Two nations, two cultures, two worlds. Friends, families, and lovers divided. Overnight. On 13 August 1961, the erection of a wall began what would forever change not only the history of Germany but of the entire world. 28 years after, the infamous wall, the Berlin Wall, came down: the nation was finally reunited. This month, October 2020, Germany – and German Expats all over the world – celebrate.
Andrea Boschetto, one of DiM’s current interns, is Italian. He speaks German fluently, has a keen interest in and has studied Germany’s language and culture intensively. Andrea reflects on this impactful event, its consequences and whether “Ossis” and “Wessis” are indeed united.
Two completely different German systems
It all started soon after the end of World War II in 1949, when Germany was literally divided into two different countries, the German Democratic Republic – or Deutsche Demokratische Republik, a.k.a. DDR – and the Federal Republic of Germany – or Bundesrepublik Deutschland, a.k.a. BRD. DDR, which was later simply dubbed East Germany, was formally governed by the former Soviet Union. BRD, which became known as West Germany, was a close American ally.
As simple as that. Apparently. Hadn’t been for the fact that those two blocks, which had resulted from the events of the Cold War, couldn’t be more different from one another. The “Soviet-German” Democratic Republic was, despite its name, what many regarded as a socialist dictatorship promoting a model where all political dissidents were closely monitored, silenced or even arrested by public authorities and all major businesses were state-owned. The Federal Republic of Germany instead was based on a full-fledged capitalistic economic model with competition at its core.
On two opposite sides. Literally & figuratively.
The two models were too different to coexist peacefully and when thousands of people began flocking from East to West Germany in search of a better future, a wall was built to separate the two geographically and ideologically opposite sides. It had a major side effect though: it disrupted the existence of an entire nation.
The wall came down November 1989, but, if you think that Ossis and Wessis, as Eastern and Western Germans are informally named, have since then disappeared, you might want to think again! Even today, 30 years after the country’s reunification, being Ossi or Wessi often means belonging to two quite distinct microcosms. This is particularly true for East Germans. Despite kissing the German Democratic Republic goodbye a long time ago, many Ossis tend to see their “eastness” as a distinguishing feature.
Angela Merkel: proud to be from the East
One of the first and probably also one of the most meaningful examples that come to mind is that of Angela Merkel. In 2019, during a public discussion with the citizens of Schwedt, once the main centre of East Germany’s oil industry, the first female German Chancellor declared: “I’m East German and I’m proud of it!”.
The division between East and West, which seemed to be something of the past, had already come under the spotlight after the 2017 political elections. In most former eastern regions, coping with unemployment, growing migration flows, social instability and conflict, the party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), described by many as ultranationalist, right-wing populist, Eurosceptic, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic, emerged as the absolute winner. AfD’s victory was one of the factors that brought back the old cliché Besserwessi vs. Jammerossi–literally translated West German know-it-all vs. East German moaner.
East German Melanie Stein, 34, wasn’t quite fond of that label. In an attempt to portray East Germans in a better light, she decided to open Wir sind der Osten, a website showcasing the best and the brightest East German minds and their achievements, giving voice to a segment of the country that often tends to be forgotten, as author Marko Martins writes in his latest book.
West Germans Know-it-all weren’t popular
The “West German know-it-all vs. East German moaner” cliché, however, is not the only one that shapes the sometimes tentative relationships between Wessis and Ossis. There are, of course, many others. Most of them are an invaluable source of comedy and regularly make the topic of hilarious web content. Among the most popular genres are jokes about socialism and shortages of common consumer goods, which were extremely frequent in the German Democratic Republic.
Are you keen on an example? Here it is:
Guest: “A cup of coffee, please!”
Waiter: “Turkish or filtered?”
Guest: “Why, filtered, of course.”
Waiter: “Then you’ll have to bring your own filter paper for now.”
Lists of funny things or situations that might happen when East and West Germans meet each other are equally common. Speaking of funny things, it appears that when East German parents come to visit, they usually want to spend the night in their family members’ home, even if that means that they have to sleep in a sleeping bag. Contrary to their Western counterparts, hotels are usually not an option!
A whole universe lost
The rediscovery of East German identity also takes the form of a more or less explicit Ostalgie, a nostalgic fascination for the former DDR that regularly manifests itself in all forms of cultural revivals. The DDR Museum, for instance, collects any sort of object that would otherwise end up in landfills. Old milk bottles, chocolate boxes, supermarket trolleys, vintage radios.
Those are only a few powerful symbols of a universe that no longer exists. Celebrating Reunification probably means, among other things, acknowledging how important symbols are – be they Eastern or Western – and how crucial it is to make them interact with one another purposefully.
Copyright Deutsche in Melbourne 2020