I was born in former East Germany. At the German unification in 1990, I was 12 years old. A recent TV documentary made me rethink on my East German memory, my take aways about that time - also including how my parents and East German friends perceived that time. How influenced unification and the time after my thinking and my life?
East Germany memories
Just a view pieces, but they form a picture. Many foreigners nowadays think of socialist East Germany as a ‘kind of North Korea’, by all I experienced and took away from talking with friends, that does not really apply.
East Germany was socialist, so what gets produced was almost completely steered by the government. With that implementation, the needs of the citizens were not as satisfied as for example in capitalist West Germany - but while certain products were always short, people in general had enough to eat. Jokes about shortages of goods and Socialism/central management were common, for example:
- “What happens when socialism is introduced in the Sahara?”
- “For a while, nothing. Then they are running out of sand.”
My dad worked at the ‘German post’, was involved in planning phone lines. With such a position, being able to influence who gets a phone line to their house, we had sometimes better chances to get rare products like banana.
While capitalism did lead to better satisfaction of needs, also the socialist system has strong points. East Germany was short on resources like steel and so on. Let’s consider electronic products like toasters for the kitchen. In capitalist systems, the vendor has an incentive to design the product to work for 2 years, the guarantee timespan, and have it fail shortly after. In the socialist system, it was worth to think longer: if you could use that product 4 or 10 years, then all in all you would need much less resources. I still own and use electronic devices produced in East Germany.
Considering the whole east bloc, so also Soviet union, Bulgaria and so on, it is often said that East Germany was treated favourably, as there was a high chance of West Germans and other Europeans to come to nearby East Germany - and seeing ‘what socialism could bring together’.
As for my dreams as I was growing up: I understood enough of the world to realize that realisticly, I would only be able to go to east bloc countries. I thought of America as the ’land of the free’ - I would not sign that nowadays..
My hometown had an interesting fate after the second world war: at first, the American army was marching in from the West. Later, when the war winners approached Berlin, Russia had taken the biggest part of Berlin. Eventually they handed over parts of Berlin, but the Americans pulled back and my hometown became part of East Germany.
Surveillance and elections
When mentioning East Germany, also surveillance is often mentioned. East Germany was with force keeping their citizens inside. My grand-grandma lived in Hamburg/West Germany, so my grandma was from time to time allowed to visit her. That was also possible as the rest of the family was in East Germany, so chances of her staying in West Germany were low.
After the unification, many actions from the stasi (secret police) became known - but at that time not much was known to normal citizens, most were just living their life in East Germany without ever having contact or even being aware of them.
East Germany had elections, but the results were decided already upfront. On paper, there were also multiple political parties. It was important to vote at the elections, not doing that could get you called to your boss and have bad outcomes. As the results were predetermined, the activity was commonly not called to “go voting” but “go folding [the paper]”.
In terms of technology, the east bloc was behind the west in most areas. Space was one exception, with Gagarin being the first human in space. In East Germany, we got catalogs with products from the west (“Otto”, “Quelle”), showing products which could be ordered in the west. Relatives from the west were sending parcels, opening these was celebrated. Chocolate, soap, other things: opening these filled the whole room with a certain smell.
East Germany had ‘weak money’, not much wanted internationally. As per that, no big organizations saw a market to import drugs, so there was no problem with cocaine and so on. Alcohol and tabaco was legal and sold. The drug problems of the west were often pointed out, as an example of something bad, which socialist East Germany did not care about. With the unification, many of us were worried about being brought into drug addiction. In reality, I think now that most people do the first step themself and use drugs for stress relief or such, and then slip into addiction. Substances like jimson weed (Ger: Stechapfel) were used in some circles in East Germany as drugs.
Freedom of speech and media
As commonly known, there was not much freedom of speech. As East Germany was near to West Germany, it was easy to catch Western radio broadcast, or BBC - which required to know English though. Most Germans also were able to receive West German TV with directed (Yagi-) antennas. There is one issue though: as these are directed antennas facing towards the sender, on top of the house one would clearly see when the antenna was facing towards the west. Thus, many years, people had to setup the antenna below the roof, then potentially having to go for a bigger model due to absorption of the roof. Later (1970?), that did no longer matter and also West facing antennas on the roof were ok. There was at least one area in East Germany which was geographically not able to receive Western media, they were called “Tal der Ahnungslosen” (“valley of the people who do not know”).
My first memories regarding that were talks of my parents about citizens fleeing to the west, using routes via Czechoslovakia and one or 2 further countries.
Some days later, we were able to go over the border to West Germany. Our family crossed the border with a car, it’s 38km from my hometown Mühlhausen to city Eschwege in West Germany. Over there, people were along the streets, greeting us, handing over chocolate. Everybody got an amount of west money, to buy things.
