This is part 5 “Our Future” of a 5 part series titled Doomed to repeat?: Growing up in East Germany by Petra Foerster (Part 1 – Our History, Part 2 – Our Education, Part 3 – Our Surveillance, Part 4 – Our Resistance)
This is usually where fairy tails end, with “and they lived happily ever after.” It was not that easy for us. There was a period of transition, it took time and a lot of negotiations around what was to happen next. East and West Germany became simply Germany once again, but there was a big economic difference between the two parts. The infrastructure in East Germany had been neglected, roads, bridges, and buildings were not in a good condition. Many of our factories couldn’t compete with West German factories, they were unable to sustain themselves without financial support from the government.
The Treuhandanstalt (Trust Agency) was established and they were supposed to restructure and/or sell the East German, state-owned companies. There were companies and factories that would have been able to survive, and could have been turned into profitable businesses but they still were closed down. After the initial happiness about the reunification East Germany was in for a tough awakening. You have to understand that those people have lived most of their lives in a system in which the government had controlled everything. You didn’t have to worry about health insurance or a pension, as you had been provided for by the government, old-age-poverty was an unknown term, and unemployment rates were incredibly low (due to hidden unemployment, but that’s a different topic). Now suddenly everything had changed and many people felt like being thrown into the deep-end before learning to swim.
It is one thing to request change but being subjected to it at this fast-forward rate took many by surprise. After the initial joy many people felt taken advantage of and neglected, they felt no one really cared about them and there are areas in East Germany that still feel that way. Understandably they have become very wary of the government. Of course, people learned to adapt and to survive, but they didn’t expect the changes to affect them as hard as it did. Most shocking was that the East German currency Ostmark had to be converted into “West money,” which was difficult since the value of the Ostmark was not close to being the same. In the end they decided that 2 Ostmark equal 1 Westmark (Deutsche Mark) which meant that what money some were able to put aside over the years was immediately cut in half while the living costs increased.
To bridge the gap between East and West, and to have financial means available to support East Germany, the German government created the Solidarity Tax in 1991 (btw – everyone has to pay it based on income, not just people in West Germany). Originally it was supposed to be raised for one year only, yet it still exists, even now, more than 30 years later. People in East Germany, naturally, were unable to contribute to the same level as West Germans to the pension fund. Regardless of the fact that they had worked all their lives, the received smaller pensions. East German women, who had worked over 40 years, received smaller pensions than women in West Germany who had worked less. There is, of course, an explanation for that, but it is a bitter pill to swallow after working, often physically hard labour, throughout that 40 years.
There are still many aftereffects that cannot be explained away. One of them is that I and many of my family members are distrustful of authorities and law enforcement. We also don’t trust the media. When talking about politics I learned early on to be very careful what you say and to whom you say it. It lead to me to avoid want to talking about politics. I was still interested, and I envied my classmates who would openly discuss politics in school (after the reunification), many of whom were very opinionated. I always felt scared to say something, to say the wrong things. I still struggle with that and I tend to chose my wording carefully.
Right now, when I follow social media and traditional media this flares up again. I’ve noticed that if you don’t follow the predominantly accepted opinion there are “keyboard warriors” out there ready and willing to take you down. The internet made it so much easier too, because they can hide behind their screens and don’t have to fear any social or physical repercussions, and so they relentlessly destroy people they don’t agree with. An open discourse seems impossible these days, most people are only interested in presenting their side, their facts, but have forgotten how to listen and how to respond in a civilized manner. You don’t need a PhD to have good manners and respect the other person’s opinions and experiences. People are so hung up on shoving their opinion down other peoples’ throats that they don’t see anything else, they have a kind of tunnel vision, focused on “winning” every conversation. Even if you ask questions to get a better understanding of the other person it can escalate quickly, because people nowadays are so fast to declare that they “feel offended.”
I’m German. We are known for not being very diplomatic to begin with, English is my second language and I make mistakes (that happens when you learn another language). That being said, being ESL is not an excuse to offend people, but for Gods’ sake relax, and help us ESL people to find better wording!
In most Western countries we do have freedom of speech, we don’t have to live in fear of our governments arresting us for making a mean joke about the head of state. And still we have become so careful about what to say and it reminds me so much (too much!) of the climate during the Cold War in socialist countries during my youth. It seems that journalism, the objective reporting of events, barely exists anymore. Ever since it switched from paper to online, the media is desperately trying to generate clicks/foot-traffic for their websites by offering lurid headlines to tempt people into clicking. Many reports are one-sided, depending on the demographic they were designed to cater to. When I read the news I have to read different sources just to see where there are points in common in order to get a picture of what actually happened.
I also noticed a certain careful language being used. If you don’t understand why language is important – it is the pattern in which you think. I don’t know about you, but the voices in my head usually argue in German and/or English. Language is how we express our thoughts, that’s why it is so important. Once language is being regulated, it, by extension, also regulates the way we think. When I was a child it was similar – language was used to create positive or negative associations with certain events, objects, or persons.
I miss having an open dialogue without worrying about how I am perceived and if I am being judged. Progress can only be achieved with open and constructive dialogue. It is ok to disagree with a person, but stay respectful about it. Usually there is a reason why and how a person came to their opinion, and that should be acknowledged (maybe even explored). We often think we own the “ultimate truth,” but that is nonsense. We are humans and our perception of the world around us is very subjective and very flawed. You can ask any police officer about the unreliability of witness descriptions regarding suspects – how suspects and events are described vs what the suspect actually looked and what really took place.
When we look back at 2020 we can say, objectively, it was a bad year. I specifically think of reports about police brutality. I’m not saying there is no police brutality, and I agree that it is a terrible thing for people with power to abuse that power, but I noticed headlines like “innocent man shot by police,” and everyone was in uproar and mad at law enforcement officers. Then, a couple of days later, when the bodycam footage was available, we see videos of a person, armed with a knife, charging at a police officer whose only chance to survive was to shoot their attacker. I think what I’m trying to say is – don’t jump to conclusions, wait for more information to be available to have a better idea of what actually happened.
I like living in Canada, it is a very open country. I have a job I like, I found a martial arts community, and met many awesome people. It would be great if it could stay that way, I don’t want to go back to feeling limited and restricted in my thoughts and speech, it took me long enough to break out of that pattern.
Written by: Petra Foerster – UTKM Green Belt