the age of 17. Tragic as it was, the state was not fond of this because they could not accept young people ending their own lives when communism was promising us all such a bright future. So our class was forbidden to go to her funeral. There was no doubt between us: we all wanted to take part in it, and so we did.

A colossal scandal resulted from this simple and human gesture. Officials interrogated teachers, students, and their parents. Today we know more about the discussions that took place behind closed doors. The proposal to dismiss our whole class for this unruly behavior was on the table. At the last minute, they decided to only dismiss our teacher at the end of the school year.

The second time I got nearly fired was when a close friend of mine had an appointment with a recruiting officer from the NVA — the East German Army. They were always short of officer candidates, so they approached all male students in 11th grade. I knew that my friend had no intention to follow a career in the military (he wanted to become a physician, which he did). So I went with him to the recruitment office, and like the impetuous youth I was at that time, I told him right before he went in: “Don’t get persuaded!” The recruiting officer heard that and was not amused at all. He ordered me in and required my personal information. Then I was dismissed, and my friend got called in. He saved me by telling the officer that I had a loose tongue and often said things I didn’t think through. He must have been persuasive because I could graduate from high school in the next year. But it was a close call.

When we were talking about which field of study we should choose, many considerations came into play. For me, all subjects that were closely related to the state and its policy were out of the question. So I would not think about becoming a lawyer or a pilot or a teacher. Two fields came into the final consideration: engineering and theology. I know that this sounds strange because they are very different. But there is some background there: my father was an engineer who was still working at my grandfather’s former factory after it became “property of the people.” In the evening, he often told about his work and how he had to find new solutions every day because the communist economy produced nothing as effectively as shortages of any kind. And I liked tinkering and building and repairing things. Rostock lies on the coast and had two shipyards at that time, so engineering was an obvious choice.

On the other hand, I was very fascinated by theology. East Germany had an odd policy regarding churches: while they were mostly forbidden in the other countries of the eastern block, they were still accepted here. So we went to church, and when I was in high school, I got involved in various activities the church was offering young people. The intellectual part of faith, the study of the Bible and historical texts, and other aspects became quite exciting for me. But I couldn’t get myself to chose this path because I took myself for a shy and introvert person then. And that met unquestionably not the criteria for a future pastor.



I am writing about stuff that gets me thinking.

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