German reunification: Are youth in love or indifferent?

They only know the Cold War from their parents' stories. They live between nostalgia and the search for their own identity. How does the generation born after Germany's reunification in 1990 view the Day of German Unity?

Celebrating reunification is still a strange concept to many people in Germany. But for the country's younger generation, it feels much more familiar.

"October 3 is a perfect national holiday, especially now that we're talking about new divisions," says sports manager Clemens Hühmer, referring to Germany's recent national elections. "German reunification shows that not everything has to develop negatively."

Hühmer was born in West Berlin in 1986. He is part of the generation of young Germans who only know about the Cold War and the division of Germany into communist East and democratic West from school lessons and the stories told by their parents. And yet for him – like many other Germans – it's as if the Berlin Wall were still there.

Deutschland Sportmanager Clemens Hühmer in Berlin

Clemens Hühmer works as a sports manager at Berlin's Olympic Park

Separate ways, worlds apart

"Although the division of Germany isn't something I experienced, I would never go to East Berlin, for example. I also have friends from the East who would never contemplate moving to Wilmersdorf or Charlottenburg," Hühmer says, naming two upscale neighborhoods in Berlin's West.

Education | 03.08.2017

Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two halves of the city and country continue to exist even among the younger generation who were born in reunified Germany. Why hasn't the post-Wall generation managed to shake itself free from this East-West division?

Tag der deutschen Einheit 2013 Berlin Mauer

For many young Germans, the only Berlin Wall they know is located in parks, memorials and museums

A study by the Center for Social Research at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg tried to find answers. Authors Everhard Holtmann and Bernd Martens came to the conclusion that "East Germany lives on even among those who were never able to experience it themselves."

This applies not only to the young generation who grew up in Germany's East after the fall of the Berlin Wall and have been influenced by the stories of their parents and grandparents. In the West, too, family memories of the division live on.

"My father always talks about the harassment on the inner-German border when he traveled from West Berlin to Bavaria through East German territory," Hühmer recalls. The border guards made a big show of searching the car's trunk, he explains, and kept him waiting a long time.

In the present day East, on the other hand, parents' and grandparents' rosy recollections are passed on to the post-reunification generation. "When compared to daily life today, East Germany does relatively well," the Center for Social Research study author Everhard Holtmann told the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

The younger the respondents, the more detached their view of former East Germany becomes from reality. The generation born after reunification can't imagine life in a non-democratic state, unlike their parents and grandparents, the study says, explaining that "there is a certain romanticization of East Germany."

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Rose-colored glasses

Natalie Oikova, born in eastern Berlin in 1995, also observes these nostalgic feelings in her parents. Her father came from Bulgaria in 1989 to work in East Berlin as a dental technician, just as East Germany was disintegrating. Her mother followed two years later.

Porträt Natalie Oikova

Natalie Oikova says she feels more like a Berliner than a German or Bulgarian

"My parents have long been raving about the close-knit community they had in Bulgaria, and they were positive about how people dealt with one another nicely, as socialists," she says. "The Bulgaria my parents knew is long gone. People have changed enormously in the last 30 years."

Even though she has attended celebrations for the Day of German Unity at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate several times, the 22-year-old theater student sees herself as a Berliner, not as a German or a Bulgarian. "I prefer to define myself in terms of a city rather than a whole country," Oikova said.

Mental barriers

But that makes no difference – because to a Berliner, the signs of the division are everywhere. As soon as she says she's at home in Kaulsdorf, the Wall is back. The neighborhood is in the district of Marzahn-Hellersdorf – which, with its communist-era prefabricated apartments, is a symbol of East German domestic culture.

But the invisible Wall stretches far into the West, as well. Michel Brandt is often reminded of Germany's divided past. The young politician and actor comes from Karlsruhe, near the French border. He won a seat in parliament in the September elections, standing for the Left Party.

During the election campaign, he was shouted down at events as a member of the "Berlin Wall murderers' party."

"Whenever they come to a halt in the political discussion, they play the SED card," the 27-year-old says, annoyed. His far-left party succeeded the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in 2007, which in turn was the renamed former East German ruling party, the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany).

Staatstheater Karlsruhe - Michel Brandt

Michel Brandt was often reminded of Germany's communist past while on the campaign trail

A celebration of nonviolence

The new parliamentarian has never celebrated the Day of German Unity. He probably belongs to a majority of the population in Germany who are happy about reunification, but prefer to mark October 3 privately.

For Clemens Hühmer the symbolic meaning is decisive. "I think it is important for Germany that October 3 is the national holiday," he says. "People always say everything drifts apart, but German reunification largely happened without violence and is a positive example that things don't have to be that way."


Barbed wire divides Berlin

East German authorities began patrolling the inner-German border in 1952. Until then it had been relatively easy to pass between the two. They sealed off West Berlin in 1961. Here, soldiers keep people from crossing as the Berlin Wall is built.


The day the wall went up

In 1961, communist East Germany was having trouble keeping its young, educated population from emigrating to the West. The Berlin Wall was erected almost to completion in a single night, without warning, on August 13.


Escape atempt

This famous photo from September 1961 shows a woman trying to escape East Berlin through an apartment block where one side of the building faced the West. Some men try to pull her back inside while others wait underneath, hoping to aid in her escape.


Fall of the Wall

Amidst mounting internal and international pressure, a mistaken announcement by an East German official on November 9, 1989 led to the wall being opened. Germans on both sides of the border celebrated for days. New openings were made in the wall, like here at Potsdamer Platz two days later.


East Side Gallery

Today, some parts of the Berlin Wall still stand as a memorial to hard-won freedoms. The famous East Side Gallery allows different artists from around the world to add murals to the part of the wall that remains on Mühlenstrasse in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.


Berlin remembers

Politicians for the state government of Berlin lay flowers along the site of the Berlin Wall on Bernauer Strasse, 56 years to the day after it was constructed. At least 140 people were shot dead by East German border guards at the wall from 1961 to 1989.