How do the ideas of community and belonging that youth and senior citizens draw from 1989 differ, and what does this mean for East German identity? We have conducted two oral history projects with Millennials (aged 19-29) and senior citizens (aged 80-95) in Eastern Germany. Both groups referred to the Wende, the period around German reunification, in their individual biographies, either in the form of personal experience or reproduced stories. This made us wonder how our interlocutors have identified with the Wende and the post-1989 transformation and the role that group affiliations have played in this. Our aim here is not to offer a systematic comparison, but to show how, unconsciously and similarly, members of the young and old generations from Eastern Germany search for meaning when referring to 1989.
How 1989 makes the “East” different from the “West”
The Wende appears in our oral history interviews as a characteristically East German experience of transformation. Those who have lived through it themselves associated it with fundamental changes that affected their lives and life chances. Those born after the Wende constantly retold and upheld it as a mark of belonging. Being — or rather feeling — “East German” thus implicitly means feeling connected to other people who learned their values and attitudes during state socialism and later shared the experience of the change in systems. One eighty-seven-year-old interviewee used this narrative when comparing the “before” and “after” of 1989:
There used to be a completely different kind of community [...] that wasn't just forced, there was solidarity. For example, when someone else took your children to kindergarten. That doesn't exist anymore today.
One of the interviewed Millennials confirmed the same narrative by identifying the East German society as familiar and today's West German society as foreign. She described the attributes of “us” and “the others” as follows:
I always enjoyed the community that we somehow had. And I don't know, in West German places I always feel a bit foreign. It's all so disconnected, they all have their high fences to their neighbors.
Later in the interview, she emphasized how she, in contrast, had learned to “understand challenges as a joint task of community”.
More than thirty years after the fall of communism, East German families are still talking about the experience of it. Not surprisingly, subjective perspectives on the transformation have emerged both among the young and the old. In her work on the development of autobiographical memory, psychologist Robyn Fivush concludes that it is mostly “through sharing the events of our lives with others” and “through understanding how others think and feel about the past” that we develop a sense of self through time. We have observed similar narrational patterns about the transformation among our interviewees: they appear as protagonists, framing their post-1989 narratives as sense-making experiences in their biographies. This might just be an inherent characteristic of autobiographical storytelling. We were surprised, however, that our interviewees gave themselves agency in very much the same ways. According to ethnologist Silke Meyer, “narratives attribute roles to their protagonists and thereby position their authors within a social group or society rather than simply carrying information”.
When memory becomes post-memory
Memory can be transmitted through relationships and passed on from generation to generation. There is even a term for this phenomenon: post-memory. As Marianne Hirsch highlights in her book The Generation of Post-Memory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, we find post-memories in moments when young people carry traumas and “remember” the experiences of those who came before, growing up with the stories, images and behaviors of previous generations. An example of post-memory is this twenty-four-year-old’s reference to her parents’ experiences:
They are happy that there was the Wende, but not how it was implemented. And I think many people in our family feel the same way, they felt very absorbed by the Wende.
That the Wende could be seen as a key event transmitted through family memory and manifested in post-memory is also illustrated by an interview with a twenty-six-year-old. Her parents' stories about losing their jobs because of the Wende very much influenced her. Instead of creating a traumatic collective memory, however, her parents' perseverance forged a distinct intergenerational solidarity within her, as well as confidence, resilience, and self-determination. She gives the story an optimistic and positive reinterpretation:
If they made it despite challenging times, I will somehow also make my way, no matter what professional or economic challenges may come my way.
Both Millennials and senior citizens position themselves as part of an East German group by demarcating themselves from “the West”. Having been born and raised in “the East” and therefore being supposedly different to the “people from the West”, the Millennials and senior citizens have developed a common life reality, such as through knowledge about the German Democratic Republic and the Wende. They are thus connected by common behavioral codes, habits, and language. As sociologists Heinz Abels and Alexandra König point out, the persistence of a collective history in the present through the incorporation of social practices and certain kinds of knowledge by the individual, is an unconscious process. When assigning themselves to the East German group, young people also accepted a shared history with the older generation. In reproducing stories of their parents and grandparents, young people also gave agency to their family members and former generations, and they play this back themselves by using action-rich words such as “perseverance” or “managing/achieving”.
A living memory discourse
The more we listened to and talked with people about their experiences and thoughts on the history of German division, the less it appeared to us as history, but rather as a current topic that moved us personally. We feel that dealing with this topic is an enriching contribution to intergenerational dialogue. That is why we suggest that the discussion on the significance of the Wende and personal biographies should be encouraged even more. Furthermore, we maintain that everyone may remember the Wende in their own way. Remembrance culture enriches us in its diversity. Another focus of our reflection is the idea of a particular East German attitude, a so-called “transformational skill” which can be conveyed by East Germans narrating their biographies to their children and grandchildren and could be helpful in other life situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, as the sociologist Raj Kollmorgen has suggested. The stories told retrospectively in a positive way are an encouraging perspective for public discourse culture in Germany. Not only did we notice that our interviewees became more aware of their transformation expertise, we also became aware ourselves that the transformation is an experience shared by all Germans. An even broader discourse which understands the process as one that concerns us all would enrich German society as a whole.
Maren Hachmeister is a research fellow at the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies in Dresden since February 2020. In 2018, she completed her doctoral thesis on the Red Cross in Poland and Czechoslovakia at the LMU Munich. Since 2020, she is a member of the COST Action "Who cares in Europe?". Her current post-doctoral project is about volunteering and care in the three-border region during the post-1989 transformation."
Margarethe Finger was student assistant at the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies in Dresden since September 2020 until September 2021. In June 2021 she finished the program „Philosophy & Economics“ at the University of Bayreuth writing her Bachelor's thesis on East German identity among Millennials with reference to Pierre Bourdieu's habitus theory. Furthermore, she is working in projects which promote democracy and dialogue in the civil society sector.