East Germany after the wall fell?
August 26, 2007 6:36 PM   Subscribe

What was East Germany like immediately after the Wall fell? (Lives of Others spoiler alert)

What did people in East Germany do in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall? (And does the fall of the wall equate with the fall of the GDR government?) Can you recommend a book (preferably nonfiction) on the subject? And what's it like there now--is it assimilated?

Near the end of The Lives of Others we see some Stasi bureaucrats using steam to open letters. One of them hears on the radio that the wall has fallen. They arise from their desks and calming walk out. Would they have come back to work?
posted by neuron to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I can't recommend any books but a colleague who was brought up in the East German system has told me that initially there was complete elation (as there was in the West). The East Germans fully expected that their lifestyle would immediately match their much richer western cousins. This of course did not happen. What did happen is that the divide between rich and poor became very apparent very fast as some made it and some didn't. Oddly, this led to some nostalgia for the old regime - at least then everybody had the same (very little) stuff. Currently, there has developed a kind of prejudice against workers from "the east" -- they are generally perceived as not as hard working (but then the west Germans don't see ANYone as hard working as they!).
posted by bluesky43 at 7:10 PM on August 26, 2007

Perhaps another film you might want to see is Goodbye Lenin.
posted by cazoo at 7:11 PM on August 26, 2007

I knew a Polish guy how was in East Berlin at the time. I asked him this same question. He said it was absolutely unbelievable. People were in pyjamas, getting drunk in the street. He got on a streetcar full of drunk people- the driver tried to tell them to not to drink on the streetcar- and someone just handed him a beer and told him to shut up.

What kills me though, is that everybody was eating bananas. Apparently, you could not get bananas before, and everyone just got ahold of as many bananas as they could and started devouring them wherever they stood! Surreal.
posted by solongxenon at 7:18 PM on August 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

guy how = guy who

/welcome to Previewville
posted by solongxenon at 7:19 PM on August 26, 2007

Definitely rent Goodbye Lenin - it's about that period and the tragi-comic steps a son takes to preserve the illusion for his bedridden mother that the wall and regime remain. It's full of marvelous little details about quotidien life before and after.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:37 PM on August 26, 2007

I loved that banana story and found this.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:41 PM on August 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great stuff here too. I'll stop now.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:48 PM on August 26, 2007

Sorry for the momentary derail, but thanks CL for that oddly fascinating article. I had no idea about the importance and symbolism of bananas to Germans. Would make a great front page post if you ever have the time.
posted by pandaharma at 8:12 PM on August 26, 2007

I was there as a child 17 months after the wall went down (i still have a piece). What I remember are the orderly campsites I stayed in with my Family: everything in rows, from the showers to the trees.

I also remember my father translating the ever-present public address systems announcing phone calls for 'friend so and so' and my dad explaining that not long ago they would have said 'comrade so and so'.

Forgive the odd comments, but I was 7 at the time.
posted by markovitch at 8:29 PM on August 26, 2007

Yes, thanks CL- that was hilarious.

Oh, and perhaps my correction should have read-

/welcome to SpellCheckpointCharlie !
posted by solongxenon at 9:31 PM on August 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was in Berlin a few times during the summer of 1990.

There were touts selling stacks of Ostmarks in front of the Zoo.

Fragments of the wall in little plastic bags, sold by street peddlers. At Checkpoint Charlie, sections of the wall set up, and, for a fee, you could rent a hammer and bash it yourself.

The wall was down, but there were guards at the Brandenburg gate. A visa (just a paper ticket, no stamp) was 5 marks. A few days later, the guards and visas were gone.

Blocks-long lines of people for each cash machine, as they got their couple-thousand marks each. Ostmarks gone.

The reopened subway stations with new paint right over decades of dirt, so the paint was highly textured.

And how gray the east was--like paint was anti-communist or something.
posted by hexatron at 1:47 AM on August 27, 2007

Having heard about how much the Ossies yearned for exotic fruit and particularly bananas, some Wessies lined up at the wall and gave out bananas to the Ossies coming in. Some of the Ossies were upset about this, and there was talk of "Ostaffen", the East-apes. This is how I heard the banana story told. It's true that the Ossies craved exotic fruit however.

I know a guy here who was a relatively loyal East German as a young man. He was camping in Hungary and when he came out of the woods and was on the train back to the DDR with his friends the train porters told them that they should take a different train because you could get out to the West through Austria (this was slightly before the wall fell, initially you could escape over the Hungarian-Austrian border). They shrugged and said they were going back to the DDR. The porters yelled at them for being idiots. This guy told me his general impression of Western culture after being exposed to it he felt it insulted his intelligence. He said people read more in the East.

