On East German National Identity – After East Germany

2016. I am sitting on a sunny balcony in Wedding, eating dinner, enjoying the late sunshine that comes with a German summer, and chatting with two friends – Emma and Suzanne – about Emma’s upcoming birthday. It will be her 70th, and she is planning a sizable party of friends and family from many stages of her life. Suddenly, in the middle of the conversation, she mentions, casually, “I wasn’t born in a country.”

Suzanne – French Canadian by birth, but married to a German man and a long-time Berliner – expresses disbelief, but Emma assures us that her birth certificate includes nothing on the “country” line.

I quickly do the math. 1946.

The German Reich had fallen, and Germany had been divided into Zones of Occupation, but not yet fully split into West and East Germanies. Not that East Germany was ever an officially recognized nation in the West, but at this point it had not even been established. Magdeburg, Emma’s hometown, happened to fall into the Soviet Zone of Occupation, but all of the Zones shared this non-nation status. Still, I wonder whether an almost-70-year-old from one of the Western cities – say, Munich or Hannover – would retain that feeling of being a person born into no-country.

2012. I am with friends and acquaintances at the annual Bunte Republic Neustadt festival in Dresden. In truth, I am only there with one friend, along with all his friends, who have adopted me for the night in a way that always surprises me when it happens (which is often). The Neustadt is that kind of place. This crowd – all in their mid- to late-20s – went to school together, took the Abitur (the college entrance exam together), and attended TU-Dresden. As they chat about who is doing what (and I desperately try to keep up with the conversation), someone mentions that TU has been named one of 11 German “Universities of Excellence.” “It’s the only one in the East.”

I finally see a way to add to the conversation, and mention that Humboldt University – also in the former GDR – also won this award. My friend turns to me, and, as though explaining something to a very silly child, tells me “That is different – it’s in Berlin.”

2016. I am following the travels of another Dresdner friend on Facebook. As he reports on his travels to Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania, he and his travel companion make references to people from “West Germany.” Distinct, presumably, from themselves as residents of the far-Eastern state of Sachsen. Neither is old enough to remember much (if any) of the socialist era, and yet that Ossi identity – defined to some extent as “not-Western” – remains.

What does it mean to be East German in 2016? How can one maintain an affinity for a nation that no longer exists, perhaps never existed during your own lifetime? Could that be connected to the fact that there’s a group of people in the former GDR who, like Emma, were born into no-country? Have the memories of parents and grandparents produced an understanding of home (dare I say “heimat”) for their children and grandchildren that doesn’t regard national borders as a source of identity?

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