Three Times Germany is an audio production of twenty-three monologues performed by eight actors. The monologues are based on interviews of East Germans, West Germans, and Germans living in New York. Retracing his own life journey from East Germany to West Germany in 1974 and on to New York in 1980, Uwe Mengel interviewed Germans who crossed his path along the way. The resulting monologues offer an unusual and often disconcerting view into the prejudices and reservations with which Germans view the “other Germans” after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Three Times Germany is a coproduction of Words without Borders and the Goethe Institut, New York.
Three Times Germany
Katharina S., West German, Banker
I’ve never had sex with a man from East Germany. I’ve been living here in the East, in Leipzig for almost five years. Of course not on the weekends. On the weekends I fly home, to Frankfurt, Frankfurt/Main.
Well, I don’t know, but somehow those East German men don’t interest me. I love to work with them and parties together are a lot of fun, but I mean, if it comes to it, if it’s unavoidable, if you get a little closer in the evening, nothing, nothing happens inside me.
I mean, let me ask you, can you get used to the situation where a man with whom you have a cup a coffee in a restaurant in the afternoon orders a big slice of Black Forest cake for himself? It’s unbelievable, but a man from East Germany doesn’t even think it strange for a moment. Look around here in the East, in Dresden, Weimar, Leipzig, everywhere cake-eating men. Maybe that’s what all the socialist equality between women and men was about . . .
Something is missing in them, they are not erotic, not sexy at all.
Regine B., East German, Doctor
We were really impressed when the first West German doctors arrived in our hospital. They were so elegant, so open to the world, so self-assured. They were well-dressed, good hair cuts and they smelled better, a fresh smell.
We felt that their arrival meant an enrichment for us, after so many years of isolation. We were pleased and we were looking forward to an exchange of ideas and medical knowledge. Very slowly we realized that those expectations were one-sided. Curiosity and expectations came from our side. From their point of view we were not equal doctors. They made this very clear.
I was already in a leading position in our hospital, and that created another problem for them. A woman in charge, and on top of it an East German woman; that hurt their egos. It became quite clear that we didn’t share the same values, not in our professions and not in private life. They were talking about positions and money. I didn’t make much money as a doctor in East Germany, for instance a miner made more money than I did. I don’t complain, money wasn’t our main focus.
But sitting with West German colleagues in a restaurant for dinner, sooner or later the talk turned to money, which city and which hospital pays how much, where to invest your money and so on.
Meanwhile, I became the head of our Department of Neurology and Psychiatry and I learned to deal with those doctors. One of the West Germans wanted my position, so they hoped that they could find something nasty in my Stasi file. To their disappointment they learned that the Stasi considered me an antisocialist subject.
Now, a few years later, I understand; what impressed us first wasn’t the people themselves, it was their habits. They behaved the way they felt a doctor should behave; the way you carry yourself, they way you talk. I understand when people behave like this in their professions, but they were just the same in their private life; they couldn’t step out of the role they had created for themselves. Wherever they went, shopping, dining, they always showed up as Mr. Dr. Grasemann or Mrs. Dr. Neumann-Schulze. I’m curious if they are different in bed at least. But I have no sexual experience with those men. I don’t find them erotic or sexually attractive.
That created another resentment, that I as a woman was not interested in them, not falling for their polished West German charm . . . They couldn’t understand it at all, and they asked me point-blank, straightforward:
“Please, tell us, honestly, what do you find attractive in East German men?”
We have some lakes not far from here, surrounded by nude beaches and to my surprise, even stark naked, we are two different people. The West Germans have a different posture, they are all in good shape. It seems they only show up on a nude beach when they are in perfect condition. Now there are hardly any West Germans at the lakes anymore, we are amongst ourselves again; young and old, fat ones and skinny ones. No one is ashamed of thick thighs or a fat stomach. Why should we be? We are there to sunbathe, to swim and not for a beauty contest.
You know, If I’m interested in someone else’s ideas, experiences, if I’m open, then we will have a good talk, we will get to know each other, learn something from each other. One of the big problems of the West Germans is, they don’t listen, they don’t want to know. For them it is boring to hear how we think and feel. How we have lived those forty years in a different society. Only their experiences, their opinions, count, we are supposed to sit on our backs and hold up our paws like any good and thankful dog and say: “Thank you Master.”
Wolfram S., West German, Politician
The “German Problem.” Well, you have to put that problem in a historical context. The Germans started a big war. We Germans started a big war, and we lost it on a big scale. A defeat of that size you will not find very often in history. And it’s natural that the victorious powers dictate the terms of surrender. And I don’t think that the victorious powers treated Germany very badly, considering what we had done. No one in his right mind will dispute that.
One victorious power would have been easy, but there were four, the Allied Powers; the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. They had to come to an agreement, over how Germany should look after the war, and that’s the point were the big mistake was made. What they should have done is divide Germany along the lines of the prevailing religions. Since Luther and the Reformation, there is a clear and very obvious division in Germany, namely between the Protestant North and the Catholic South. Such a division of Germany would have spared us many, many problems and would have created two very interesting Germanys in 1945.
We are all Germans, but take a closer look; a German Catholic is very different from a German Protestant. To divide Germany into East Germany and West Germany was a big mistake and look what problems we have after reunification.
