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In love or indifferent on reunification?

October 3, 2017

They only know the Cold War from their parents' stories. They live between nostalgia and the search for their own identity. How does the generation born after Germany's reunification in 1990 view the Day of German Unity?

Germans celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Celebrating reunification is still a strange concept to many people in Germany. But for the country's younger generation, it feels much more familiar.

"October 3 is a perfect national holiday, especially now that we're talking about new divisions," says sports manager Clemens Hühmer, referring to Germany's recent national elections. "German reunification shows that not everything has to develop negatively."

Hühmer was born in West Berlin in 1986. He is part of the generation of young Germans who only know about the Cold War and the division of Germany into communist East and democratic West from school lessons and the stories told by their parents. And yet for him – like many other Germans – it's as if the Berlin Wall were still there.

Clemens Hühmer in Berlin
Clemens Hühmer works as a sports manager at Berlin's Olympic ParkImage: BEM2018

Separate ways, worlds apart

"Although the division of Germany isn't something I experienced, I would never go to East Berlin, for example. I also have friends from the East who would never contemplate moving to Wilmersdorf or Charlottenburg," Hühmer says, naming two upscale neighborhoods in Berlin's West.

Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two halves of the city and country continue to exist even among the younger generation who were born in reunified Germany. Why hasn't the post-Wall generation managed to shake itself free from this East-West division?

Berlin wall
For many young Germans, the only Berlin Wall they know is located in parks, memorials and museumsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A study by the Center for Social Research at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg tried to find answers. Authors Everhard Holtmann and Bernd Martens came to the conclusion that "East Germany lives on even among those who were never able to experience it themselves."

This applies not only to the young generation who grew up in Germany's East after the fall of the Berlin Wall and have been influenced by the stories of their parents and grandparents. In the West, too, family memories of the division live on.

"My father always talks about the harassment on the inner-German border when he traveled from West Berlin to Bavaria through East German territory," Hühmer recalls. The border guards made a big show of searching the car's trunk, he explains, and kept him waiting a long time.

Time travel: Berlin Wall panorama

In the present day East, on the other hand, parents' and grandparents' rosy recollections are passed on to the post-reunification generation. "When compared to daily life today, East Germany does relatively well," the Center for Social Research study author Everhard Holtmann told the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

The younger the respondents, the more detached their view of former East Germany becomes from reality. The generation born after reunification can't imagine life in a non-democratic state, unlike their parents and grandparents, the study says, explaining that "there is a certain romanticization of East Germany."

Rose-colored glasses

Natalie Oikova, born in eastern Berlin in 1995, also observes these nostalgic feelings in her parents. Her father came from Bulgaria in 1989 to work in East Berlin as a dental technician, just as East Germany was disintegrating. Her mother followed two years later.

Portrait of Natalie Oikova
Natalie Oikova says she feels more like a Berliner than a German or BulgarianImage: privat

"My parents have long been raving about the close-knit community they had in Bulgaria, and they were positive about how people dealt with one another nicely, as socialists," she says. "The Bulgaria my parents knew is long gone. People have changed enormously in the last 30 years."

Even though she has attended celebrations for the Day of German Unity at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate several times, the 22-year-old theater student sees herself as a Berliner, not as a German or a Bulgarian. "I prefer to define myself in terms of a city rather than a whole country," Oikova said.

Mental barriers

But that makes no difference – because to a Berliner, the signs of the division are everywhere. As soon as she says she's at home in Kaulsdorf, the Wall is back. The neighborhood is in the district of Marzahn-Hellersdorf – which, with its communist-era prefabricated apartments, is a symbol of East German domestic culture.

But the invisible Wall stretches far into the West, as well. Michel Brandt is often reminded of Germany's divided past. The young politician and actor comes from Karlsruhe, near the French border. He won a seat in parliament in the September elections, standing for the Left Party.

During the election campaign, he was shouted down at events as a member of the "Berlin Wall murderers' party."

"Whenever they come to a halt in the political discussion, they play the SED card," the 27-year-old says, annoyed. His far-left party succeeded the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in 2007, which in turn was the renamed former East German ruling party, the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany).

Michel Brandt
Michel Brandt was often reminded of Germany's communist past while on the campaign trailImage: Staatstheater Karlsruhe/Ariel Oscar Greíth

A celebration of nonviolence

The new parliamentarian has never celebrated the Day of German Unity. He probably belongs to a majority of the population in Germany who are happy about reunification, but prefer to mark October 3 privately.

For Clemens Hühmer the symbolic meaning is decisive. "I think it is important for Germany that October 3 is the national holiday," he says. "People always say everything drifts apart, but German reunification largely happened without violence and is a positive example that things don't have to be that way."