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Is Germany really united 30 years after the fall of the Wall?

A new study has highlighted major concerns of eastern Germans, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Is Germany really united 30 years after the fall of the Wall?
A weathered sign for an eastern German community initiative in Magdeburg. Photo: DPA

More than 40 percent of east Germans believe freedom of speech has deteriorated or hardly changed at all since the days of the communist GDR (German Democratic Republic).

That’s the result of a representative study commissioned by Zeit newspaper and carried out by the Berlin Institute of Policy Matters. 

The research aims to highlight how eastern Germans feel about reunification, three decades after the Berlin Wall fell.

“All in all the mood is bad,” said Zeit in their article about the findings of the study. 

“Something is going wrong. 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, disillusionment and disappointment prevails in the east of the country.”

READ ALSO: 10 things you never knew about German reunification

The study, which involved interviewing 1,029 people in the five eastern German states and in Berlin, found a widespread feeling of scepticism about how Germany has developed since 1989. 

The Berlin Wall opened on November 9th, 1989, after months of unrest and peaceful demonstrations. It ended 28 years of division between the GDR and West Germany. 

It paved the way for reunification which took place officially on October 3rd, 1990. Germans receive a national holiday on the Day of Unity.

But studies over the years show there are still problems bubbling beneath the surface.

This can also be seen in the way many eastern Germans in particular are turning away from mainstream parties and looking to anti-establishment groups, such as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).


Zeit found a clear majority of respondents – 58 percent – feel they are not better protected from state arbitrariness today compared to the days of East Germany. 

The study also found less than half of eastern Germans (48 percent) believe that democracy in Germany works well. 

There appears to be a strong feeling that eastern Germans are under-appreciated. 

A sign in Wolmirstadt, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: DPA

A huge 80 percent of respondents say the west has not sufficiently appreciated the east's achievements since reunification – and that’s including younger east Germans, who did not experience the 1990s themselves. 

A total of 61 percent of eastern Germans say leadership positions in business are too rarely occupied by people from the east, and 56 percent are dissatisfied with what they perceive as a low number of federal authorities based in the east. 

Yet 54 percent of eastern Germans said the standard of living had improved since the days of the GDR, indicating that many parts of life have improved.

When comparing the 2019 results with a study Zeit commissioned in 2000, however, the negative mood is clearly getting worse.

In 2000, 67 percent of eastern Germans said their hopes of reunification had largely been fulfilled; in 2019, that figure has dropped to 52 percent. 

Whereas in 2000, 74 percent said that freedom of expression had improved compared to the GDR era, in 2019 it was only 59 percent. Satisfaction with school education and social justice has fallen, as has the number of of those who “feel comfortable in society” (only 26 percent say they feel more comfortable than in GDR times).

READ ALSO: Talkin' bout my Generation: What unity means to eastern Germans

“These are numbers that are hard to grasp at first glance,” writes Zeit.

“The reprisals, the Stasi, the Wall – has all been forgotten? Has the memory of the dictatorship's injustice really faded that much?”

However, experts point out that the closure of East Germany-based firms after the fall of the Wall, the loss of jobs and financial security felt like a betrayal to many people in the east, contributing to a feeling of insecurity. 

And Germany has been going through a hugely turbulent political time. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to keep borders open in Germany during the height of refugee crisis in 2015, “without any restrictions, uncontrolled and without debate and a vote in the Bundestag has been perceived by many people as arbitrary state action – and the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees increasingly as a threat,” said Richard Hilmer, head of Policy Matters and the ZEIT study.

“And not only in the east,” he added.

Meanwhile, for many citizens life in the GDR was fulfilling. Zeit points out that for lots of eastern Germans, the Stati is not the first thing that comes to mind when they think of their former country.

However, it should be noted that the age of eastern Germans does play a role. The younger the respondents, the more critical their attitude towards the GDR tends to be.

Eastern Germans' voices not being heard

The study illuminates that eastern Germans are frustrated, believing their voice isn't heard, and they feel they don’t get to play a role in shaping Germany.

