Germany is still a divided country. But the division does not mark the borders of the former East and West Germany. It separates the people who are old enough to remember the two German nations and those who are too young to. Being born in 1969 in then West Germany, I belong to the former group. I recall vividly those TV pictures of army parades on Karl-Marx-Allee with German Democratic Republic (GDR) party officials in fur-coats watching on sternly. Today, living in former East Berlin, I now cycle along this boulevard. At that time East Germany, for us, was a foreign country. When our politicians spoke about the need for reunification it was a hollow phrase. No one believed it would ever happen.
But then, close to midnight on 9 November, 20 years ago today, brave East Germans got rid of their totalitarian regime – they breached the wall that had divided families, a city, a nation, the world. With their Trabis, tracksuits and perms, for us westerners, these people looked as if they just had stepped out of a time machine from the 1970s. They were as irritated by our swanky cars and condescending manners. We really had to get used to each other. Even today I find myself saying things like, “My street is in East Berlin” or, “The design looks so ‘ostig’”, meaning Eastern-style.
But now a new generation has grown up that doesn’t remember when the wall came down because they were too young or weren’t even born then. These people have never cared whether something was “East” or “West”. Even I can’t tell anymore which side of the divide new pop stars, chat show hosts or politicians are from. And the only ones walking along the street in my neighbourhood where the wall used to be, reading the information signs and entering the posh new visitors’ centre, seem to be Italian tourist groups. For a few days now Germans will talk about the reunification but in a few weeks most will stop thinking about it again. This is good news.
Politics are also beginning to acknowledge that it is time to move on. The new interior minister Thomas de Maizière – who is now in charge of the former new federal states – says the term “Aufbau Ost” (literally to build up the East) is out-dated. He calls for “innovation and smart growth – not only for the east of our country”. Economists say that measures such as “Solidarpakt” – that transfers money from west to east – or “Solidaritätszuschlag” – that collects extra taxes from all Germans to cope with the costs of reunification – will be redundant by 2020 at the latest.
Since 1989 €1.6trn has been sent from west to east Germany. East Berlin is quickly becoming the fancy part of town, with the Gendarmenmarkt, the renovated Neues Museum by David Chipperfield, and the impending rebuilding of the Stadtschloss palace. Eastern cities such as Dresden and Leipzig are now modern hubs of business and culture, boasting both restored old buildings and daring new architecture. Today it’s towns in west Germany that are beginning to look a bit shabby, with bumpy roads and run-down malls.
Germans will have to remind their MPs that reunification can no longer be used as an excuse for dipping into taxpayers’ pockets. East Germany looks far better than anyone would have anticipated in 1989. Now it’s time for all of Germany to foster renewable energy, small businesses and education for the 21st century.