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EU > Germany > Dresden

Growing up in the DDR

Dresden, DE (View on map)

Children who grew up in Germany before 1989 had very different childhood bases on whether they were born in West Germany or in East Germany. The general perception of West-Germans is that children in East Germany must have suffered a lot under the poverty. DDR kids had fewer toys and fewer opportunities to go on holiday, but whether they were really unhappier because of that remains hard to say. Eik (29) enjoyed his childhood years and would not have wanted them to be different from what they were. Here`s his story:

Eik (29):

`The sense of community was much bigger in the DDR than it is in today`s Germany`
`I was born in 1978 and spent most of my childhood in Penig, a small town in the Southern part of East Germany. My father worked in a factory, my mother in a shop. We lived in a typical Eastern German apartment block, just like most other `normal` people at the time. I was not really aware of any political system. I only started to think about all this later in life, when I realised that socialism had a big influence on the way life in East Germany was organised.`

`The changes came at a time when lots of things for were changing for me. I was changing from primary school to secondary school, which pushed the political changes in the country to the background. I think the impact was much bigger for people who were halfway something: halfway secondary school, halfway their studies or just past the first years of their career. For me, the political changes just blended in with the more natural transition from child to teenager.`

`School in East Germany was not just a place for educational in the narrow sense of the word. Beside regular classes, schools also organised pioneer afternoons with different themes. On some, kids could bring their pets, on others we would be talking about holidays and we also spent a lot of pioneer`s afternoons playing outside in the forest.`

`The pioneer movement was the first preparation for children to become `good socialists`. We learnt how to behave properly. On special occasions like the first of May, we were wearing scouting-like uniforms that were different for each age group. I remember wearing a white shirt and a blue tie, which belonged to the youngest pioneers. The next higher group, `Th?lmann-pioneers` had white shirt and red ties.

The highest stage allowed pioneers to wear blue shirts and to become a member of the FDJ: Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth). The FDJ-ers sometimes organised events for us younger kids or they took care of us during the afternoon breaks. We greatly admired them. They were older and wiser than we were, which is quite something to look up to when you are 8 years old against their 12 years. I still find it a pity that I never became one. The regime collapsed before it was our turn.`

`Beside the pioneer movement, each class in school also had a `class council`, each of which had a president and a vice-president. Everybody was involved in the domestic tasks that had to be organised in school and everybody was made feel like they were a vital part of the system. It was also at school were we learnt basic East-German etiquette, including proper greeting practices. At the beginning of each day, we would stand up when the teacher entered the class room. He or she would ask us `Seid bereit?` (Are you willing), which was responded by `Immer bereit` (Always prepared). We only had one teacher who broke the rule: our arts teacher who simply greeted us by saying `Guten Tag`. We thought that was quite cool.`

`International holidays were rare for Eastern Germany. Only Czech Republic and the Baltic Sea were within reach for me and my family. Some people managed to get permission to travel to Hungary. I went there once. Destinations further than that were reserved for party sympathizers, some of whom were allowed to travel as far as Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria.`

`In those days, state-owned companies were closely involved in social life. It was companies who sponsored sports clubs ? hence the names Motor, Dynamo and Traktor as football club names ? but also the ones organising package deal holidays for their employees. It was also them organising youth camps for the kids of their employees, which meant that I would spend my holidays with the children of my father`s colleagues.`

`One typical aspect of East German recreation used to be the `Freie Korper Kultur` or `FKK` (Free Body Culture), which meant that people would go to nude beaches and nude campsite. Like most East-Germans, my parents practiced this kind of public nakedness but I personally never managed to like it a lot. A big part of this tradition disappeared during the reunification, even though there are still plenty of FKK-beaches on the East-German Baltic Sea coast.`

`Even before 1989, we were quite well-informed about what was happening in Western Germany. We knew that they had more money and bigger cars. My parents used to watch the West-German news on one of the West-German channels that everybody could capture. Many people watched those channels, even though it was not something they would publicly talk about.`

`I don`t remember hearing about secret services (Stasi) in the time before 1989. In the five years that followed, informants of the socialist regime were prosecuted, and there were lots of discussions about who had or had not possibly worked with the secret service: a situation similar to what is still happening in Poland today. Our biggest luck was that we joined a nation that could support us. No other country in Eastern Europe could count on anything close to the financial and political support we got from West-Germany. We elegantly replaced many former socialists by experienced West-German democrats. We didn`t have to select the least worst from the old regimes and make them leaders of the country because only they knew how the country worked. Neither did we have to make any leader of the opposition our new president. We could make a fresh start, relying on politicians who knew their trade. That gave us a giant head start. If you look at the cars and buildings within all of East-Germany, it`s hard to believe that, barely 20 years ago, were in the same position as Poland or Czech Republic.`

`It wasn`t just buildings and cars that changed after 1989. People also changed their mentality. They started craving for more material wealth, buying stuff that they had only seen on TV before. At the same time, they seemed to get increasingly unhappy about their pre-1989 standard of living. Me and my family moved away from the grey block of flats as soon as it was reasonably possible. Many others did the same. They threw away everything that reminded of the DDR years. The motto of those years was that life had started all over again, but not everybody found that very easy. My father, for example, was born in 1949: the birth year of the DDR. When people advised him to forget the DDR time, he could not understand why they would want him to cast aside the first 40 years of his life.`

`The changes also brought about a lot of fear. Former state-owned companies were overtaken by bigger corporations from West Germany, and reformed to fit the capitalistic model. Newspapers were flooded with articles about mass lay-offs that easily involved several hundreds of people at the time. My dad was lucky to keep his job in a company manufacturing gear boxes. He is one of the few people who still work for the same employer as they did before 1989. The concept of having a job has changed drastically. A job used to be close to a lifetime project as well as a lifetime certainty. Employment is a lot less stable now: having job today no longer implies that you will have one tomorrow.`

`For the first five years of united Germany, people in East Germany were ready to accept that the changes would hurt a little before improving life. Right now, many people have had enough of it, and they somehow feel betrayed. The Ost-nostalgia is somehow making people believe that the socialist years were not as bad as they had always seemed. Life was simple and had its certainties. Choices were only limited and the comfort of living was good for anyone who did not get too involved in politics.`

East-German consciousness
`Even after 20 years of unity with West-Germany, I still think that East-Germans have a slightly different mentality. I can almost feel the difference, but I find it hard to explain. Those aged over 25 have a common experience of living in a socialist dictatorship, whether they were aware of that at the time or not. We are also still very much aware of the amount of choices we now have, and how much we need to take responsibility for our decisions. The fact that many company leaders and most professors at uni are still West-German at least partly explains why West-Germans are thought of as `ahead` of East-Germans. Generally speaking, West-Germans have more self-confidence and they are better at presenting themselves.`

`In my relations with West-German students, I often remember that we and them do not have the same starting points. Many West-German students have parents who studied as well. My parents, like most other East-German parents, are simple workers from a time when only very, very bright people were allowed to attend university. I still see studying as an opportunity, while West-German students seem to take it for granted as an ordinary part of life.`

`Even though East-German society got a lot more individualistic after the changes, I still notice that East-German care more about the community than West-Germans do. East-Germans enjoy company more, they are more used to organising themselves into associations. I also think that we are better at making friends and that we are more open to new influences.`

`Many East-Germans now say that `the socialist years were not that bad`. I can only partly agree. I am happy that we now live in a united Germany. It is giving me opportunities that I wouldn`t ever have had if this was still DDR. I have traveled across Europe and studied political science. I think the socialist regime would have allowed neither the traveling nor the very existence of a study program called political science.`

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