A total of 70 percent said they are unhappy that too little “consideration is given to the opinion of the people in east Germany”.

READ ALSO: 'The wounds still hurt today' despite progress: 28 years of German unity

There are some issues where dissatisfaction is particularly strong: 67 percent of east Germans are unhappy with the development of unequal wages in the east and west, while 68 percent are dissatisfied with pensions.

Meanwhile, 83 percent of those questioned are in favour of an ‘eastern quota’ for managerial positions in the business sector and 82 percent would like to see that quota in politics to increase representation.

According to a study by the University of Leipzig, less than five percent of managers in politics, business, law and science in Germany as a whole come from eastern states.

Sociologist Raj Kollmorgen believes the situation could be transformed with policies, but that eastern Germans can also do something about their situation by not seeing themselves as victims. 

“We east Germans must not see democracy only as a service enterprise that solves problems and fulfils desires,” he said. 

Instead, Kollmorgen said, eastern Germans must enter (political) parties, found associations, use the possibilities of freedom and democratic participation for themselves. “The east Germans”, he says, “have to shake the power relations themselves.”

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‘All you need is love’: How the Beatles brought a couple on two sides of the Berlin Wall together

The Beatles famously sang "All you need is love." For Hans and Uschi Kriz, living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, both love and grit were necessary for starting their lives together.

'All you need is love': How the Beatles brought a couple on two sides of the Berlin Wall together
Hans and Uschi while they were dating in the Seventies. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz

Like many people from Berlin, the lives and love story of Hans and Uschi Kriz were shaped by the Berlin Wall, which fell 31 years ago on November 9th, 1989. I first met Hans and Uschi when I lived with their son’s family as part of a German language program.

I spent Sunday afternoons at their house having lunch, playing games, and exploring their beautiful gardens. I decided to catch up with them recently to learn more about their family history – and how the Beatles brought them together when Berlin was a divided city. 

Journey to East and West Berlin

Hans and Uschi look back fondly on the many photo albums documenting their life together. Photo by author.

Hans Kriz was born in 1949 in Regensburg in Bavaria to German refugees from Poland and former Czechloslovakia who, like many ethnic Germans, had to flee from their homes after World War II. His parents met in a refugee camp near Regensburg and got married shortly after. 

Uschi was born to two German parents in Ahrensfelde in Brandenburg in 1952, an area that was already under control of the then Soviet Union and very close to East Berlin.  

Both Hans and Uschi showed an early disregard for involving themselves in the predominant political movements of their times.  

READ ALSO: Six things you need to know about the Berlin Wall

She was initially the only child in her school class that was not a part of the Junge Pioniere, or the “Young Pioneers,” a subdivision of the larger youth movement Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ). 

Her first-grade teacher then came to her home to encourage her parents to let her join so that she could participate in the many activities run by the organisation at school. Although they were anti-Communist, they allowed Uschi to participate.

This group, similar to scouting clubs and meant for children ages six to 14, was the extent of her political involvement in the GDR. She was six years old at the time: “What did I know of the political side?,” she remembered.

Banner aHans was working as a young adult at the German Red Cross as a paramedic when he was approached by the German army and asked to do the same job as a soldier.  

Hans was working as a young adult at the German Red Cross as a paramedic when he was approached by the German army and asked to do the same job as a soldier.

He did not want to be a part of the military and found a way to ‘flee’ to West Berlin, where the occupying powers did not allow the German army to exist. 

Thus, Hans and Uschi both found themselves in Berlin — he in the West, she in the East. 

A shared love of radio

Uschi had grown up watching Western television at home, and her love of beat music followed. Western beat music was officially banned in the GDR in 1965 and the signal from American radio stations in West Germany was suppressed.  

However, Uschi and many others were still able to find a signal from the BBC and loyally sat by the radio every week to hear the program “Eine Kleine Beatmusik” at 9 pm. 