Gisela B., German, New York, Retired
Of course, culture, KULTUR. “Americans have no culture.” That is such a worn-out prejudice, it is so stupid, but it still goes on.
You know what it means to have no culture? For me it means, to tell a person you hardly know to their face, an American for instance: “You have no culture.” Germans can do that. They have culture, we are born as Germans and that means we have culture by birthright.
I taught for many years in the German Department at Columbia University and I very much enjoyed teaching there. You see, that’s the opposite of my German academic colleagues. For them their job is a burden, a duty to society. A German professor carries the problems of the world on his back, day and night, no time to smile. I could not live in Germany anymore.
I’m used to living in a cosmopolitan world.
For instance here in New York you can eat whatever you want, all countries of the world offer their cuisine. But try to eat German in Germany. Nothing. It doesn’t exist. And the Germans are even proud of that situation. When I visit Germany, I long for some German food, which I remember from my childhood. Well, my friends and family in Berlin and Hannover are shocked by such a desire, they don’t eat German food. “Sorry we don’t eat these kinds of dishes.” They eat Italian, Japanese, French.
Potato dumplings are for the uneducated, the lower classes. Only someone with no culture eats German food. How weird.
You know what the worst part is, they know everything better; I’ve lived in the States for thirty years and I can’t count anymore how many visitors from Germany, friends and family included, have tried to explain the United States to me. I have to listen. It starts with politics and ends with the road map. Someone comes to visit and I try to explain the way to Bloomingdale’s. I just try to be friendly and helpful. But no way. “I checked that out myself on the map already,” or, “A friend of ours in Berlin explained to me exactly how to go there, which subway to use and where to get off.” And so on. And when they realize I told them the right stop for the subway and not their friend in Berlin, then they tell me. “You were right.”
What’s the point in “I was right?” I go to Bloomingdale’s regularly, I only tried to help them.
A friend of mine once remarked. “GOD knows everything, the Germans know everything better.” Well, I don’t think a German would find this very funny. But that’s another story. German humor.
Ludwig D., East German, Former CEO
First and foremost: We all worked very hard all those years.
I was the director of a big electronics company. We had 5,000 employees. Our products were exported to many countries all over the world. West Germany was our second-biggest market. They liked to buy our products because of the high quality and cheap prices. Our country needed hard currency, so we were selling cheaper than the Asian companies. Our products could hold up against any comparable product in the West. When we returned from the trade fairs our order books were filled.
There is no need to explain the world to me. We were business people, not party apparatchiks. We were well aware of our economic problems. But no one listened to us. None of those high-powered party bosses listened to us.
Of course it was not productive to have so many employees, but try to get rid of just one of them. Every alcoholic we had to keep. Such a person would have needed some other help. But that was the party’s decision.
Then came November 9, 1989, and everything changed. The business executives from West Germany arrived, they came from companies we had been dealing with for a long time. They looked around, very friendly, made some promises and returned home. Soon after that they sent us one of their executives to help us in our transformation. We had to transform our worker-owned socialist company into a privately owned capitalist company. For that we needed help. That’s what we thought. Wrong thinking.
This executive took residence in the most expensive hotel in town, our company paid him a monthly salary ten times as much as ours and he started his work. The goal of his work was to ruin our company, which he successfully accomplished within one year. Looking back, it was not so difficult. He ordered that all new contracts carry the statement: “Company in liquidation.” Of course the Asians refused to sign those contracts and bought somewhere else. Who wants to deal with a company in liquidation? As far as the law was concerned the statement was correct, we were in the process of liquidating a socialist company and changing it into a new ownership. We knew that, but no one in Asia did. For them liquidation meant what it usually means: you’re winding up your business.
The West German companies didn’t want our products all of a sudden either, for all sorts of reasons. Well, as I said, within a year the West German executive accomplished the goal given to him. He returned to his West German company, which he had successfully helped to rid of a rival.
We couldn’t imagine back then, that someone would destroy our company on purpose.
In the middle of the eighties we had bought the world’s best production line in Japan, a huge investment. That production line was now part of our bankrupt company’s assets, bought for a song by none other than the West German company who ruined us. I have to say, for this West German company the German reunification was a big success.
Fifty people from our company are still working. They are paid by the government to demolish all our buildings.
I tell you, just keep them away from me, all those West Germans.
Look at our town. This city was one of the biggest industrial centers. Not one company is left. They are all shut down, all of them. Almost everyone is looking for a new job. Thirty percent of the population has already left town, mostly the young ones. The city is dying. The biggest employers in town are now the state agency for unemployment and the city hospital. What a joke.
Who in West Germany ever went through such turmoil? They should shut up and not preach to us about flexibility. They live in their nice little homes in the same cities for generations. They don’t care about us. All they are concerned about is the higher taxes since reunification.
For them we are second-class citizens, and they make sure we get this message. The only role we are supposed to play as East Germans is to be in awe of the West Germans, how they know everything, how cosmopolitan they are, how successful they are, how international their cooking is, how well developed their taste of wine . . .
I don’t care about them. If you take a closer look at them, you see that they are just luxury philistines, always needing someone to look down on. For that they have us, the East Germans. But, come to think of it, that’s not new at all. It was the same situation during the Cold War.
