What I expected to find in Berlin was nonexistent but what I did find was more interesting in the end. I assumed that the line between previously East and West Berlin would be thick and distinct but instead it was rather gray and vague. I wanted nothing more than to get to know Berlin by the people but I found that when I was there I needed to be introduced to its outer shell of expression through art first. It was simple though because it was written on the walls I walked past in spray paint, it was standing tall and strong in the canal, it was blasting through speakers of drive by cars. This need to express and display oneself in every which way was everywhere, I wasn’t sure if it was individual thinking anymore. Generally, people to me where not quiet or stand-offish, just simply minding their own business and only talked to those that mattered to them. I don’t think this was a Western Berlin persona or Eastern. This was Berlin North, South, East, and West. After I finally met the people of Berlin I feel like I discovered something that I didn’t know was there at first. Comfortable, unique Berlin actually has more insecurities than at first glance. I get it too, I wasn’t sure if I would be capable of understanding but I think I get why Berlin lacks self confidence. A lot of people in Berlin touched me in special ways but most didn’t open up to me. Those that did had stories that surprised me in both positive and negative ways.
Andreas Passlvok is a former East German resident who shared his story with me of his youth, military experience and his present beliefs on political ideologies. This now middle aged man was the kind who would walk into a room and you would notice. He held his head high and had no shame being his entirely outspoken self. I was first surprised by not only his loud personality but also his Western outfit, fixed with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. Laughing, Andreas explained that he had to wear this outfit since he was talking with Americans. I was immediately comfortable around him. It was easy to forget that we needed a translator because I was so engaged with what he was saying and he was so interested in what I was asking. Andreas told me a story of when he was in the military as a young man an officer came in the same room as him as he was listening to the radio. Knowing that the radio was on a West German station, he quickly tries to change the dial but the officer did not let him because he was curious with what the song was that he had never heard. Finishing the song, a commercial of a West German product came on and the officer simply turns to Andreas and says “one day in jail”. I had a hard time believing that the man in front of me was the same man that not only followed orders, but followed senseless orders of the former GDR. He later explained me that in East Germany he knew what he wanted to do with his life so he would do whatever it took to achieve those goals. It was a simple idea that I understood. I was initially taken back by his gratitude he had for his experience in the GDR however, I did appreciate his beliefs that it is a poor political system when people succeed off of other’s failures.
Manuela from West Germany later spoke with me so I was able to compare the differences in young people. Her story began more distressing than that of Andreas. Her family had the tragedy of being forced to leave their home in Poland and move to Germany after WWII while her grandfather was being held as a prisoner of war. This time of confusion led to another poignant event because some relatives were in West Germany and others in the East when the wall was erected further separating the family. Manuela, however, is an educated woman who loves to laugh. She is completely genuine and is ready to help anyone at anytime. If the tragedies of her family’s history affected her in anyway it was positive. She recalled being raised with a modest mentality and she used the example of her parents telling her to finish the food on her plate. Although her family had to deal of the tragedies of separation, Manuela did not find significance of the Wall in her life as a child, even when her Eastern relatives would come visit them. It wasn’t until she decided to move to Berlin after she graduated from school where the Wall became a literal figure in her life. She recalls her memories of the Wall when she was living in Berlin as very surreal and strange. Shortly after living in West Berlin, the Wall fell paving the way for reunification in Germany.
Andreas and Manuela are good friends and I understand why they get along so well. However it is interesting when considering how difficult the reunification process has been for Germany after the fall of the Wall. People have shown that no matter what their background may be or how they were raised they can still create strong bonds and relationships with others completely different from them through common interests. In the case of Andreas and Manuela, they met in Art School. Although Andreas and Manuela were able to create a friendship during the confusing period after the fall of the Wall, both struggled with this transition as did the rest of Germany. Andreas expressed that he and other East Germans felt that their life was a failure after the GDR collapsed. He felt it was a time of self-invention which can be looked at positively but also this transition is a difficult one for most. Manuela explained to me that once the Wall fell there was a period of consumption where the former East Germans were getting the new TVs, the new cars, the food they were never allowed, among other things which was an exciting time for them. However once the consumption period was over, there were still issues of reunification. Manuela describes her experience of Art School in Dresden, which was the former East, she felt like she did not fit in because she was so clearly from the West and was bothered that anyone could point her out. This was peculiar because this was in 1994, five years after the fall of the Wall.
I focused on the youth during the time of the Berlin Wall, comparing and contrasting East and West Germany. I believe that the way people are raised and where they come from creates their present identity. With such contrasting political systems in the same country, furthermore the same city, I imagined the oppressed East Germans would long for the freedoms in the West. However, I did expect much naivety in East since much propaganda was controlled. I was mainly concerned with how these differences in the East and West created the identity of young people and how that identity may have changed, stayed the same, or became confused once the Wall fell in 1989.
In order for me to find out the core issues of youth during the time of the Wall I needed to seek out people who were in their 20s’ or younger during the time the Wall fell. A concern I had was being able to interview an East German who I could communicate with since most only speak German and Russian. Although I had specific predictions of what I would find in my research, I was not concerned with being disappointed with the differences and similarities between East and West Germany. I was however able to speak with an East German with a translator and he was very open with his experiences in the former GDR and the way he was raised. I was also able to interview a West German who was also very informative of her experiences with the Wall. It was refreshing to learn that there were little differences between these two people although a different background. I think what I discovered furthers the point that stereotypes are more often wrong. I expected the East German to be reserved and have bitter memories of the former GDR when it was rather the opposite of that because he had a big personality and was grateful for his experience in the East. I thought the West German would have a similar life to that before the Wall fell but she also struggled with identity before and after the Wall.
Manuela did live in Berlin before the Wall fell but only for a short period. I was unable to find out if there is a difference from West and East Germans to West and East Berliners. Unfortunately that was a problem I encountered during my research was finding people to talk to that lived in East or West Berlin before and after the Wall. Perhaps there would not be much of a difference since it was the same political system throughout the Western or Eastern state.
I believe that young minds are fragile and mold very easily to their surrounding. With such distinct differences in culture to me as an outsider, I imagined the young people of the East and West to be clearly different. Although that may be the case with some, it was not in my research. The reunification process was obviously difficult for all people with trying to find their role in society however enough time has passed where the clear differences between East and West that may have been their a few years after the fall of the Wall are no longer there.
Since my project was just specific enough with the focus on youth, interviews with former East and West Germans provided the majority of my research. Creative writing, excursions of the city, and workshops that I participated in the duration of my time Berlin contributed more to my personal development and learning rather than my research topic. However, through all my experiences in Berlin, whether it was talking with Berliners or performances, I was able to understand the struggle for identity as a country Germany has had for decades. Germany has had major failures and embarrassments in its history; it has been hard for the people of Germany to establish something to be proud of. In my research I expected West Germans to be confident and comfortable in their lives but the reality is the Wall brought negativity to them as well as the East Germans struggling economically and with identity. Furthermore, Germany is constantly trying to apologize and make up for the mistakes of Nazi Germany. Although I feel like Berlin and Germany as a state has progressed so much from this traumatic era, it has hindered the people of Germany having any kind of patriotism.
The borders that have kept Germany from progressing have been knocked down, whether it’s the fall of Berlin Wall or the end of Adolf Hitler’s power during WWII. Yet border’s still stand with the search for identity in Germany, as they do with any conflicted country. The people of Berlin are confident in referring to themselves as what they do: an artist, a professor, a performer. However, they may not always include in this identification as being a German.