I was born in 1970. My parents were both teachers, but I grew up with my mum after they divorced when I was 5.
We lived in one of the new suburbs of Rostock, in a block of flats which was built the year I was born. On old family photographs I can see my mum pushing me in a pram on uncompleted streets.
All my friends lived in the same style of flats and wore the same style of clothes. We shopped in supermarkets, basic food and rent was cheap, and we queued for oranges around Christmas. We brought our own shopping nets. We had school discos, we had a great library, where I devoured anything and everything, I loved the DEFA films which were sometimes about Indians but which were still great. I loved the children’s books by the authors who I met regularly at book fairs and who signed copies of their books for us.
My mum worked hard, she was an assistant director and a school inspector in different times of her career. I was pretty good in school, didn’t have to work too hard. I also was bullied for being too clever and a teacher’s daughter. I wasn’t bullied for not having fashionable clothes – we all wore pretty much local things, except two of our classmates who got parcels of “western” fashion.
I had lots of uncles and aunts, two of them lived in West Germany and we saw them sometimes at my grandmother’s house. They couldn’t come see us because my mum, as a teacher, was a party member and watched at all times. I was a member of the FDJ, the official youth organisation, because it was the regular thing to do. That was just how it was.
So when Gorbatchov started talking about Glasnost and Perestroika, I wasn’t exactly thinking oh here’s our saviour. I didn’t feel there was anything major wrong. I was painfully aware of not being able to travel. However I was only 17/18 and had moved to Berlin which was big enough at the time to represent the big wide world, and had I been able to travel, I wouldn’t have gone to Paris and Rome – I would have joined the people volunteering to help with the coffee harvest in Nicaragua, to help them make a stand against the activities of the US military there. Or done something equally silly.
However things quickly deteriorated when the government lost it (I’m not going to write a timeline here, you can find that on the BBC website – this is just how I remember it.)
The funniest thing was when they installed the boss of the FDJ Egon Krenz as general secretary, trying to convince the youth that they were in touch. He was just as dusty and old (well, maybe ten years less but still very old) as the other dinosaurs there.
The other thing they did to try and get the youth back on track was invite huge rockstars for free open-air concerts the whole summer of ’88 – I saw Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Marillion, I think Bryan Adams was there… all announced by Katharina Witt, the ice queen – it was great! And that after they hadn’t allowed “western” rock musicians to spoil the East German youth in 40 years. Even the Beatles were never big in East Germany, my mum told me.What the West German State had learned since then to do really well was indoctrinate us with how great everything was in the West. And since we couldn’t check for ourselves, we took the TV reality as gospel. It was blasted into East Germany by strategically placed broadcasting stations along the inner-German border, covering all of it except for a small area around Dresden which was henceforth called the Valley of the Unexposed.
And that, dear Reader, is why I have an issue with all of this celebrating of the fall of the Wall. Yes, people did demonstrate and shout non-violence slogans and yes we had the greatest poets and philosophers talking to us about the need for a German re-unification. However, the reason this so-called revolution went so smoothly is because people thought they wanted the TV reality of what life in the West was like, with the bananas and the colourful posters and the Coca Cola. Not because they were tired of working for the State. (if you read academic German there’s a very interesting article on how TV influenced the situation here)
No, I’m not a communist. I don’t believe communism can work, because it demands from everyone to be idealistic about creating a better world, with equality, without material gain for themselves or their families. The state is by its very nature a non-entity. The people on the top, by their very nature, will be compromised and corrupted by their power. Nobody can work without being interested in the result, unless you’re totally Zen in which case the path is the goal. But even then you are interested in reaching nirvana. Which the state is unable to provide you with.
So yes, people have to own their enterprises and own the results. But what happened to the things that worked well? How did we manage to breed a generation of kick-ass women? (I hope that article from the Stern has made it into the online version yet…) How come my little hometown of Rostock had 7 fully equipped theatres? How come Berlin is what it is today?
And yes, I am celebrating today. I’ve had quite a wild ride in the last 20 years. Prost!