Klaus G., West German, Doctor
I have nothing to do whatsoever with East Germany. The little I know of it happened more by accident. I opened my first office in West Berlin and sometimes we crossed the Wall to visit a theater in East Berlin. East Berlin was a totally different world, kind of exotic, a gray exotic, if such a thing exists . . ..
I wasn’t moved by the fall of the Wall or what happened in the East. I’m more interested in the problems of Switzerland or France, they are close to my town.
I wish that the German Government had stayed in Bonn and not moved to Berlin. I’m afraid that our politics will be influenced by the East. Look at the map, Berlin’s location is very far in the East. In one hour you are at the Polish border and I think it makes a difference if you meet Poland or Switzerland on the other side. One can only hope.
I don’t understand what is so spectacular about the reunification. As a result of it, we got millions of people who live off our money. Billions of deutsche marks are pumped into East Germany, to bring them up to our standard of living as fast as possible. I think the East Germans created this mess for themselves, now they should try to correct it themselves. Who gave us anything for free? Most of my friends financed their college educations by doing all kind of jobs. Me too. That’s why my reaction is to be very annoyed about these East German expectations.
We should have left them alone, ten years, maybe twenty years and waited to see what happened. Maybe then we should have thought about reunification.
My national feeling does not include East Germany. Why should it? For me the so-called German Democratic Republic was a foreign country.
It would have been better to ask the whole population in a referendum about reunification. How many of the West Germans would have said yes? I don’t know anyone who wanted it. Why should I spend my holidays in East Germany? Castles, lakes, forests, all of that we have ourselves. Some of my friends went there: Dresden, Thuringia Forest. They will never go again.
They didn’t feel welcome.
The East Germans should stay were they are, and we’ll stay were we are: our money goes there anyway.
What else do they want? Once, not so long ago, we sent millions of parcels over to East Germany with coffee, chocolates, oranges, jeans, you name it. Each of the millions of retired East Germans who were allowed to cross the Wall and visit West Germany year after year received a nice cash bonus upon arrival from our state and city governments, because their own money was worthless. When will this ever end? Is it too much to expect from those East Germans that at some point in history they will finally stand on their own feet?
Roberta N., East German, Actress
To make myself very clear, I never wanted to leave East Germany, it was my country, my home, West Germany was always foreign to me.
My father was a priest, a Lutheran priest, and so it is no wonder that religion plays an important role in my life.
There was a huge difference between being a Christian in East Germany and in West Germany. We had a completely different understanding of what Christianity means. For West Germans it was a part of life, accompanying but not disturbing their daily affairs. For us it was a real challenge, to be Christian in a Communist society. We were also not so concerned about our own denomination, be it Lutheran or Catholic. First and foremost we were Christians.
Well, I have to admit that back then I really believed that the West Germans were interested in us, that was a mistake.
As an artist I was surprised how the situation changed for us after the collapse of the Wall. Before that time we were sometimes allowed to travel to the West and we were always very welcome. Now, without a border, people in the West lost all interest in us. We had lost our appeal as exotic artists from behind the Iron Curtain.
In one way I was not different from most East Germans. For me the West was always shiny, the West offered a certain glamour. Now we are united and the glamour is gone.
I think a lot of East Germans suffer from that loss of glamour. Now you can buy whatever you want, travel to where you want, though of course you have to have some money. Most East Germans were dreaming about West Germany, they never thought that people in West Germany were living ordinary lives.
I think we East Germans are not real Germans for the West Germans; for them we are some kind of idiots who followed the wrong leaders for forty years. “Maybe a few them are useful, but in general terms, it is a lost and useless population”; that’s what they think.
Albrecht G., West German, Judge
I lived in East Germany and in West Germany and I think of myself as a German. I escaped from East Germany and later became a judge in West Berlin.
Now we have all those East Germans here in West Berlin and I don’t like it. The former divided city is now one big town again and I have to work with people from the East. In our courthouse we have to follow the rules of equal opportunity, that’s why we had to hire the East Germans. And let me tell you, the worst part of the East Germans is how slow they are. They do nothing on their own, they don’t enjoy their work. Everyone knows that West German civil clerks are not very fast but compared to one from the East, a West German clerk works like a bee.
Just watch them. By the way they look at you, you can tell right away who is from East Germany. The East Germans don’t look straight at you. They look at you kind of sideways, a waiting look, always ready to retreat. I don’t remember who, but one of their writers once wrote that the East Germans have the eyes of colonized people. He wrote this when East Germany still existed and I think there is something to it. Maybe a new generation will be better, but that won’t do me any good, by then I’ll be retired.
Herbert L., East German, Businessman
Did I make some mistakes when everything changed here in Dresden? You bet I did. But I had a good idea. You know, no one wanted to buy any products manufactured in the East anymore. As soon as the borders were open, all Eastern products lost their value. But not forever, I thought to myself, not forever. So I bought and bought for pennies what just two weeks before you had to save many months to buy. As I said, some bad investments, but some really good ones. For instance a Russian movie camera, a “Krasnogorsk.” The camera was sold for 500 East German marks. A lot of money—I earned only 650 East German marks a month, thank God I always made some extra income on the side. Anyhow, times changed and no one wanted this Russian camera anymore. I bought as many as I could find for 25 to 30 East German marks. And then I waited. A year later we got the West German mark, the deutsche mark.