Some Ossies left cars and homes behind. There were literally just cars sitting around to be had. A lot of Wessies bought property in the East or actually reclaimed property that their family used to own. I know some Wessies who got a couple of houses out of reunification.

I can't imagine the Stasi bureaucrats just going back to their jobs. The Stasi immediately started burning files and somewhere, I forget where, the local townspeople saw the smoke and went in and stopped them by force. There's a depot somewhere with a big pile of half-burnt Stasi files that people are still trying to decipher.

The fall of the wall does not exactly equate with the fall of the government. The "fall" in a broad sense describes a large protracted collapse, people fleeing over other borders, East Germany selling their political prisoners to the West to stay financially afloat...and after the wall literally fell, the people elected a new East German government. I think a year later the states officially merged.

In the late 40s America had tried to get the Wessies to make a constitution, but the population insisted that they wouldn't vote in a constitution without the East...so the current constitution here has always been called Grundgesetz instead of Verfassung (constitution), something like: Basic Law -- it was intended as provisional. The idea was that they would write a real constitution when Germany was united. Well, 40 years later the politicians had sort of changed their mind and wanted to keep their constitution instead of asking Ossies for their input. Some of the Ossie resistance groups that had come to prominence at the end had actually prepared input and were seriously looking forward to negotiating some kind of common ground with the West. They were a little late to the party, the West liked its 40-year-old working constitution and to get around having to revise it, they absorbed each province of East Germany separately rather than merging with East Germany as a whole...such that legally, in a way, there was no reunification and thus no need to revise anything.

I've translated for the German Historical Museum so I have a lot of information here in my computer which I am obviously not allowed to publish. But if you're interested in specific stuff you can email me and I can do digital searches for key-words and maybe tell you more stuff.
posted by creasy boy at 6:31 AM on August 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Can't tell you about 1990 but until a few years after the wall came down (maybe until 96/96) East Berlin was full of illegal bars and discotheques. These places were just bizarre! A techno/rave disco in an underground location that was supposed to be the restroom for the streetcar. Many discos were located in basements. There was a bar without any entrance, you had to knock on a window, the window opened and they put a chair outside that you could climb in through the windows, places that just opened in apartments like the famous "living room".
Basically the whole district of Prenzlauer Berg was full of bars, nightclubs and so on. Of cause most of them without any license. The police had other problems during this time of transition so why bother with the nightlife as long as there is no violence?
If have seen a bit of the world and I think it is no exaggeration to say that Berlin was the most exiting city in the world between 90 and 95.
Illegal places still exists today in Berlin but on a much smaller scale and the police is eager to close them down. They move often to avoid the police raids. You may even need a password to be allowed in. Different times I guess.

posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:04 AM on August 27, 2007


Getting Down in Berlin's Cellars
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:31 AM on August 27, 2007

I was thirteen when that happened (I'm a west german) and we stood around in west berlin watching a bazillion east germans trying to get their 'welcome cash' of 100 Deutsche Mark, which was about fifty bucks. most blew through it within a day. we saw tons of people walking home with tv's, stereos, and even more get sozzled beyond recognition. it was a huge party. we, even us kids, had been afraid this was going to end up in a massacre. those east german guards were after all notorious for shooting people trying to get past that wall and the east german army, the NVA, was a capable force.

the sentiment was one of massive relief. all the fear had fallen off and was replaced by access to a society where everything you previously had to fight for was there to be had. mercedes and all the other geman automakers had a gigantic boom the following three years (until a massive recession hit) because every easterner wanted a western car.

think of it as spring break and everyone's going. it was the end of a very tense time.

there are some really good documentaries done by the german public television networks - ARD, ZDF and those stations. I wonder if those are available in english.

here is a short german segment with original footage. you probably won't understand what they're talking about but the expressions on those faces will do the trick.
posted by krautland at 9:37 AM on August 27, 2007

here we go, one of the documentaries I mentioned made it onto youtube. subtitled even.

this is a nice video, too and this is the opening of a west german special newscast that evening.

(I remember trying to mail a letter to germany while living in london in 1991. the guy behind the royal mail counter asked me whether I'd want it delivered to east or west germany and I threw a tantrum.)
posted by krautland at 9:51 AM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

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