In school, me and others entering school at the same year, we were the last ones to get to learn Russian as their foreign language. I think it was taught quite badly - I live now in Japan and see English here being taught in the same, bad way. After the unification, most of us stopped learning Russian and learned English - of course, our English level was below the level of someone who learned English right from the start.
Our education options expanded with unification: we could now choose between 3 levels of school. I went to the ‘gymnasium’, and graduated with a certificate allowing me to go to the university. My parents were happy for me about these new options. I went to the army for 1 year of duty, that was oblicatory at that time. After that I got a job training, specialized in a certain area of IT - so special that in 2001, after graduating, I did not find any company who could use my skills in the radius of 50km around my home town. So I moved to Munich for work.
Money of that time is a fascinating topic. East Germany did not only steer production of goods, but also the price. Milk did cost the same everywhere in East Germany. As a child, you got pocket money from your parents, and also in East Germany you would with that learn that you could eather buy some sweets, or save over months and buy something bigger. The thing hitting all of us, children and grown ups: the market of the west did lead also to different prices. In that time, some people drove dozens of km with their car to buy milk for 80 Pfennig instead of 90 Pfennig, so the difference in price not justifying the additional effort. This was something strange to learn.
Freedom also changed: in East Germany, it felt like people were more equal regarding money, the gap between rich and poor was not as big. After all, the factories and so on were almost completely owned by ’the country’ and not single owners. Most people had some money, but the products were limited. After the unification, most people felt like they had no money any longer (harder to earn now, and the exchanged money was not eachanged at favourable rate), but now one could buy everything. :)
Childcare changed hugely. In East Germany, efficiency was lower than in West Germany, the governments goal was to have everybody working. There was care for small children, and after school the kids were looked after until evening. In the computer club, I and many others got their first contact with computers. Older children got members in the clubs of the ‘pioneers’, giving feelings of community, and providing activities. Of course, these clubs as well as special school lessons like ‘Staatsbuergerkunde’ where also used to indoctrinate, and convince children of the benefits of the socialist system. After the unification, all of this care for children stopped, a huge interruption: what should children do after school ends in the early afternoon?
Drugs were hardly known in East Germany, the East German
money was not popular enough to import these and earn money.
These got introduced after the unification.
Health did not change much. East Germany had polyclinics, hospitals for a wide range of treatments, also vaccines were given widely, the health system was quite good. After the unification, health got a bit more a question of money again, it matters whether you are in a private or public health insurance, and so on.
Resources changed too: in East Germany, we children did collect glass bottles and newspapers, and got money for that. There were recycling systems, which were taken down with the reunification. Resources got used much more wasteful after the unification, and now as the climate crisis can no longer be denied, people start to understand that capitalism is leading to wastefulnes.
It took me some years to come to the biggest realization and learning: in East Germany, the Soviet Union and their people were our friends, or ‘brothers’ in socialist terms. We learned Russian in school, we had pen pals, we visited each other. Right before the unification, the West German government met Mr.Gorbachev and kindly asked for permission to reunite, which was granted.
While commonly called ‘unification’, in law terms this seemed to be more a ‘East Germany joins West Germany’, this has been critizided in detail by various specialists. Politically, with the unification all the media changed from one to the next day. While actually nothing had changed, the media was now steered by West Germany and trumpeted now: these strange Russians over there, they are the opponent and will certainly invade us next week. This sudden change in media reporting, which we had to notice because it was the exact opposite of what we heard before, that is my biggest take away from the unification.
How different were people in East and West Germany at the unification time? I did not spend to much thinking on that and moved to Munich for work. We all spoke German, what should be different? There was quite some.. everybody had grown up with other ideals, learning English and French instead of Russian. People had listened to different music, seen different manga/comics, different movies, to big part also read different literature. Many years later I started to learn Japanese, and along with that got introduced into the Japanese culture. As strange as it sounds, as that was happening more slowly and I was prepared, it went much more fluent than my move to Munich.
The song I associate with the unification: Scorpions: the wind of change. I’m living in Japan now, and sing this every now and then in Karaoke bars.
Since moving to Japan in 2016, discovered some fun parallels between Japan and Socialist East Germany, English version of a slide pack I made for colleagues is here.
The picture at the top shows a wall at the ‘propaganda’ caffee in the area of Tokyo where I live. This here is at the Odakyu trainstation in Shimokita, the style remindinds me of East Germany whenever I pass by:
When I’m asked about the national anthem, the first words coming to mind are still the words of the East German anthem. Would I want East Germany back? Certainly not, but there certainly were also good memories, good approaches to some things.
Last modified on 2023-07-28