The German Reunification: Only Koreans know what it meant

Written by on October 3, 2017 in Europe - Comments Off on The German Reunification: Only Koreans know what it meant

The Korean peninsula has its own Cold War. The situation there, involving nukes, one million soldiers on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and a psychopath with his finger on the button is probably even more complicated than the actual Cold War was. However, the Koreans might be the only people on the planet, who truly comprehend what it was like for the Germans, up until October 3rd, 1990, when the Reunification took place.

Germans who are 35 years of age or older probably remember the Allies on their home turf. Due to Germany’s terrible history, the country was divided into sectors controlled by the victorious Allies, who finally defeated fascist Nazi Germany in 1945. Then, tensions grew and led to the sealing of the Russian sector, which became the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR), or communist Germany. In the region east of the so-called Zonengrenze, the border between the two German states, West Berlin was a small oasis of freedom.

This made things pretty complicated, since there were tensions all along. At one point, Soviet tanks and troops were close to invading West Berlin. Eastern Germans were not allowed to cross the Inner German Border, but Westerners were, if they wanted to go to West Berlin, or if they had special visas. On the transit routes, through Eastern German territory, Easterners were not allowed to communicate with Westerners, unless a state employee at a service station needed to sell coffee or a snack to the individual from the imperialist Federal Republic.

Western Germany did not recognize the GDR. Neither did most Western countries. They called it an occupied zone. Politicians in the former Western German capital of Bonn kept on talking about a reunification, but hardly anyone believed it was going to happen this fast. But then, the collapse of communism provided a chance, which the Germans used.

Back then, in the mid 1970-s, we went to West Berlin several times, from Hamburg. The sight at the Inner German Border was hard to believe. Two strong fences, a border in the middle of a country, dividing one people. Anyone trying to escape from the GDR to the FRG would be shot at. Many were murdered while trying to escape.

Later, in the 1980-s, I drove along the transit routes by myself. Weird scenes happened at that border. Those GDR border police officers were asking people “Where are you going?”. Well, it was obvious these travellers were not taking a ride to Monaco, but still, they wanted to hear it first hand. Anyone who would say “Berlin” would have to get back in line, think about the right answer, and try again. The right answer would have been “West Berlin”, since “Berlin” was the capital of the GDR, from their point of view.

On that route, GDR police would try to catch Westerners exceeding the maximum speed, and cash in. To them, this was one way of collecting proper currencies. Any drivers who would attempt to warn those on the opposite lanes, of hidden “Volkspolizei” officers, by signalling them with their headlights, would be fined as well.

In the early 1980-s, I took two field trips to Eastern Germany with two schools I attended back then. Those journeys took us right into a different world. In Neubrandenburg and Weimar, people spoke the same language and they seemed to have the same mentality, but they were confined, not just physically. Those who refused to be brainwashed by their communist leadership would have to keep their opinions to themselves. Otherwise they would end up in one of the jails run by the infamous State Security Service.

The communist youth organzation FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend) would send some trained people of our age, to discuss things with us. Those were interesting encounters indeed. These FDJ guys tried to make us believe our government was imperialist and exploiting the working class. And we tried to convince them that they were brainwashed and confined. In pubs, we also met people who would tell us that living in the “zone” was bad. There was no perspective, no freedom and no opportunity.

It was pretty hard to get rid of all the eastern currency, which we had gotten at a rate of 1:7 at banks in the West, while the official rate was 1:1. So, we ate like pigs, went into book stores and purchased the entire spectrum, from Karl Marx to Rosa Luxemburg. The sales ladies were impressed. None of us ever read all the books we took back home.

At the Maxim Gorki Youth Hostel, 10 of us were sleeping in a room, while a class mate invited an Eastern German girl over, whom he had flirted with. They had sexual intercourse all night long and kept us from sleeping by moaning all the time. Let’s hope she was not punished by the State Security afterwards.

The impressions we took back home from those trips would not be forgotten. Obviously, or I would not be writing these lines. The smell of brown coal (lignite), the buildings, many of which were falling apart, and mainly the people, some of whom seemed numb.

After the fall of the Wall in 1989, the German Reunification actually happened. It was something few had believed in. Not only was the German people reunited, but the Cold War was over. To us Germans (yes, to others too, of course) that aspect meant a lot. The Allies disappeared. So did the bigger part of the danger we had been facing for decades. The Inner German Border had been an important part of the Iron Curtain. Pershing II missiles in Western Germany were pointed directly at them, SS-20 missiles in the GDR directly at us. In case of a thermonuclear exchange, absolutely nothing would have been left, in this heavily populated part of Europe.

Sure, the dangers have been replaced by now. Islamist terrorism and Russia’s ambitions are making sure our children do not really live in a safer world, but definitely in a different one. Back then, in 1962, and in other instances, an all-out war with nuclear warheads flying in both directions was avoided, thanks to the Kennedys and some cool heads in the Soviet Union. Let’s hope today’s dangers will vanish at one point too.

Remembering the German Reunification also means not forgetting those who died at the inner-German border and elsewhere in the GDR, along with those who were locked up in jails and camps, for wanting freedom, for voicing an opinion, in some cases even for nothing.

And it means thinking about the future. Nowadays, more and more politicians, yes, in Germany, but also in Bulgaria, the country were this publication is based, as well as in The United Kingdom and elsewhere want division instead of unity. But Europeans should know what division leads to.

Imanuel Marcus, Associate Editor at The Sofia Globe, was born in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1965. 

Note: An earlier version of this piece was published on Foreigners & Friends Magazine in 2016. That publication is now part of The Sofia Globe.

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About the Author

Imanuel Marcus is Associate Editor of The Sofia Globe. He is German and lives in Sofia. Contact: imanuelmarcus (at) gmail.com