Of course Russian cameras didn’t show good craftsmanship, it felt like they were made using a hammer and sickle, but not the Krasnogorsk. The Krasnogorsk was especially developed for animation movies and featured a single-shot capability. Such cameras cost a lot in the West. Just a few years later I was selling all of them through advertisements for 800 to 1,200 deutsche marks. Not bad. And still a bargain for the buyer.
Some of the merchandise I have in storage still has to wait a little bit, but the prospects are good, because there is now this East German nostalgia, combined with the retro fashion of the younger generation. Amazing how much they are willing to pay for an original light fixture from once-upon-a-time East Germany . . . What you need is patience, patience.
One thing I always wanted to do is speculate on the stock market. I would be good at it. But for that, as a native East German, I just don’t happen to have enough capital to do it. As far as cash and capital are concerned, the West Germans have the advantage. For them it is easy to say. “Just spit in your hands and work hard.” Sorry, I always did, but in Communist times that didn’t translate into stocks and bonds. I’m certainly not a wincing and whining East German, but just go to a bank as an East German and try to get credit or anything whatsoever; well you are in for a big surprise. No chance for me. The only solution is, you have to make it on your own, but that’s what I’m used to anyway. I did nothing else in East Germany.
Klaus K., German, New York, Scientist
Please, let’s just forget it, that’s all nonsense. Germans East and Germans West. That’s just another welcome occasion for the Germans to feel self-important.
The big days of Germany are over, definitely. The Germans live for the past only: German Classics, German Science, German Composers, German Literature, all this is past and gone. On an international level, the Germans are only singing in the choir, one searches in vain for soloists.
A scientist who wants to achieve something will leave Germany and more often than not, come to the United States. It doesn’t matter, if you like the States or not, you will find much better conditions here for scientific research and academic development. In a German lab they first think about their social wellbeing and their plans for their six weeks of holiday.
I would have loved to have done research work in Germany around 1900. That must have been an amazing time in Germany. But two lost wars leave their imprint. It leaves a nation unfocused. Such humiliating experiences take a toll on the willingness of people to take risks.
Sure, I have no problem being wrong, maybe there is an upswing in Germany and there will be a spiritual uprising. I would be glad to see that. But I see no such silver lining on the horizon.
Unified Germany is now as boring as East and West Germany before. Unification didn’t bring a new start. I’ll admit, I had some hopes in that direction, I’m still a German, but nothing happened. Everything in Germany is done halfheartedly. The Germans have only one goal: To show the world what nice people they are and what trustworthy democrats they are. That’s enough to achieve mediocrity, but not more. A country without a vision is a boring country and I don’t find any vision in Germany.
Johanna O., East German, Student
I was only ten years old when the German Democratic Republic disappeared. I remember that I was always a troublemaker, but still I believed a lot of what the teachers told us. It was a big surprise for me when all of a sudden those teachers told us that the most important man in our country, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, was a bad man. It was very difficult to understand.
I grew up with the Wall, it was just there. I remember I once asked my parents what would happen if we all were to run and climb the Wall. They could not shoot all of us. But that wasn’t a political question, I just asked, like children ask.
As time goes by, I remember less and less about the German Democratic Republic.
For me the GDR was not too tiny or small. There were so many things to discover for a child, trips with our class, holidays in a children’s holiday home. Sailing and swimming with my parents, skiing in winter. I didn’t have the thoughts and the worries of a grown-up yet.
Here in the middle of Berlin the difference between East and West is almost gone now, especially in my age group.
I think people in the West are more open than we are. But in Germany there is now more hate and fear of crime. In the GDR we didn’t have that fear. As a little child I was out in the street until late in the evening. My parents were not afraid. That has changed.
I imagine, if I had been raised in the West, I too would have gotten a shock on my first visit to the East.
After the borders were opened, we all got a present of 100 deutsche marks on our first visit to West Berlin, paid by the West German government. Our own money wasn’t worth much in the West. I went window-shopping, but I didn’t see anything I wanted to have right away. My friends found this very strange.
The West Germans know nothing about us. They only want to look down on us and feel superior.
We didn’t have much in the GDR, that’s why we had to help each other. That situation doesn’t exist anymore. Now more and more East Germans are just like the West Germans. Now it’s just ME, ME, ME. All of them are so materialistic now.
The last time we, as Young Pioneers, were marched out and had to line the street was in October ‘89 during Gorbachev’s visit. We always had to line the streets when some important politician visited East Berlin. But this time it was different, everyone was yelling Gorbi! Gorbi! Our teachers were yelling too. And the shouting was not rehearsed as it always was before.
What impressed me on my first day in West Berlin were the clothes hanging on racks out on the sidewalk, on racks you could twist around. Everything was sparkling and shiny over there, lots of colors.
Men, well, men that’s another story. I have to admit, the men I get involved with are all from the West, but that’s not just me, most of my friends are involved with men from the West. I don’t know why, maybe there is more curiosity between us. To get involved with someone very different from you.
But it doesn’t work in both directions. None of the East German men I know have found a West German girlfriend. That’s not easy for them. But at the moment I’m not interested in them either. It is very sad for them. I’m thankful that I’m not an East German man.
Rudolph G., West German, Government Official
I’m a very open-minded and curious person. Whenever I have a chance, I try to see and decide for myself.
