Berlin 25: Germany’s unification generation
How Germany’s so called ‘unity generation’ – those born around 1989 when the Berlin Wall tumbled – view the country’s divided past
It was the “unity generation”, of Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos that brought home the World Cup for a party at the Brandenburg Gate.
When Raphael Moser and Julia Wenzel say “I do” on December 12th, they’ll be doing their bit for German unification – not that the young couple have really thought about it that way. We’re sitting in a cosy cafe on Berlin’s Karl Marx Allee that couldn’t be more of a contrast to the austere Stalinist architecture outside, built by an East German regime neither ever knew.
Raphael and Julia, just back from a year studying in Dublin, are part of Germany’s “Generation Einheit”, the so-called “unity generation” born around 1989. A quarter-century on, how does this generation view their country’s divided past – and how will they carry this history they never knew into the future?
“I’m definitely proud of my eastern German identity, but the whole East-West Ossi-Wessi thing really doesn’t figure for me,” said Julia. She was born in December 1988 in the East German Democratic Republic (GDR), just as people pressure for change was building through growing numbers of meetings and marches.
“My mother took me to Monday marches as a baby, that was very important for her,” she said. “But East Germany was only a topic in school after we asked our teachers about it.”
Raphael was born in November 1990 in a town near the Black Forest in the southwest of what a month earlier was still West Germany.
“My western German identity isn’t that big a deal for me, perhaps because I’ve never felt I’ve had to defend where I come from,” he says. Where he agrees with his fiancee: the “East-West thing” is not a relevant or noticeable factor in his life or world view. Growing up near France and Switzerland, those countries were more prominent in his family’s minds and conversations than any talk, positive or negative, about the other Germany.
Julia grew up in a Lutheran pastor family, meaning conflict with the East Berlin regime were part of her family’s daily life. With her studies, however, she’s moved around and lived in all of Germany, east and west, north and south. On her travels she’s seen other cultural differences just as striking than the old East-West divide: the division between the cooler northern Germans and more jovial southern Germans. And then there’s the matter of faith: she’s Lutheran, Raphael’s Catholic.
All these factors, rather than just East-West, were hanging in the air the first time they met each other’s parents. What could have been an awkward Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? evening was, they said, unremarkable. Neither introduced their other half as an eastern or a westerner, just said where they came from.
For many younger Germans, it seems, regional identities are more relevant and tangible than old Cold War blocs.
Curiously, there are no reliable numbers tracking whether Julia and Raphael’s marriage is part of a growing trend. Some newspaper articles mention how East-West couples comprise less than 10 per cent of the total, without mentioning whether they got their numbers. A recent dating website survey claims one in five Germans has had at least one East-West relationship since unification.
“I think the main reason there aren’t more East-West couples is that people aren’t mobile and stick to their region, not because there are East-West incompatibilities,” says Julia.
Seeing the other’s Germany has been an education, particularly for Raphael.
“I was surprised how pretty cities were and was amazed I’d never heard before of places like Schwerin, with its pretty palace,” he said.
Besides marriage, anecdotal evidence suggests a small but growing number of western German students are moving east to study for pragmatic reasons: many eastern states, unlike in the west, have not yet introduced university fees.
Oliver Müller Lorey, 22, moved east to Halle because, he said, the universities in his hometown of Düsseldorf and nearby Cologne were expensive and overcrowded.
“My friends and family were surprised and still make fun of me, asking if they should bring bananas when they visit,” he jokes. Living in Halle has opened his eyes when he visits Düsseldorf. “I now see what people here mean, that western Germans are more arrogant and egoistic than here,” he says. “You see it in little things, like how they behave in traffic. I’d say our generation is closer together than previous East- West ones, but I think it will still take a will to bridge differences in attitude.”
That is reflected in a survey of eastern identity by Germany’s Allensbach Institute, suggesting the identification with the former east was stronger as respondents got older.
While eastern grandparents, the 60-plus generation, are evenly divided over whether they feel “German” or “eastern German”, three quarters of 16-29 year olds living in the former East feel more “German”, with one in five feeling more “eastern German”.
Despite a shift to a unified Germany identity, some of the “unity generation” still see points of difference, for instance that a united Germany is still dominated by western German elites.
“Anytime you point that out you hear, ‘but you have an eastern chancellor and president’, but those are still the exceptions not the rule,” said Sabine Rennefanz, a “unity generation” writer, in Die Zeit newspaper. “We have to be more political, get involved . . . in the recent election I found it sad that eastern Germany played no major role, perhaps we were simply too quiet.”
Ask older western Germans and many say it’s striking how quiet the “unity generation” has been.
“Beyond sporadic critical flashes, I see no consequential clash between the younger generation and their parents,” said Mr Andres Veiel, who’s made films about West Germany’s left-wing terror organisations, an off-shoot of the 1968 generation and their attack on their parents and a perceived continuity between the Third Reich and the Bonn Republic.
Many “unity generation” members say they’ve not hit out at their parents for keeping their heads down in East Germany because many saw first-hand after 1989 how these same parents struggled to make ends meet. Now 25 and struggling to find full-time paying work and to start families, many have little energy to judge their parents’ decisions.
Instead Germany’s unification generation has moved beyond the Berlin Wall, celebrating with a new lightness both their regional identities and, when the opportunity arises, their national achievements.
It was the “unity generation”, after all, of Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos that brought home the World Cup for a party at the Brandenburg Gate. What was once a death strip is, for this generation, the public living room where, as Willy Brandt predicted in 1989, “what belongs together, grows together”.
In World Cup fever, the crowd sang along to Germany’s big summer hit, Ein Hoch auf Uns, now an anthem to Germany’s Unity Generation: “Here’s to what unites us: this era/Here’s to us, now and forever/to an everlasting day.”