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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: German Unification

Unified Berlin: 20 Years On
How long is twenty years? For the city of Berlin, it is both Augenblick and Ewigkeit: an instant and an eternity. And as the city gears to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is clear that it is a city where everything and nothing has changed.

"Sometimes I wish the wall would go back up," says Annette, a fifty-something unemployed office worker from Berlin's Lichtenberg region, a neighborhood deep in the former East, a place which looks as if almost nothing has changed since then—colossal, unadorned apartment blocks which were designed to house thousands, boulevards wide enough to drive a tank down. The Germans call it Stalinbau, "Stalinist Architecture," and it is easy to see where this moniker arose from.

Stores, apartments, public spaces, everything is noticeably shabbier than in the West, and the clothing and hairstyles of the residents often indeed look as though they belong in 1989: stone-washed jeans, windbreakers, and colorfully dyed mullets. Annette, too, seems to have completely missed the fashion changes of the last twenty years; her feathered hair is cut short and dyed red, her bangs permed and held in place with what can only be hairspray. "I mean, maybe not the wall, but I wish the GDR (German Democratic Republic) would come back." She says this in German, but then, remembering that this is a language class, adds in her broken English: "All was better then."

Another student, Klaus, a laid-off refrigeration repairman also from what was once East Berlin, pipes up and adds that he too longs for the days of the old GDR. He is a heavy-set man with a bushy mustache and graying hair, eyes squinting at the whiteboard as he tries to learn the grammar tense currently being discussed. At fifty-eight years old he should be in the twilight years of his career, but instead he has been laid-off, seven years too young to enter into retirement, yet far too old for any companies to be willing to retrain him or offer him a new position. Languishing in worker's purgatory, he is relegated to constant unemployment, obliged by the Unemployment Office to participate in remedial English courses in order to "retrain" him for a new career. Klaus knows as well as everyone else that no new job is coming, but the courses are mandatory in order to receive unemployment benefits from the state. His English level is poor, far below that of his Western counterparts, and having been out of school for over thirty years, he struggles with even the simplest of concepts.

Klaus and Annette have no need for English, and resent that they now have to learn it, therefore making little to no progress. Why is it their fault, they ask, that they learned Russian in school and were trained in professions that are no longer economically viable? In German, the old East German states are often referred to as die neue Bundesländer, the "new states." Yet to those who grew up there, like Klaus and Annette, the rest of Germany is the new Germany, the strange Germany, the Germany where everything seems upside down. "In former times," says Klaus, "all had jobs. All had ..." He hesitates, looking for the English word, and then failing to find it, says it in German:
"All had Achtung."
"Respect," I translate. Annette nods in agreement. "Respect," she says in English. Not a word most Americans would associate with the former East German republic, yet clearly a sticking point for these two.
"Though at least the cigarettes are cheaper now," she adds.

When asked if they truly wished that the East German republic would return, they hedge a bit, mentioning things about changing times, political and personal freedom, and the need for Germans to remain one people. And so while they would never publicly call for a return to the way it was before reunification, it is clear that they feel left out of this new, reunified Germany, a Germany which will be celebrating only its 20th anniversary this October. This timescale is so short, this history so fresh, that it is something unfamiliar to most Americans. To us, East Germany seems long since gone, the principles of the West long ago proven superior, the last vestiges of socialism long since erased. Yet here, twenty years on, it is clear that this process of reunification is far from complete.
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About Nate: He is an American freelance writer and translator based in Berlin. He writes about many different topics including articles about Berlin, German culture, German history, and American politics through an internation lens.

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