Like most people around me, I had no knowledge of East Germany. I’m not saying it was a foreign country, but it was not part of my Germany. The only places I knew in the East were Prague and Moscow, from very short visits. No question about it, in Prague and Moscow I felt much more like a stranger compared to Paris or Madrid.
The State Department of Economy I was working for were looking for an experienced government officer who would not shy away from an unusual challenge. I made myself available.
The job was to help build the newly created state of Thuringia in the former East Germany.
This was the biggest mistake of my life, absolutely the biggest mistake.
Together with my wife and two children we moved from Frankfurt/Main to Erfurt.
That was another mistake. I endured this situation for six years, and the last years, I have to say, we felt like we were in enemy territory. That was true for my wife as well as for my children. I’m very open-minded, I’m not the typical German. I like to travel, I’m interested in other countries and people. I like to travel with open eyes. But nowhere in the world have I encountered such rejection like in East Germany.
Believe me, I’m not prejudiced, but the East Germans are a different kind of people. I don’t want to go so far as some of my other frustrated colleagues, who say the East Germans are not real Germans. But, there is something to it.
Whatever task you gave to an East German he would say yes and then not do it. Boycott. And you know why? There were not convinced by my orders. Or they had a better idea. I don’t want to deny it, there were occasions when one of them had a better idea. Why didn’t they say so right away? Why didn’t they speak up in the meeting? But that’s how they were trained: “Don’t argue, and try to do it your way, quietly.”
The East Germans were so lazy. They took every opportunity for a break, a little get-together.
We did come to help, didn’t we? But they didn’t want our help.
I moved with my whole family. I did think I could expect some flexibility from my new coworkers. Wrong.
And wherever we went—we wanted to see the new state we were creating—we were not welcome. We were always treated as the West Germans who wanted to buy their “people-owned” real estate, or to pull one over on them with a lousy deal. It got on my nerves.
My children were unable to make friends. So were we. In the beginning we invited East Germans for dinner to our house on many occasions. We were never invited to their houses. I mean, it’s not our fault that we have different table manners or better taste. We were raised in a different world but they held this against us on a very personal level. It was no fun.
The worst was the service sector. At the cleaners, at the repair shop, always the same: they reduced you, the customer, to some kind of petitioner, everywhere the same pattern.
My children were abused in school because they came from the West. I complained to the teachers, and you know what the principal told me: “You have to understand my students. We are being colonized by West Germany. You know this better than anyone else. In that light, the reaction of our students is understandable, isn’t it?” I tell you the truth. He said this right to my face. My marriage suffered in those years too. We are still not fully recovered from that stress.
I will never go back to East Germany, not for one day.
Petra R., East German, Businesswoman
I’m sorry, but there is a remarkable difference amongst East Germans. I spent four and a half years in an East German prison.
When some old friends of mine and I sit around a table and talk about our past, to an outsider it might seem like a bunch of criminals are talking. We all spent time in prison, between one and five years. All former political prisoners. That leaves a mark on you. Of course, I don’t speak about the prison all the time, not anymore, it’s not good for business, I learned. It irritates my West German customers. They have very little life experience. Some of them seemed to be downright jealous that I was a political prisoner. Others found me somehow suspicious, well of course politically correct and understandable, but to be such a rebellious character . . . who knows . . .
West Germans have very little respect for the experience of other people in other countries and East Germany for them was another country. You have to let them talk, those spoiled little children.
Most East Germans are not much better, they were docile sheep, living their little lives in their little apartments. I still don’t trust most of them, despite the peaceful revolution. They have never learned to stand upright. But you can’t really blame them, for generations they only experienced dictatorship.
Günther W., German, New York, Cook
I see myself as a cosmopolite.
I arrived in New York in 1985. Back then I worked on the cruise ship Norway as a cook. When our ship arrived in New York Harbor, I saw the skyline and I decided to stay in New York. First I worked illegally, now I have a green card.
Shortly after the Wall come down, once again I worked on a German cruise ship as a chef de cuisine. Well, never again.
The ship’s passengers were almost all East Germans. I mean, I’m not prejudiced against the East Germans, they are more open, I think. But the situation on our ship was a disaster. The East Germans wanted everything, but they didn’t tip, they gave absolutely no tips. You can’t imagine the situation among the stewards and waiters. The only reason they work on such ships is because of the tips, forget the lousy salary. The East Germans didn’t understand this. And then their bad taste in clothing and always their fear of missing something. Half an hour before dinner they sat down at their tables. I mean they all had reservations, we had enough tables and chairs for everyone. We had plenty of food. But they didn’t trust us. “One never knows.”
Okay, let’s face it, as far as tips are concerned the West Germans are not so much better. Of course you tip 15% in a cab in New York, the driver lives from the tip. But not the Germans. “I will never see this driver again, why should I tip”; that’s their motto.
It is strange, for me as a cook, that German cuisine doesn’t exist in New York. Of course, German cooking might be a little too heavy for the standard New Yorker, but you can prepare a wonderful red cabbage without a lot of grease or oil. But what can you do, the bad name is already around.
There are moments when I dream of going back to Germany. I’m from Bavaria. All my German schoolmates have families, houses, BMWs . . . To sit at a table on a Sunday at noon, in Germany, with a big family, for the Sunday meal . . . and when you are sick, someone takes care of you. Mother cooks chicken soup . . . But after a few days I would get so bored.
