by Vera von Kreutzbruck
– Germany -
They were East Germany’s dream couple in the eighties. But shortly after the fall of the Wall, which divided East and West Germany from 1961 until 1989, a scandal would taint the image of actors Jenny Gröllman and Ulrich Mühe.
When East Germany’s state security service’s surveillance files were declassified in 1991, Mühe discovered that his ex-wife had been spying on him and reporting to a secret police officer about his activities during the regime in communist East Germany. Gröllman vehemently denied this accusation until her death from cancer in 2006. That same year, in an ironic twist of fate, Mühe played a secret service agent who monitors a dissident playwright in the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others. One year later, in the summer of 2007, he also died of the same disease.
At its peak, the Ministry of State Security had a total of 100,000 full-time officers, in addition to around half a million so-called Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (unofficial informants), citizens who cooperated with the ministry by spying on their friends, colleagues and neighbors.
“After talking to many East Germans I was surprised that they saw the Stasi as an integral part of society. Whereas for us (Westerners), when we hear the word Stasi, it makes us shiver,” says Jürgen Schreiber, a German investigative journalist who recently published a book compiling journalistic articles about the former East German secret police called Die Stasi lebt (The Stasi is Alive).
When the Wall fell in 1989, the Stasi fell with it. The new government representing the now reunified Germany in 1991 created a special agency called Birthler to administer the Stasi archive, which gave victims access to their personal files so they could find out who had been informing on them.
In addition to dealing with ghosts from the past, 20 years after the fall of the Wall, Germany is still struggling to reduce the economic rift between East and West. In an effort to boost the economy, the government has poured astronomical amounts of money into the former GDR. From 2006 to 2008 alone, it spent $64 billion dollars in rebuilding infrastructure and businesses, according to government figures. By 2019 it will have invested a total of $229 billion dollars.
“The German reunification has been more an annexation of the East rather than a unification. It was a Western take-over of everything,” says Tony Patterson, who has observed Germany for 20 years as correspondent for the British daily The Independent.
In spite of their newfound freedom, the change was not necessarily all good news for East German citizens. The annual report on reunification showed that there is now a 13% unemployment rate in the new federal states, compared to West Germany’s 7%. “Two million people had to go to the West because of high unemployment,” Patterson explains.
Though there are some pockets of prosperity like Dresden where the microchip industry is flourishing, many other East German towns have become desolate. One of them is Eisenhüttenstadt, a steel town close to the border with Poland, where authorities will demolish 7,000 apartments this year because of the drop in population. A steady decline in birth rates throughout Germany has also added to imbalance. According to a recent report published by the Berlin-based Institute for Population and Development, many of the East’s rural regions report just 80 women to every 100 men within the same age group, while in western cities such as Cologne, Münster or Hanover there are considerably more women than men.
Among the many East Germans that moved to the West is writer Julia Schoch. She grew up as the daughter of an army officer in the East German garrison town of Bad Saarow in the province of Mecklenburg. When she was 11 years old her family moved to Potsdam.
“It was a small cultural shock. I was surprised that other civil professions existed at all because I lived in an isolated place where everything was subordinated to the military,” she says.
Schoch just published her second novel Die Geschwindigkeit des Sommers (The Speed of Summer), a requiem for the GDR and a moving zeitgeist portrait of her generation. The narrator in the novel, who is mourning her sister's death, has traveled around the world while her sister stayed in the military town, feeling helpless after the fall of communism. The book conveys a bittersweet atmosphere of simultaneous loss and hope, thus describing the mood of a transitional generation born behind the iron curtain.
When asked about the differences between the East and the West, Schoch says, “We have different speeds. The East has always been a society characterized by its slowness, while the West has always been pushing forward, trying to reinvent itself again and again.”
The capital city of Berlin has become a symbol of change and as such represents the numerous transformations occurring across Germany. The eastern district of Prenzlauer Berg is an example of how the Westerners have overtaken former eastern neighborhoods. Around 15 years ago students started moving to the area and now it has the highest birth rate in the country.
“Eighty per cent of the original population has moved out since the fall of the wall and over the years it has become a middle class ghetto. Many buildings have been renovated. You can buy oysters and Prosecco. That is not East German at all,” says Patterson.
Meanwhile, as the country is celebrating a series of events to commemorate the fall of the Wall, an ambivalent feeling of both nostalgia and disillusionment occupies the minds of East German citizens, indicating that true integration is a goal still far from being reached. According to a recent survey conducted by the Emnid Institute for the government, 49% of East Germans see the former communist east positively and agreed with the statement: “The GDR had more good sides than bad sides.”
In a country that had never before experienced unemployment, the population was crippled by the collapse of the Socialist-planned economies, which resulted in millions of people losing their jobs when many state-owned factories closed. During GDR times, citizens enjoyed equal salaries and retirement. Although East Germans appreciate greater freedoms, there are still major disparities in income and everyday social benefits like free child care, which is no longer available.
“Under communism they (East Germans) saw this idealized picture of the West on western German television, which created an idea of a golden country and then the politicians also promised it at the time, which of course did not happen at all,” explains journalist Tony Patterson. “They had this feeling of security and this has all been swept away.”
About the Author
Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.