A Reunited Germany, 25 Years Later
Germany has been through some major changes, but East-West differences still exist
You might not think of a traffic crossing signal as a beloved cultural icon, but that’s just what East Germany’s Ampelmännchen have become. The little red and green men made their first appearance at East German crosswalks in 1961 and have been a beloved symbol ever since. 25 years after the infamous Wall fell in Berlin, Ampelmännchen still help pedestrians cross the streets safely at every intersection in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), one of the very few features of the former Communist nation beloved enough to survive after reunification. East Germans were unhappy about lots of things, but they loved these little guys too much to let them go – there are even entire stores where you can buy Ampelmännchen merchandise.
You won’t find Ampelmännchen in the former Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany. The differences in traffic signals, of all things, show just how polarizing the East-West divide was. It may seem hard to believe that just 25 years ago, one of the most innovative and modern countries in the world was divided primitively by a concrete wall, and that people who tried to escape to the more prosperous West were shot and killed. There is only one country in the world that remains divided after the reunification of Germany, and that’s Korea.
East Germany was comparatively very poor and may people lacked basic human rights. Citizens were constantly under surveillance of the Stasi, or the East German secret police, who kept a watchful eye out for anyone who might dare to defy the government. However, there were some positive aspects to life in the East, such as the fact that unemployment was virtually nonexistent. The socialist government system ensured that everyone had a job, even if it wasn’t a job they wanted (which was the case for many people). Homelessness wasn’t a problem, either, thanks to Plattenbauen, which were apartment buildings made of prefabricated concrete slabs. The government liked these because they were fast and inexpensive to build, and they quickly popped up in every East German metropolis.
Many Plattenbauen remain today as a reminder of what used to be – I even lived in one while studying in the East German city of Leipzig in 2013. It wasn’t very pretty on the outside, but the inside was pleasantly surprising – much more than what you’d expect from a cheap effort by a communist government to keep poor people off the streets. My bedroom in the Plattenbau was bigger than either of my dorm rooms at college and even my bedroom at my current apartment!
Even with the Wall gone, there’s still another divisive barrier between East and West: the foreign language barrier. East Germans who attended school during the Cold War era were required to learn Russian as their second language. English was the predominant foreign language taught in the West, as well as in the reunified Germany, where students now begin learning English at the age of six or seven. Even today, many adults older than their 30s in the East still have limited English skills, and many adults who are older than middle age don’t speak it at all. My own personal observation while living and studying in the former GDR was that the closer someone looked to my own age, the more likely they were to know English. Most college students spoke even better English than me and my American classmates!
There are many more socioeconomic and political factors that continue to divide Germany. For example, wages and disposable income for the average citizen of eastern Germany are still just 83 percent of those earned by the average worker in the West. The East German socialist party still exists (in a much less extreme form) and is the third largest party in the German parliament.
But despite their struggles, the people of what used to be East Germany are truly exceptional. They are humble, hardworking, patient and kind. Every single person I interacted with stands out positively in his or her own way: from my friends at the University of Leipzig, to the waiter who helped translate the menu for us at our very first dinner out, to the sweet old woman to whom I offered my seat on the streetcar and who couldn’t speak a word of English. The old government system in East Germany had many problems which affect that region of the country even today, but the spirit of its people is unlike any other. And even though I have always known Germany as one country, having been born five years after the Wall fell and four after reunification, I couldn’t be happier for my host country and its amazing people as they celebrate how far they’ve come.