Ahead of the 30th anniversary of the reunification of Germany being marked on 3 October 2020, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum asked two Board members of Memorial Deutschland, our member organisation, to reflect on how they experienced this unique day and what they think about current challenges in Eastern Europe.

Anke Giesen:

‘As I grew up in West Germany, my image of the “East” of Germany and Europe was initially shaped by stories I heard in the family and in the neighbourhood — about war captivity, expulsion and flight, by parcels for relatives in the “zone” and later by encounters with representatives of youth groups of the Protestant Church in the GDR.

In this way, a deep emotional feeling was corresponded to me. Although it could not be defined precisely, that was a feeling of an immense social and cultural loss, which was linked to the division of Europe into two blocks, an unhindered access to something very valuable that was denied.

The need to identify this loss led me to learning Russian at school and then to my Slavic studies which resulted in a longer stay in the Soviet Union. However, my experience of the space that opened up remained ambivalent: Although it revealed a warm-hearted humanness and a great cultural richness to me, both seemed to be trapped in a rigid social system that was not suitable for human beings. Accordingly, the respective dissident movements, and later Gorbachev and his perestroika, had a powerful attraction for me.’

Sabine Erdmann:

‘Likewise, for me as a child born and raised in East Germany, the East European and East German dissident movements were a glimmer of hope. From the past, we knew how brutally they had been crushed. For my parents, the Prague Spring was the greatest hope and at the same time, the bitterest disappointment.

The packages from the West both pleased and supported us as a family with five children. More importantly, however, were the books we devoured and secretly passed on and from which we even made copies on a typewriter. Only the others went to the Soviet Union — in organised travel groups or as part of friendship brigades building up socialism or participating in a personnel training. Very few explored the USSR on their own — and illegally. I was not one of them.

Through the “Action Reconciliation” Organisation (Aktion Sühnezeichen), I had contacts mainly in Poland and Czechoslovakia. We worked as volunteers in memorials to the victims of the Nazi regime, dealt critically and from different perspectives with the history of totalitarianism and drew conclusions for our own lives between adaptation and resistance.

When perestroika suddenly brought a signal of change exactly from the motherland of communism, and the GDR closed itself off, we started reading Soviet magazines which had yellowed at newspaper kiosks by then. When their printing was discontinued and “Sputnik” [an official Soviet magazine published in 1967-1991 in several languages] was banned, we turned to the Russian original. The falsifications of the local elections in May 1989, which could be clearly proven, were finally the trigger for larger protests in the GDR. People overcame their fear – both here and in other socialist countries.’

Conclusion

Certainly, the courage and perseverance of dissidents in the states of Eastern Europe also served as an inspiration for the people who stepped onto the streets to overthrow the dictatorship in their countries — the central precondition for the reunification of Germany and Europe. However, this historic event can only be seen as an important milestone on the road to democracy and civil rights for all Europeans.

With our different backgrounds, we both are involved in the work of the German branch of “Memorial” today, not only because we consider the understanding of recent history of Eastern Europe a key to the development of democratic structures but also because we would like to offer our support and solidarity to all those in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia who are struggling today to execute and safeguard their civil rights, thus trying to bring the developments started in 1989-1990 to a successful conclusion.