“I’ve been looking for freedom”, or have I?

“I’ve been looking for freedom”, or have I?

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was an ambitious project. Good intentions intertwined with bad ideas and the harsh reality of a global capitalist economy, and what resulted was an economically weak espionage state that ensured “safety” and public peace through all means necessary. Stuck in constant competition with its economically more successful neighbor state, East-Germany had to forcefully fend off migration out West and used heavy propaganda to combat the issue. Nonetheless, rumors of a better future out West reached the masses, and some risked their lives to flee the regime. After the reunion, which was really the Federal Republic of Germany (FGR) overtaking East-Germany, all the crimes committed by the regime came to the light of day, and the West felt reaffirmed, further strengthening a too straightforward, tainted view of the dynamic between the supposed capitalist utopia and backward socialist country.

In later years, however, the real difficulties of the East-West relationship started permeating the one-sided narrative of the Great West and came to show a strong ambivalence towards a newly united Germany, especially among East Germans.

What is nowadays too often excluded from the conversation, is the fact that many people remember their time in socialism fondly. The idea of a “wonderland” out West simply doesn’t hold up for many people, especially considering that after the reunion, the East has been steadily dealing with a weak job market and slowed economic growth.

The following interview presents this complicated emotional state about having left a heavily controlled environment very well. I asked to talk to my former kindergarten teacher, someone who, for obvious reasons, influenced me a great deal. She is a woman that wears her heart on her sleeve, is grounded in the most likable way, and is representative of a generation victim to an emotional turmoil in the years past 1989, which were previously unseen. Feelings of insecurity surfaced for her once the wall came down, and the safety that was once self-evident seemed to fade, whilst at the same time seemingly opening up many new doors, and further complicating the lives of many Germans, who, as a nation, were still smitten by the impact of World War II.

Pike & Hurricane: Just briefly for our readers, who are you?

Schmitt: My name is Regine Schmitt, I am 55 years old, and a kindergarten teacher here in Berlin. I was raised in what used to be East Berlin and was about 21 when the wall came down.

P&H: How would you describe your childhood?

S.: Whew, my childhood was really, how I should say, happy? Yeah. I grew up very sheltered, let me say it that way. I have two sisters, one older, one younger. My parents were both working.

First day of school in East Berlin for Schmitt.

P&H: What did they do for work?

S.: My mother was a kindergarten teacher, too, and my father worked for the “Deutsche Reichsbahn” (East German Railway). I went to school for ten years, as you used to, and then did vocational training to become a kindergarten teacher, which is what I really wanted to do. So yeah, I had a good childhood. We traveled a lot, as my family is originally from the Baltic Sea, and so we always went there over the holidays. I can’t really say anything negative. Especially as a kid, I didn’t really see any of that, all the things that were happening in the world.

P&H: What was your financial situation like? 

S.: Nowadays, I would say average, middle class. We weren’t rich, but also not poor. But we had what we wanted, and even had a car, which was really something at that time. Being mobile and all that.

P&H: How did you and your family view the West back then?

S.: We learned a lot in school about how the West is full of Capitalists, people are exploited, and everything is just not as nice as it’s always presented on TV. That’s what I learned in school, you know? I was really scared, well, not scared, but I felt bad for those people. They don’t have it as nice as me, I thought. They don’t grow up in as secure of an environment. They always suggested to us, that we’re being protected from Capitalism and all these bad people.

P&H: Did you experience anything positive about the West? 

S.: Yes, they had many things that I didn’t have. Like candy, or when you saw advertisements on TV, you’d see all these toys. All these colorful, bright things, I didn’t have all those. But I also can’t say I missed any of that. I had toys, too, like dolls and stuff. But sometimes you’d see the commercials and think: “Oh wow, that’s pretty”. I also knew that I’d never have those things, so I just took it at face value. That’s fine too, I thought.

P&H: Did you ever think the wall would come down, and you’d be here in West Berlin?

S.: No, no, never. Not even in my dreams. I wasn’t really politically active or anything, like some other people, were. Even when I was around 14, 15, 16, I didn’t really think about these things. Many others were much more engaged with it than I was, but that really wasn’t me. I was happy to graduate, to learn a profession, and that made me content somehow. But I would have never thought of the wall coming down.

Schmitt in front of the Fernsehturm. Once a symbol of communist power; now one of Berlin’s most popular tourist attractions.

P&H: But then it did come down, how did you feel?

S.: Good question. I have thought about this a lot if I’m able to somehow summon those feelings again. I can still remember being at home and I really couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t scared, but I really didn’t know what’s coming next. I grew up sheltered from everything, everything was “good” so far. We didn’t have a lot of things, but we got used to that, so I had no idea what all this meant now. Insecure, is the best way to put it. The next day, when I went to work, I realized that a lot of colleagues didn’t show up anymore. They just left. They left their families behind. There were even cases, where you would only see the father of a child anymore because the mother had left to head out West. And I just thought: “How could they? Just because some wall came down, how could you leave your family like that?” I couldn’t understand it, it was surreal.

P&H: What is your stance on the common stereotype that all East Germans wish the wall was still standing?

S.: No, I really don’t think that way. Sometimes one might say that nonchalantly, but I really can’t say that. Everyone is responsible for their own life, and if I want to live well, I have to act on that. That’s my view on it. Complaining about how everything used to be better, I really wouldn’t do that.

P&H: We just wrapped up German Unity Day in early October, does that day make you feel any kind of way?

S.: No, not at all. Back in East Germany, we had all these “mandatory holidays”, where you’d have to go somewhere, dress nicely in your blue FDJ (Free German Youth) shirt and march, wave, and all that, and I never liked that. I’m really happy those things don’t exist anymore, and now I’m just happy to have a day off. I’m not sad, or anything. I just take it as it is.

By Tim Klaenfoth

Related articles:

Back to the Roots

The Case of the Mistaken Identity

Photo credits:

Featured image: Raphaël Thiémard from Belgium., CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Picture 1 and 2: The pictures stem from the private collection of Regine Schmitt.

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