Today is the 3rd of October, a German national holiday celebrating the country’s reunification in 1990. The pictures we’ve all seen of Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall or crying with joy as they easily cross over into then West Germany are memorable. The images seared into my 11-year-old mind as I watched the news knowing THIS was history being made might even have sparked my enthusiasm for all things German.
But back then and even now I understand that I don’t really understand what it must have been like: to suddenly against all expectation be free, free to say what you think, free to do what you choose. We who have never lived in such a way cannot truly empathize, even former West Germans. My (West) German husband Patrick was young enough to only have known a geteiltes Deutschland (divided Germany) and never considered it a possibility that it could be different. In fact the DDR (East Germany) was to him and his generation just another foreign country, like Austria or France, only harder to visit. Why should those two countries be united?
Of course others of an older generation who remembered a Germany that included those eastern parts hoped to one day see the country together again. But, as Patrick pointed out, some around here hoped to one day return to their land in West Prussia, what is now Poland. That’s a completely different story, but the point is the borders of Germany had changed so much over the last hundred years that to the younger generation West and East Germany was it, the reality of now. Again why should it change?
When things in the East began to shift with the Montagsdemonstrationen (Monday demonstrations) it was, for those West Germans, like suddenly discovering the existence of a half-brother. (Here I need to add not for all Germans– there were enough people on both sides of the “wall” working towards a unified Germany.) Imagine: the circumstances of how this brother came to be a part of your family are by definition not pleasant, but eventually you deal with the pain and get to a point where you can open your heart and mind to this new possibility. You decide to invite him to the next family get-together and discover, against the list of negatives you have saved in your mind, that this half-brother of yours is quite interesting and even…lovely. Suddenly your family gatherings become fuller and breathe with different energy all because this half-brother you didn’t even know existed a year ago takes part.
The West Germans knew of this person, but didn’t know they were related. The West Germans knew the circumstances in which this person lived were not pleasant and even harmful. But it still came (for some, I am never talking for ALL) as a surprise and maybe partly shock that this person claimed to be family and wanted to be invited to their democratic party.
And yet they let him come. Not without reservations and not without needing time to wrap their minds around how this half-brother came to be. Even 24 years after welcoming him home, he is still called die neue Bundesländer (the new federal states). Income levels continue to reveal discrepancy between the brothers, as well as higher levels of unemployment in the east. There is still work to do in welcoming this brother – they’ve discovered by now there is no “half” about it – fully into the family.
But we can celebrate today as a family gathering where everyone who belongs has been invited. Germany is richer and more interesting because all of Germany has come home.