Andreas P., East German, Artist
I’m not a big traveler. To leave my neighborhood is already an experience for me. I’m not interested in faraway countries. I like where I live, here at Kollwitzplatz in Berlin. I’m not a political person. Of course we had some problems in East Germany. That was to be expected, considering the type of theater we produced. But that was not political resistance on our side. I always considered the political system in East Germany superior to that in West Germany. Maybe I closed my eyes to the reality of it.
I don’t see myself as a German. I don’t know what that means. I define myself by gender: I’m a man. And I’m a Berliner who grew up in Thuringia. That’s it.
Last month in Erfurt I realized something: I was reading in the middle of the night, the window open. I realized that by the way people close their car doors, you could tell if they came from East or West Germany. The West Germans closed their doors more purposefully, with more decision in their minds. The East Germans took less care, they were more relaxed, they just closed the doors.
Toward the end of East Germany I was one of those privileged artists who were allowed to visit West Germany. I remember my visit to the University in Freiburg. I was amazed how openly the students criticized everything and questioned the authorities. I was very impressed. It took me a while to understand that in the West it doesn’t take much courage to be critical, on the contrary, it is expected of you. It is a game, accepted by society.
I don’t defend my fellow East Germans, most of them live just to live, they complain, but they go on. I think their nostalgia for East Germany is just an easy way out for most of them, it’s comfortable, you don’t have to think, not about your past, not about now and certainly not about the future.
In my opinion there is no such thing as an East German identity.
Susanna S., West German, Actress
I didn’t visit East Germany very often, but I was convinced that the Germans living there were better Germans than we West Germans. The socialist Germans. That was my belief. I really thought the people in the German Democratic Republic were the more noble Germans. I’m sorry, but in my profession one sometimes uses lofty language. Noble Germans. Yes.
In our theater we worked with guest artists from East Germany, actors as well as directors. They seemed much more down-to-earth, they took art very seriously and they were very well aware of the fact that we, as artists, have a political responsibility—that is our duty to society, to criticize.
I was one of the very few who had the courage and moved to East Germany when the Wall came down.
I was in for a big disappointment, for a traumatic experience.
My new colleagues didn’t accept me, not as an actress and not as a person. I had to take all the blame for what the West Germans were doing to East Germany. It was obvious they were looking for a scapegoat, to cover up the mistrust between themselves. It was a time when the files of the Stasi, the East German security service, were made available and they realized how many of them had been secret informers. But, as I said, they didn’t want to face their reality, they preferred to take aim at me, the only West German in the theater . . .
I assumed, and not just me, all my West German comrades thought so, that the East Germans were truly antifascists. It was painful to see how wrong we were. The Communist Party had more or less declared all East Germans to be antifascists and East Germans actually believed this. There was no way to have a discussion about the lingering problems of the Nazi past in the East. But they talked about the West German problems with the Hitler years and pointed the finger forever.
I have to admit I’m deeply worried that the East Germans have a growing desire for a strong leader, a strong hand in politics, someone who tells them what is right or wrong. And I fear that this will change all of Germany for the worse. I don’t think we in West Germany have such tendencies anymore.
In a strange way the East Germans are very German, old-fashioned German. I’m not a typical German, maybe that’s why it was so amazing to me.
They didn’t think beyond their own borders. They looked at other countries as totally foreign. They thought of other countries as completely separate from each other. We in the West feel much more united, much more European. That was beyond their imagination.
I had heard and learned much about the solidarity and brotherhood between the socialist countries and I could very well imagine that.
We in the West thought the expression “international solidarity” was a basic desire of the East German population and we envied them for it. Sad to say, we all believed in an illusion.
To my surprise I found myself having to defend something about West Germany. Very disturbing for me as someone from the left. Very disturbing.
I haven’t gone back to East Germany for a long time and to be quite honest, I’m so disappointed I don’t want to deal with all of that anymore.
Karin O., East German, Costume Designer
There is something strange about the West Germans. Talk with them about Germany and they will tell you: “I’m not a typical German.” What’s their problem?
First I’m German, second I’m a Berliner. German is my mother tongue, I was born and raised here. I’m connected to the German tradition, climate, history, culture.
I, myself, I’m an atheist—but I do think Christianity is important, because it’s part of our history. I always go to church on Christmas, I mean always. I went to church in communist East Germany as well.
I think the West Germans are more self dependent, they take more responsibility for themselves than we do.
But we in the East developed a much stronger solidarity with each other and we are also more practical. This was born out of necessity; we had to help each other, often you could not find a plumber, or the material you needed. We had to fix almost everything ourselves.
Social contacts between the West Germans seem to me more superficial. Their social life has more to do with your position in life, your social standing. That didn’t mean so much to us, we judged the character of a person, and then made the decision if someone was trustworthy and belonged to us or not.
Of course, there is a lot to be said against the socialist “collective,” but if someone needed help we helped each other: helped move, renovate the apartment. The collective helped, free of charge of course.
