For Millions of Germans, the Berlin Wall Never Really Came Down

Why you should care

True reunification needs more than physical barriers being torn down. Germany's now beginning to recognize that.

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I was born in March 1990 in a midsize town in West Germany. At that time, my mother had lived here for about four years after deciding the reality of communist China was not enough for her anymore and my father had grown a full beard to match his style to his everlasting longing for travels and adventure. A few months earlier, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen. A few months later, in October 1990, Germany officially reunited.

This made me, so to say, a child of reunification. My life was not going to be defined by the political reality of a divided country or the echoes of the Cold War. I was to learn about the GDR from history books and the older generation’s kitchen table anecdotes only — or at least so I thought.

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Lin, 2 years old, with her parents.

Source Lin Hierse

But this year, as my country celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall and 29 years of reunification, it’s time to confront a bitter truth: Germany has never really managed to unite. This is clear from the recent debates on German identity. It’s only now that there’s growing public and media interest in the stories of those who grew up in the former East or still live there. Only now is Germany willing to slowly acknowledge the possibility of a history that includes and approves different perspectives — including East German ones.

We have reached a point where the divide is almost as tangible and solid as the wall used to be.

For the longest time, there was no intrinsic motivation for the country to self-reflect, to process and to truly merge. And this is not so only for the divide between East and West, but also for Germany’s self-conception as an immigrant society. While Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly drawn international praise for showing humanity in the midst of the 2015 refugee crisis, German politics and society have largely failed to tackle institutional racism and anti-Semitism for the longest time. Many people are continuously othered, marked as “different” from what is still perceived to really be German. We have reached a point where the divide is almost as tangible and solid as the wall used to be.

For as long as I can remember, people have pointed fingers at the “left-behind Ossi” (a name for former residents of East Germany). Here, the popular story of the economically disadvantaged and thus frustrated and xenophobic East has come in handy for those who refuse to deal with their own internalized prejudice and racism. Growing up in the former West, I did not learn much about the GDR except that it did not exist anymore. I was taught to believe that the West was the center of the world and my personal East — faraway China — was even more irrelevant to my (West) German identity. The only times I could relate to people telling me about their lives in the GDR was when I found similarities to my mother’s experiences in communist China: stories about the teachings of Marx and Engels, standing in line for meal vouchers or proudly wearing red neckerchiefs.

From the outside, Germany is often applauded for its “progressive remembrance culture.” But if there were a progressive remembrance culture, we would not have to deal with the normalization of an ultra-right AfD in parliament and perennial attacks on Jews, Muslims, Blacks and people of color. If there were a progressive remembrance culture, we would not shy away from admitting our personal and societal shortcomings in uncovering the repercussions of this country’s dark past. And if there were a progressive remembrance culture, we would consider this country a place that has also been shaped and influenced by the sorrow of a failed socialist state.

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Lin Hierse

Source Andreia Bickenbach

Instead, 29 years after the so-called reunification, Germany still struggles to accept the idea of intersectionality and the country’s multiple identities. Politicians and journalists alike speak of a “we” but often disregard those who’ve never felt included in this imagined community. Worse, when marginalized communities such as migrants, second- and third-generation immigrants, women of color or East Germans try to make their voices heard, they are often accused by critics of practicing identity politics — rather than rising to the challenge of addressing multifaceted discrimination. Germany appears to be stuck in a state of denial, and that reduces the chances of actual unity.

To me, the world has always been divided into pieces, but not necessarily in a bad way. So it is somehow natural that Germany is in pieces too. I sometimes wonder what we have in common — this country and I, both struggling to negotiate our identities with roots in the East and the West. Maybe these are the questions you’re supposed to ask when you’re about to turn 30.

But rather than blindly striving for a singular German identity, this country needs to finally realize that it must draw strength from a multitude of identities, from a plurality of stories, from contradiction and contrast — and that reunification is a process rather than a day marked in our history books.

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