My memories have become others’ history.
Earlier this week I was asked to speak to participants at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy’s UK Meets Germany Forum. Forty young people from Germany, the UK, the US, Ireland and Finland came to Berlin for a programme of lectures and seminars on the economic, political and cultural dimensions of the British-German relationship. My talk was called ‘Walking through the Wall: A Personal History of Berlin’. Why? In part because the organisers had told me that my role was to be ‘der alte Berliner’. The Old Berliner.
Even though in my heart I still feel 24 years old, I have known Berlin for more than three decades. In fact I’ve known three different Berlins: the walled city state of West Berlin where I decided to become a writer and worked with David Bowie; East Berlin – Hauptstadt der DDR -- which I visited dozens of times to explore museums, eat at the Ganymed and picnic by the Müggelsee; and now the reunited city, where Mrs. Cat, Maus and I settled eighteen months ago. But my vivid memories of Berlin’s earlier incarnations were dusty history to the young participants of the ICD forum. To try to bridge the gap between my and their generation, I spoke in my talk about my experience of the Cold War and the fall of the Wall. The audience in turn asked me, ‘What did it feel like to go through Checkpoint Charlie?’ And ‘How did the East German government explain the building of the Wall to its citizens?’ And ‘Did the arts influence West Berlin’s political policies?’ And ‘To what extent did rock ‘n’ roll and American Forces Radio help to break down racial and political barriers in Germany?’
Perhaps the most unexpected question – not least because it came from a young woman who’d grown up in eastern Germany and really is 24 years old – was ‘Can you still tell an Ossi from a Wessi?’
Immediately after the fall of the Wall it wasn’t hard to distinguish the citizens of the two Germanies. All East German women seemed to wear frilly blouses. Their partners sported beige track suits. West Germans males either wore moss green alpine hats or dressed like New York HipHop artists, especially those selling overpriced bananas and overpowered Fords to their neighbours. With reunification the superficial differences became less apparent. Benetton opened shops in Dresden and Leipzig. The Ampelmann -- the little East German traffic light man – invaded the western half of the capital. Westerners rediscovered Spreewald gherkins. Only foreign tourists drove Trabants.
Twenty years on what differences remain to be seen? In terms of physical appearance, none. But I risked suggesting that Germans from the former West still tend to be more competitive, capitalist values having been drummed into them since birth.
‘No way,’ said the young woman, shaking her head. ‘Ossis are more ambitious. To get ahead we had to work against the system, and so extra hard.’
‘Then perhaps Westerners are more likely to question authority.’
Again she shook her head. ‘Westerners are the conformists. It’s us Ossis who rebelled against our government, voting it and East Germany out of existence.’
‘So what do you think?’ I asked her.
‘I believe that in another twenty or thirty years there won’t be any differences. I was four years old when the Wall fell. When my generation passes away we’ll all just be Germans.’
For me, it would be a shame if all the qualities that defined East Germans vanished forever. Perhaps rather than die out, some of those archetypal 'Eastern' and 'Western' characteristics will become enshrined in cliché, such as those long accepted in Germany’s regions. For example, Swabians are hard-working, narrow-minded and unhappy, or so it’s said in the pubs outside of the area. Berliners are renowned grumps. No one from Schleswig-Holstein has a gift for conversation, unlike the people of Cologne who are gregarious and loud. The supposedly dim-witted Ostfriesen are the butt of innumerable jokes (i.e. How can you make a Ostfriesen laugh on a Monday morning? Tell him a joke on the previous Friday). Saxons have such heavy accents that they all sound like Erich Honecker addressing the nation.
So how do you distinguish an Ossi from a Wessi these days? You tell me. Can you list – for us two 24 year olds -- the difference between former East and West Germans? Please post your answers by click the Comments tab below.