Pictures from the night of November 9, 1989, in Berlin went around the world. Showing masses of exuberant people and lines of cars exiting through the crossing points, and by the next morning, the physical chipping away at the Wall to widen the initial breaches, these images suggest a great unity of purpose behind the urgency to sample freedom after so many years of doing without.
Unification was manifest, but was it what East and West truly wanted? In the early years after the formal division of occupied Germany, much lip service was given to the goal of “united fatherland” (from the East German anthem) or to compassion for “our brothers and sisters in the Zone” (West German cliché). In the fullness of time, however, and especially after the Honecker regime took over in 1971, the idea of German unity had been, for the most part, taken off the table. The text of the GDR anthem by Johannes R. Becher was suppressed, and the policy of “Ostpolitik” (policies toward the East) promulgated by West German Chancellor Brandt left breathing room for the existence of two German states, recognizing East German sovereignty and further easing tensions along the Iron Curtain.
Thus, when East Germans filled the streets with protest demonstrations in the late 1980s, the demand was for free elections (i.e. with multiple candidates) and a lifting of travel restrictions. Indeed, it was the manner in which the Wall was opened that returned unity to the foreground. Even when parliamentary elections (Volkskammer) were held in March 1990, with a plentitude of political parties competing, there was a widespread assumption that the GDR would go forward, minus the oppressive communist leadership and without the Stasi, of course. This mind-set is the one that endured for many in the East, despite the official reunification achieved six months later in the general election, which was virtually swept by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his glib promise of “flourishing landscapes” to replace the depleted East. In large part, reunification came so swiftly because the CDU won in the East, perhaps catching some off guard at the quickening pace. In fact, German reunification was celebrated on October 3, 1990 and is commemorated each anniversary as “German Unity Day.” Waking up to its status as the “neue Länder,” or “new states,” the former GDR might well feel, as was often expressed, that it had been “colonized” by the larger entity, the Federal Republic.
In true colonial fashion, citizens of the East, in the role of the minority, suffered disrespect and discrimination in their dealings with West Germans.
Commonly identifiable by their Saxon accent (Sachsen had been the dominant geographical component in the GDR), easterners were the butt of jokes, sometimes self-deprecating, alluding to their lack of sophistication. “Ossis” (“Ost," meaning east) as they came to be called, in contrast with “Wessis,” were poor, if not unemployed; their Socialist achievements, once a point of pride, were disparaged as obsolete, and their infrastructure was in critical need of investment to be paid for grudgingly by Western taxpayers.
Not being allowed to forget the GDR contributed for both Ossis and Wessis to the persistence of the condition known as the “Wall in the Head” (experienced by West Berliners, too, who had lived in the shadow of the Wall). The physical barriers in Berlin had largely vanished within 18 months, but the world they enclosed may require another generation or more to recede in memory. Indeed, the growth of “Ostalgie,” or nostalgia for the East, may even prolong the phenomenon.