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My generation

October 1, 2010

Teenagers in eastern Germany admit they hardly differ from their western contemporaries. Most of them say they want to go west when they've graduated.

Pictured (from left) are Florian Hundertmark, Kaethe Hahn, Joern Himmstedt an der Oder in Frankfurt
Florian, Kaethe and Joern were not even born in 1990Image: Benjamin Hammer

Frankfurt (Oder) - this is not Germany's financial capital Frankfurt/Main, this is Frankfurt located on the German-Polish border in eastern Germany. For many west Germans the city stands for high unemployment and urban decay. Students at Frankfurt's Karl-Liebknecht-Gymnasium high school are fed up with this kind of preconception.

"All the media ever report on here is unemployment and the far-right," said 17-year-old Florian Hundertmark. "No wonder westerners think there's never anything good coming out of Frankfurt."

The Polish town of Slubice, as seen from Frankfurt an der Oder
Across the Oder from Frankfurt is the Polish town of SlubiceImage: picture alliance/ZB

Florian, Kaethe (18) und Joern (16) are standing on the banks of the River Oder. These young people are all 10th graders. On the other side of the river is Slubice in Poland. You can hear the bells of St. Mary's Church from there. "You could actually create something really beautiful here. It's great," said Joern. "But everyone's moving out."

Nearly 30,000 have left Frankfurt

When young people from Frankfurt (Oder) think about German unity or about western Germany, it's not politics or history that comes to their minds.

They are focused on their own career and employment prospects. The unemployment rate in eastern Germany is currently 11.5 percent, nearly twice as high as in western Germany.

In 1990, around 88,000 people lived in Frankfurt. Twenty years after reunification nearly 30,000 have moved away. Kaethe, Joern and Florian will most probably move to western Germany too.

A housing block in Frankfurt an der Oder
Frankfurt/Oder is seen as a town with a low standard of livingImage: DW

Florian wants to study automotive engineering and that's only possible in western Germany," he said, "Although I would actually prefer to stay in this region."

Twenty years after German reunification it's the economic facts that make the difference between young people in the East and the West of the country. "We are not a divided Germany", Joern argued. "You still hear about the Wall in people's heads, but in my opinion this is gradually disappearing as well." These high-school pupils know Germany only as a united country. They were all born between 1992 and 1994.

East or west, youths are very similar

Listening to music, playing sports, spending vacations on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Young Germans grow up in much the same way across the country according to Thomas Gensicke from the research institute TNS Infratest. If you compare people in eastern Germany and western Germany over several generations, you'll find that the young generation is the most similar, said Gensicke. The researcher was born in Magdeburg in what used to be East Germany. He moved to western Germany shortly after reunification. His own personal history is central to his scientific research.

Students at the Karl Liebknecht Gymnasium in Frankfurt an der Oder
Many young people here are expected to head westImage: DW

Despite all the similarities, there are still fundamental differences, said Gensicke. Young people in eastern Germany are more skeptical about the country's political system. "When we ask young people whether democracy functions well, eastern Germans see the need for a system overhaul", he observed.

Glad to have reunification

Does this critical approach contribute to a blanket rejection of the whole country? No, say the pupils from Frankfurt's Karl Liebknecht High School. "We're glad that there is there is a unified Germany", said twelfth grader Inka Soerries. "There were a lot of restrictions in East Germany, for example the travel ban."

"East," "West," "Easterners" (known as "Ossis),"Westerners" ("Wessis") - all these terms are banded around frequently, for instance as light-hearted banter at the expense of one fellow pupil whose family moved to Frankfurt from western Germany.

Things are changing, though, and twenty years of unity have put eastern towns firmly on the map. Two years ago Kaethe met two boys from Bavaria and Hesse during a school exchange visit in France. "They knew where Frankfurt (Oder) was. I was surprised."

Author: Benjamin Hammer / nrt
Editor: Rina Goldenberg