It is still possible to see who comes from the East and who from the West. The West Germans take better care of themselves, in their clothing you see more quality then quantity. They also have a different feeling for their body. It is very obvious on the beach, and I mean nude beaches. That’s something the West Germans had to get used to it. Most of the beaches on the Baltic Sea in East Germany were nude beaches. They tried to take them away from us with new laws and regulation, well, they didn’t succeed.
During East German times we had many friends on the other side of the Wall. But after the breakdown of the Wall, we didn’t see most of them anymore. We were not important for their ego anymore. Now we ourselves could travel to all those places and countries from where they had sent us postcards and shown us glossy photos. They could not show off before the poor East Germans anymore and just disappeared, one by one.
“The East Germans are losers,” that is common knowledge in West Germany. The deeper you drive into West Germany, the less they know about the East.
I was actively involved in the New Forum, we wanted to change East Germany, we didn’t want it to disappear, but the West Germans didn’t understand what we were fighting for, they had a different agenda, their agenda. Well I didn’t expect much from the conservative party, but the people on the left in West Germany were just as arrogant and just as know-it-all as the conservatives. It was a big disappointment to me.
No matter what, one thing is for sure, the freedom we now enjoy is still an amazing achievement.
Robert P., West German, Publisher
I don’t like to participate in discussions about the East-West German problem. I’m not a typical German. I see myself as a European.
I live here in Hamburg, this is my home town, for others it might be Dresden. That’s important and that’s how easy it is
Yes, we are all Germans, but I still feel closer to a person from London than to a person from Munich or Dresden. As you see I make no distinction between East and West.
I was in East Germany only once, in East Berlin, on a field trip with our school. I have no memory of that trip to the East, I didn’t care about that world over there.
What bothers me is the soul-searching, the German self-reflection. That’s why we can’t sell our books to the world—I’m in the publishing business. The question is: Do we write and publish for ourselves only, for the German market or do we want to join the world. Of course the breakdown of East Germany provides great material for a writer, but I haven’t seen a manuscript so far that would appeal to the English-speaking world. That’s what I’m concerned about, the international reader. We live in a globalized world. We are aware of so many problems and countless conflicts in countries everywhere, in no way can one country claim a singular exceptional situation. That’s what the Germans don’t understand. We have to look outside, not inside. We still look in awe and envy to times past. We measure and judge our literature against Schiller, Goethe, Thomas Mann. They look backward and not forward, that’s a German problem, not East or West.
Alexandra W., East German, Social Worker
Just look around in our house. Very elegant. Don’t you think so? All the furniture you see is custom-made. That was possible in East Germany too. This country was not only gray on gray. And that’s what makes me so angry about the West Germans. They see us as gray people in gray colors. And we don’t know how to cook, we have no taste in clothes, and so on.
Well, it wasn’t easy to be different in Communist times, but it was possible. I, for instance, owned a small sewing supplies store. To get this store was very, very difficult, a private store in a socialist society, but I did it.
And here comes the irony of history: I was very engaged in all the demonstrations and meetings against the party, I organized the resistance in our town. We wanted to get rid of that system. At the same time I made very good money with my little store. There were always shortages in goods of all kinds and I managed to organize all the little things people needed: zippers, buttons, thread, yarn, etc. And now listen carefully: I was on my way to making my first million, in East German marks of course. Can you imagine what a million marks meant in East Germany? Three more years and I would have had made my first million. To make so much money with sewing supplies was only possible in our weird socialist economy.
Finally, East Germany was gone, in came the West German economy. And of course in this economy there is no shortage of goods. In no time the first shopping malls opened and I couldn’t compete with them. So I was out of business. By actively participating in the destruction of East Germany, I put myself out of business and never became a millionaire.
I decided right away to send all my children to schools in West Germany. There is no future for them here in the East. And they are doing very well.
My husband and I travel a lot. It is still our greatest joy to be allowed to travel, to see all those countries we thought we would never see in our life.
We meet many West Germans on our journeys and very often they tell me. “I would never have guessed that you are an East German.” They think it is a big compliment for me, to pass as a West German woman, they don’t think it is insulting.
I don’t like it, that East Germans complain so much and look back, if an old man does it, okay, but someone around forty?
The West Germans tell us we should learn from them, but as far as complaining goes there is nothing to learn. They complain all the time. I mean, they travel all over the world, they see for themselves how much worse off other countries are. The more exotic the place, the poorer the population, that’s my experience. But they hang around the pool with their cocktails and complain about the hardships in Germany. They should be thankful.
Rosemarie T., German, New York, Youth Counselor
I’m happy here in New York. One month in Germany is enough for me.
I sometimes go there to give lectures. I always have the feeling that I have to do all the work. It takes them forever before they move and do something.
And it is very difficult to meet new people there, unlike here. I know, the Germans call these contacts superficial, and they always tell me that I’m “Americanized.” Well, thank God we don’t have those endless discussions about God and the world here. I have no problem circulating at a cocktail party and working the room. At least here people are introduced to each other.
On my last trip to Germany I was sitting in the dining car on the train from Frankfurt to Berlin and at the table across from me there were some Ukrainians and Poles who live in Germany. I got into a conversation with them. They couldn’t believe that I was German. Never ever had a German sought a conversation with them. Well, maybe, from a German point of view our conversation was very superficial: we talked about our personal life, Russian or Polish literature wasn’t our theme. But I’ve learned something about their life in Germany, and what’s more, we had fun on our journey. It is as easy as that. That’s what I mean. I’d rather have so-called superficial contacts than none at all. At the cleaners here, around the corner on Sixth Avenue, we talk about our families, problems with the children.
