I remember how I spent October 3, 1990. It was the first time that this day was a holiday – the actual day of the reunification of East and West Germany. There was a Mass at church, to celebrate this reunification after forty-five years of separation. The church was crowded – usually it only was that well-attended on Christmas. The mood was cheerful. A young woman in front of the me carried a little child in her arms. Once in a while the child turned around to stare at me with large eyes. I smiled at it, I wanted to smile at the whole world on that day.
In the afternoon, the typical rattling of a Trabi could be heard even before the small East German car turned into our street. The Trabi – officially called Trabant – makes a unique sound that everybody who grew up in East Germany or was there a few times will recognize. Our relatives from Gera in East Germany had arrived for a visit – the West and East parts of our family united on this special day.
Just one year before, such a visit would have been impossible. While West Germans could travel to East Germany (after undergoing a lot of paperwork), East Germans could only come to West Germany if they were over 65 or if they got a permit to attend a special family event there.
My generation, born in the 1970s, grew up with the fact that there were two Germanys. Reunification was one of the big goals of the state, but I would dare say that hardly anybody thought it would actually happen in the near future. I have always felt close to East Germany. A large part of my family lives in Thüringen (Thuringia) and since 1980, I went there every year for one or two weeks. Later I also had a pen-friend in the Northern part of East Germany whom I visited regularly. So I knew what it was like to travel there – the hour-long wait at the border, the uncomfortable silence only to be interrupted by orders and the barking of dogs, the eerie view of that black fence that separated West and East Germany. I never made any bad experiences myself, except for the occasional rude customs officer, but I always felt anxious at the border – and I was not alone with this. Once the border was passed, people heaved a sigh of relief.
As a visiting guest, I of course didn’t get a real picture of what living in East Germany was like. But at least I saw some of it first hand. I remember my aunt closing the window before making a critical remark in lowered voice. I also remember her always carrying a bag and joining each queue she saw because that always meant that there was something to buy that you usually didn’t get. There were banners hanging over the streets or on house walls, announcing the victory of Socialism. Cities seemed greyer because there was no advertising. Still, I also remember spending fabulous days in my aunt’s garden, buying great books for little money (many children’s books from East Germany have been republished by now because they are excellent), enjoying the close family ties. I also heard it often – then and now – that you could live quite well in East Germany. (Though many East Germans were shocked to learn after 1989 how close the surveillance of the state had actually been.)
But some facts couldn’t be ignored – if an East German wanted to leave, he would risk his liberty or even life. Hundreds of people were killed trying to cross the border, others were put into prison. Children were taken away from parents and adopted by people more loyal to the regime. Talking critically could get one into serious trouble.
In 1989, the system started to crumble. Very slightly at first. Hungary opened its borders in the summer. On September 30, then foreign minister Genscher told the 17,000 East Germans who had fled to the West German Embassy in Prague that they could officially enter West Germany. It may sound sappy, but I never fail to get tears in my eyes when watching this moment replayed on TV. By then it was clear that monumental things were starting to happen. I read the newspapers and watched the news with a completely new interest. I could hardly wait for what the next day would bring. While the East German government continued to pretend that everything was as usual, the revolution took place (interestingly enough we don’t call it a revolution. We call it „die Wende“ – the turning point. A tame expression for such an event). Millions of East Germans demonstrated for freedom. Later we learned that Russian tanks were already standing by, ready to put a brutal end to it. They didn’t roll.
I spent the night from November 9 to November 10 on a ferry on the Channel, returning from a student exchange. When I returned home, my first question was „Did anything happen in East Germany?“. When the answer was: „The borders were opened,“ I at first thought it was a joke. Yes, I had expected things to happen, but not that! So quickly! So peacefully!
Of course it was easy for me to be cheerful and excited. Nothing changed for me, unlike for the East Germans. Last year I was in Leipzig (where, by the way, the last officially East German baby was born on October 2, 1990 at 11.58pm), visiting my friend. She grew up in East Germany and we started talking about how we experienced those months in 1989 and 1990. While she and her friends were excited as well, they were also worried. For them, it meant the end of everything they had known all their lives. Yes, things hadn’t been perfect, but they were far from unbearable and who knew what would follow? At the age of 15, they didn’t mainly think about freedom of speech or people shot at the border. My friend said that she doesn’t know how she would have reacted if she had been older, but back then they were all comfortable with their lives. Then, suddenly, most teachers were fired, job perspectives changed dramatically, nobody knew what to expect. Several people in East Germany would have liked their country to continue existing – but as a democracy, while for the West German government it seemed natural to just unite the countries. After all this was even a constitutional objective.
Nobody can say that the process went smoothly. For many people in East Germany, circumstances worsened when job security went out of the window, and there are still plenty of prejudices harboured by both East (Ossis) and West (Wessis) Germans. Many West Germans started to realize that reunification didn’t come for free and were annoyed. The „solidarity surcharge“ which is deducted from everyone working in Germany and was introduced as a temporary measure (still here after 24 years) to cover reunification costs never fails to upset people.
There was also the question of the new national holiday. November 9 would have been a logical choice, after all it was the day the border was opened, the day of an enthusiasm and joy which had faded a bit nearly a year later. But it was also the day on which two of Germany’s darkest events had taken place: the Hitler coup in 1923 and the abominable pogrom of 1938. Interestingly enough it was also the day on which the Kaiser abdicated in 1918.
And so the national holiday became October 3 – the day on which the reunification took effect in 1990.
For me (and for many others), both November 9 and October 3 will forever be a symbol of the fact that the East Germans brought freedom to their country with their determination and courage. That it was an utterly peaceful revolution….well, turning point. That today there is nothing left of the horrible fence in the middle of the country. That visiting my family and friends in the Eastern part of Germany requires nothing more than getting into the train or onto the Autobahn.
The name „Gerstungen“, once the border station where I entered East Germany, will never fail to make me feel a slight shudder. But thinking back to that important year in our history will never fail to make me smile.