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Talking Points

Getting over the wall

November 08, 2009

The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, marked the end of the Cold War and the making of a new world map. For those who had come of age in East Germany, the change was both exhilarating and disorienting. Overnight, East Germans had unfettered access to goods, travel and, above all, to ideas that had been denied them for decades. They were reunited with relatives in the West and no longer had to fear inquisitive neighbors and Stasi police. Their national narrative of the good socialist was replaced by a Western narrative of the liberated capitalist. Within a year, their country was gone too, absorbed into a reunified Germany.

In the 20 years since, cranes have remade the Berlin skyline. Street names have been changed and landmarks razed. The warp-speed change was thrilling, but it left many former East Germans feeling exposed as they struggled to keep their balance in a shifting landscape.

"I don't know if you can imagine in 1989, from one day to the next, suddenly none of the old rules of society still applied, and all values were turned on their head," recalled Jana Hensel, author of "After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life That Came Next." "Masses of people were forced to look at themselves from an outside perspective and tell their stories in a different way."

The two countries have been sewn back together over the last two decades, although political and economic development has been uneven throughout the East, and some former East Germans -- particularly the elderly -- remain on the margins of the reunited country. Many people raised in East Germany have fully embraced the West; others are more ambivalent and say they still experience the mauer im kopf -- the wall in the mind. Many feel their histories have been erased in the process of assimilation. A nostalgia for the old East is prevalent enough to have given birth to its own term, ostalgie.

In Berlin and Los Angeles last month, Times editorial writer Marjorie Miller asked former East Germans to talk about their experiences as citizens of a reunited Germany. We are publishing edited transcripts of their remarks.

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Anja Vogel, 36

Anthropologist from Berlin

I was not quite 16 in 1989. My dad was in sales and was allowed to travel out of the country to Africa and other non-communist places, so we were privileged. The trade-off was that we were not allowed to have any West German contacts. My parents were pretty apolitical, critical at times but rather satisfied overall. My dad had a job; we had Western products. When the wall came down, they were both uncertain of what was to come.

I didn't find out until I went to school the next day. Everyone was talking about how they'd opened the wall. The teacher let us out early, and we all decided to go, but we didn't really know where to go. You didn't go to West Berlin, so why would you know where the checkpoints were, especially at that age? A classmate had an aunt in West Berlin, so we followed her, and then at some point you just had to follow the masses.

There were lots of people on the other side, and video cameras. But as exciting as it all was, I tried not to smile because I didn't feel they had freed me from anything. I was happy in my country, and we didn't know about a lot of the atrocities that had happened. We were not afraid at all; it was just a big adventure; we felt they wouldn't keep us or close the border; the border guards were wearing flowers and weren't threatening.

You were allowed to go pick up 100 marks in "welcome money" from the banks, something the West German state offered. We got our money and stopped at the first department store. That was the moment when I said, OK, this is what's different. I bought two stuffed dogs, one pink and one blue, and gave them to my parents for their nightstands.

I didn't have much contact with West Germans in the early years. At that age, you mostly stayed in your district. And, in West Berlin, you felt weird that people always were observing you, saying, "I can detect East Germans by their shoes, by their hair, by their dialect." In West Berlin, a dialect was by social class, but in the East, the dialect crossed through all social strata.

One of my first trips abroad was to England in 1991, a little more than a year after the wall. There I had a guide from Frankfurt who was the first Westerner I really got to know. She showed me their style, certain things. Then I spent a year in Baltimore as an au pair. I've always wanted to be hip, and I didn't want people to have an impression of me without knowing me.

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