Of course there are differences within Germany: the Rhine Valley is more relaxed than Berlin. Berlin is cold. A wonderful city, but cold people.
One situation I hate is when you ask someone in Germany a question and he says: “That is a question I can’t answer right away, I have to think about it.” Well, thanks a lot, see you next year.
From my experience, I would say the East Germans are easier to work with, they are much more interested in new things and more personal, they check you out, they talk more easily about their private life.
And I don’t have to defend myself in East Germany. In West Germany I always have to defend myself for living in New York.
Financially, all my friends in Germany are much better off, but they still whine and complain. They are insured against every possible mishap in life. They dream about risk, but they only ever go for a calculated risk, if at all.
I would say that one of the trademarks of the German national character is complaining. And the later the evening, the more the alcohol, the greater the self-pity.
Well, New York has no time for self-pity. Life is hard enough for everyone, let’s have some fun.
Herbert S., West German, Diplomat
I do think I have a very special and privileged view on East and West Germany. I worked as a West German diplomat in East Germany for many years, until the reunification. And I don’t think I’m a typical German, because I’ve lived in both worlds for such a long time.
Now let’s have a look at the West Germans. The typical West German was and is absolutely not interested in what happened or happens in East Germany. According to our statistics over 70% of West Germans never visited East Germany in the forty years of its existence. Of those 30% who visited the East, you have to deduct all the visitors and students who got government funds for a trip to West Berlin on the condition that they also visit East Berlin, for an hour or two. Now if you deduct all those sponsored visitors, you are looking at a rather small percentage of the West German population who really visited the East. For most West Germans, East Germany was some boring, uninteresting, foreign country. Even our own politicians and diplomats knew next to nothing about the East. I know what I’m talking about.
On the other hand the East Germans had an overwhelming interest in West Germany, be it the politics, lifestyle, especially the goods and prices, the entertainment, etc. Almost everyone in East Germany watched West German TV. In my opinion, they had an almost unhealthy preoccupation with West Germany.
Sadly enough, the East Germans assumed the West Germans were interested in them as much as they were interested in the West Germans. The Wall came down and to their painful disappointment they slowly discovered that this was a big mistake.
I’m too old now, but some of my younger colleagues are working in the former East Germany. Since they are from the former West they get a special bonus for working there. The bonus is called a “hardship bonus.” A hardship bonus is a special bonus for someone who works in an African country, for instance.
I do think that says a lot about how the West Germans look at the East Germans.
Horst K., German, New York, Retired Businessman
Well, I want to make my point very clear: I don’t care about the so-called problems of the Germans, “German social conditions,” etc. What does that mean? Pseudophilosophical blah, blah. Bullshit, to be quite frank.
I don’t understand all the big talk about German reunification. On that subject I have a very clear position. A German reunification without the lost territories in the East is no unification. You can’t just write off East Prussia, Silesia, Königsberg, Sudeten. What are those politicians talking about in the Reichstag in Berlin? What united Germany are they celebrating?
They could not even find a German architect to rebuild the Reichstag, they had to drag one over from England.
I left Germany and came to Brooklyn in 1953. It’s not that I feel at home in the United States, but where should I go? I was so fed up after the war with all those Germans who turned into “democratic citizens” overnight; the streets were all of a sudden filled with German democrats.
You should listen to us when we sing with strong voices “Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott,” here in our German church in Brooklyn on Sundays, then you will get a sense of what Germany once was, a powerful nation in the heart of Europe. But look at the Germans now. The Germans are without aim and purpose. They are only interested in Konsum, Konsum, Konsum. All my hope is with the new German generation, the very young generation.
Herr M., East German, Teacher, sixty-two
Yes, I’m still teaching, no I did not work for the Stasi, no I was not against the party and the government, never. Disappointed I was, yes, many things should have been changed, but the new political system we have now isn’t much better. Look at my students now: they have no vision, they aim for nothing. Discipline is an unknown word to them. That was very different in East Germany. I should have retired when West Germany took over East Germany, that was a mistake, but I like to teach.
Of course, it is wonderful that we have freedom and we are free to travel, but I try to navigate around West Germany; for them we are second-class citizens only, they’re amazed that we know how to eat with knives and forks.
They’re so arrogant. What have they achieved that we haven’t?
After 1945, after the war, the Americans helped them to their feet. Economy, politics, everything came from the Americans. They were just lucky. The war was lost by all Germans.
I don’t complain, we lost the war, there is a price to pay, but the West Germans didn’t pay a price, they were pampered with dollars, the Marshall Plan. We in the East had no dollars, whatever wasn’t destroyed in the war, the Russians carried away. We had to work at least as hard as the West Germans. They have no idea how different their lives would have been if the Red Army had marched on to Hamburg, for instance. Most of them would have been very orderly “East Germans” for forty years, just like we were. That’s for sure. Just try to explain this to someone in Hamburg—you will be out the door before you realize it. Their knowledge of history is so slight, it is unbelievable. But what can you expect from people who were educated in a school system where it is up to the student whether he will take courses in history or not.
Copyright Uwe Mengel. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.