All interviews with 26 contemporary witnesses from Germany’s east and west have now been filmed for the project “Generation 1975 – Mit 14 ins neue Deutschland” (being 14 in the new Germany) which examines whether, using Willy Brandt’s words, what belongs together has really grown together. Christiane Bertram, the junior professor from the University of Konstanz who initiated the project, summarizes: We must talk to each other – about the transformation process after the Wall came down that, for many people in the east of Germany, was downright traumatizing. And also about the fact that, for those from western German states, everything that happened in the eastern states afterwards seemed far away and was not really seen as being part of their own history. Bertram, a historian and educational researcher, will host a panel discussion with two of the interviewees in Berlin on 9 November 2019, the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.
One of the two grew up in a family in Brandenburg that “believed in and lived socialism”, as she herself describes it. Her mother was a teacher, her father an employee of the “Stasi” secret police. Apparently her first word as a child was “socialism”. Similar to many of her generation, she describes a happy childhood in the GDR, where she felt sheltered and enjoyed the sense of community. The other contemporary witness who will be on the podium on 9 November is from the southern state of Baden-Württemberg. The interviewees from the west are either from that German state or from West Berlin. In a video, the man presents a peculiar story. As a teenager, he travelled to the GDR. When choosing postcards to send home, he deliberately selected black-and-white photos: “Because I wanted everything to look really run-down”, he explains in the video.
Traumatic transformation process in the east of Germany
Another contemporary witness, from the east, remembers being in West Berlin after the Wall had come down and seeing bananas being distributed to his compatriots. According to historian Bertram, such memories are representative: “The people in the east felt a condescendence. After 1989, they felt completely left alone.” Many of the 1975 generation experienced the time after the reunification of Germany in their families and neighbourhoods as a traumatic transformation process, even if, as teenagers, they viewed the unexpected Fall of the Wall and the end of the limitations in the GDR more as a personal blessing.
Destroyed life models in the east – considerable distance in the west
Feelings are one thing. It is quite another, that many life plans in the east were destroyed, while this was hardly an issue in the west. “If brown coal mines in eastern Germany are shut down, these days, there are social plans and support for the people who are about to lose their jobs. That was not the case in 1989/90. Hardly anybody in the west really felt for the people in the east who lost their jobs” says Christiane Bertram. Indeed, the contemporary witnesses from Baden-Württemberg seem distanced when talking about the time when they watched TV and saw people from the GDR flocking to the west. We were glad they, too, could now travel, says one contemporary witness. “Wait and see, how that will end”, her grandma had said. Christiane Bertram: “It was known that reunification was perceived differently in the east than in the west. However, I was really surprised that this is still the case, even today”. Also on a personal level. She has always had close contacts to family in the eastern German states and had had the impression that the living conditions had leveled up and everything had normalized. “A result of the study will definitely be that these traumatic wounds are still being felt”.
Mainly positive memories of a childhood in the GDR
Another finding of the study: The interviewees from Berlin and Brandenburg have mainly positive memories of their childhood in the GDR. “The society in the GDR seems to have provided orientation and a feeling of security to the children. And when are children happy? Certainly not, if they can buy everything or can travel anywhere, but when they feel they belong to a community”, says Christiane Bertram. At least as long as they did not recognize the limitations and the ambiguity of the system.
The contemporary witness mentioned above reports that she, a pupils’ representative, was present when two of her classmates, who wanted to join the FDJ, were cajoled into also joining the German-Soviet group “Bund der deutsch-sowjetischen Freundschaft”. The pressure her friends were put under profoundly shook the then teenager, who had previously viewed the GDR positively. This sensitivity for injustice is typical for 13 or 14-year-olds, and opposition stories often start in puberty, as the website www.jugendopposition.de by the Robert-Havemann foundation shows.
A lot of applications
Christiane Bertram is very happy with the progress of the scientific-arts project, a collaboration of the University of Konstanz with the Berlin Wall Foundation, the FernUniversität in Hagen’s archive “Deutsches Gedächtnis”, as well as two video artists. In the spring of 2019, she was looking for interview partners who were born in 1975 in Brandenburg, East or West Berlin or Baden-Württemberg, and received a lot of responses. Ina Rommel and Stefan Krauss, the two video artists, could have interviewed many more than the 26 persons chosen and asked them about their views of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic before and after the Wall came down. Their video installation, in which contemporary witnesses will “communicate” on eight screens with each other, will be shown by the Berlin Wall Foundation in Berlin in the 30th anniversary of the reunification, and afterwards in Stuttgart and Potsdam.
Multiple use of the interviews
Currently, videos are cut on different focus topics that will then be included in the educational material provided by the Berlin Wall Foundation. The raw material from the life-story interviews will be stored at the FernUniversität in Hagen’s archive “Deutsches Gedächtnis”, which has a focus on GDR history. Thus, they can be used for oral history research. At the University of Konstanz, the narrative patterns of the video interviews will be analyzed in a thesis using qualitative content analysis. Moreover, Christiane Bertram will use the material in a teaching methodology course in the next semester to work with the students on the empirical significance of the interviews and on how they can be used in history classes. Lastly, the interviews will be used in the context of a contemporary witnesses study, which is supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The study is a collaborative project between Christiane Bertram and colleagues at the Hector Research Institute of Education Sciences and Psychology at the University of Tübingen.
- Preliminary results of the multimedia interview project “Perspektiven der Generation 75 - Mit 14 ins neue Deutschland” (Perspectives of the ‘75 generation – being 14 in the new Germany)
- Video interviews with 26 contemporary witnesses from Baden-Württemberg, Brandenburg as well as East and West Berlin show considerable differences in how the interviewees from West and East Germany viewed the events after the Fall of the Wall
- Collaborative project of the Binational School of Education (BiSE) at the University of Konstanz, the Berlin Wall Foundation, the FernUniversität in Hagen’s archive “Deutsches Gedächtnis” (German memory), and the video artists Ina Rommel und Stefan Krauss
- Project initiator is Junior Professor Christiane Bertram of the Binational School of Education (BiSE) at the University of Konstanz
- Supported by the German Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany (GDR)