Hans also listened to the program and decided that he would love to meet young people in the GDR who also loved Beatmusik to learn about their lives behind the Berlin Wall. He wrote a letter to the BBC in London, asking them to broadcast his address and request. They agreed. 

READ ALSO: Berlin Wall fall: 'It was like Easter, Christmas and NYE rolled into one.'

For two weeks there was no answer. Then, Hans received a box full of letters, probably from “everyone who heard it in the whole GDR,” he speculates.

At first he thought he would write back to all of them, but he realised that he must choose a few to answer; Uschi’s was one of the letters he randomly selected. 

“I wanted to connect with a Beatles fan from West Berlin,” she explained.  

Love and music across the border 

Thus began their relationship over a shared love of the BBC, Beatmusik, and the Beatles in 1969. 

The letters they exchanged began as a friendly discussion about music and their lives on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Uschi was happy living in the GDR at the time. She had her friends, her family, a garden, and her education. 

Hans would visit her as often as possible, even though doing so was difficult with the high fees and strict rules to return to the border by midnight.

Hans and Uschi's photo book shows many of the famous sites of divided Berlin. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz. 

Over time, they fell in love and decided to get married. Uschi remembers how risky this choice was for her: “I still had a lot of questions. What was the living situation?…I couldn’t meet his family.” It is “very complicated when one is blind and in love,” she said.   

Hans arranged for a lawyer in the West to help Uschi obtain a pass to leave East Berlin. She was working at the library of the Naturkundemuseum in Berlin when she received an unexpected phone call telling her that her pass was ready and where and when to pick it up. 

“Basically, one could say the GDR practically sold me to the West,” she explained. 

Only four weeks later on July 20th, 1975, she joined Hans in the West. Many dates are blurred in her memory, but Uschi said, “I know this one exactly.” 

They honeymooned in London, in honour of the BBC. 

Watched by the Stasi?

I asked them whether or not they felt the GDR Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, was monitoring their correspondence from 1969-1975.

Hans answered without hesitation: “I have a very thick Stasi file.” 

The file revealed that he was followed by members of the Stasi in both East and West Berlin. 

Uschi said she has also read her file, but much of it was nonsense to her: “I don’t understand it at all.”  

READ ALSO: How Germans are reconstructing Stasi files from millions of fragments 

The Mauerfall 

One of the photos in the Kriz family album shows a view of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz with the barbed wire of the Berlin Wall in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz. 

Hans was near Checkpoint Charlie working the night shift for his job at Axel Springer when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.

He returned to their home in Frohnau and woke Uschi, who like many slept through the surprise “Mauerfall.” She had worked a long day and was so sleepy that she didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until she saw the television coverage the next morning that she realised what had happened. 

Both Hans and Uschi were delighted when the capital of the reunified government returned to Berlin. 

I asked them if they still experience the Mauer im Kopf, or “Wall in the head,” that many German politicians and intellectuals describe as existing to this day. 

Hans immediately answered “Yes,” while Uschi said, “The Wall fell quickly for me.” 

She said that many people still view differences between the East and West very strongly. 

“My neighbour says I’m a Wossi, more Wessi [West German] than Ossi [East German],” she said, “I feel like more of an Ossi.” 

However, Uschi always viewed Berlin as one city, even when the wall still existed. She never thought of it as the capital city of the GDR, regardless of what the state authorities said. 

“I’ve always seen Berlin as one, Berliners together. For me, Berlin was always Berlin.” 

Remembering the Wall 

In Frohnau, right along the border of Brandenburg in northern Berlin, one can visit the Postenweg, the former path of the Wall that has been converted to an open bicycle path. There are still Wachturms, or ‘watch towers,’ standing. 

Hans and Uschi's son helps chip off some of the remaining Wall in Frohnau after its fall. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz.

Both Hans and Uschi wish that more parts of the Berlin Wall were left in place, “Perhaps even in front of the Brandenburg Gate,” said Hans. They worry that young people have no idea where the Wall was and therefore forget the history. 

Hans sighs, then quoted the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.”