It's already been nearly a quarter of a century since the two Germanys were reunified. An entire generation that never experienced life in a divided country has already graduated from university. Common sense suggests that young Germans are looking exclusively at the future, and the country has moved on from the debates over reunification and the fate of East Germany.
But common sense is wrong.
Born in East Germany, Marie Landsberg was only six years old when the Berlin Wall fell. When she was growing up, like so many of her peers in what had once been East Germany, she didn't pay much attention to the past.
"It wasn't cool," she told me in an interview in February in Berlin. "Everyone tried so hard to be Western. At school when we did history, we didn't really deal with the GDR past. We had so much about the Second World War for years and years, and it was like the teachers didn't know how to touch this topic because it was still so close. The first one that tried to touch the East-West situation, the GDR, and West Germany was a very young teacher from West Germany who tried to deal with it in the lessons. But he was also a bit insecure because he didn't want to touch anyone's emotions. It was still very touchy business. The schoolbooks were very one-sided, very much written from the Western perspective on the GDR. We didn't really deal with the past."
But that reluctance among young people in former East Germany to deal with the past is changing, largely thanks to Dritte Generation Ost -- Third Generation East, an organization in Germany devoted to young people wrestling with the legacy of East Germany. The organization, founded only a couple years ago, has already organized a number of important activities.
"We published a book with 33 authors of that generation talking about their experience with certain stories that they felt needed to be told," Landsberg told me. "Last year we had a big tour with a bus through East Germany where we set up some events in each and every little city or village we went through. We had discussions on different topics and invited young people to do something in their area. That's one problem in East Germany: our generation is leaving. They live in other parts of the world like West Germany or somewhere in Europe. The ones that left and just came back, we wanted to meet them and see what they were doing and how they were doing it. We wanted to talk to politicians. We have a lot of supporters on the political side, which is very good, people who think that it's good for the young generation to make connections between the generations and between East and West."
Third Generation East sees reunification as an ongoing process that it would like to facilitate through individual encounters among people from east and west. "There are still prejudices between the former two parts of Germany," Landsberg concluded. "So, it's important to have personal encounters, to do projects together. That's something that we want to do more in the next years: not only talk about it from a distance, but to really go to different regions, exchange and invite everyone to do something together."
Tell me a bit about the founding of this organization. Whose idea was it? What are the goals? The programs... ?
The initiative came from Adriana Lettrari, who's from north Germany. She started to talk about something that had been on her mind for a while. She had this experience sitting in front of the TV in 2009, watching the broadcasts of the festivities around the 20th anniversary of the Wall coming down. She just realized that there were the same old men sitting there discussing the collapse of the Wall and the time after. It was always the same people discussing East and West: always the same old men. She got angry, and I think that's an experience a lot of people in our generation had -- a point where they really get angry about the one-sided narrative. People from the opposition in East Germany are heard and so are people from the West, from the old Federal Republic, with their very special Western, Cold War perspective. We are just different, and she thought that our perspective is needed in these discussions. We grew up in East Germany, and we are close to our parents, but we have another perspective and that should be heard.
Very soon after she asked other people of this generation, both East and West, she realized that they knew what she meant and that they were really more and more upset about it. So a group of eight people formed this initiative and decided to have a conference to see for whom else it was an issue, to see if it was something that just touches us or if it touches more people of our age. They wrote a grant proposal and were successful so they could have the conference done. A lot of people came, the house was full and the press came too. It was a real success in all senses, and the feedback was positive. It was in the Collegium Hungaricum, and the Hungarian director of this Collegium was very supportive. They didn't really need to explain much about it: he just got it and was very supportive. We had the second conference at the end of last year there. They see a connection: our issues of East Germany can be applied to Eastern Europe as well where a whole generation has gone through this transformation.
Our goal is to change the public discussion by introducing our perspective. There is neither good nor bad, there is something in between and we want to explore that. We want to really talk about something without feeling there are things we should not talk about. I don't think there are words we should not say because they are not PC. We want to just find things out. We want to talk with our parents' generation because there are so many people who still don't want to or just can't talk about it. It's a matter of communication.
We published a book with 33 authors of that generation talking about their experience with certain stories that they felt needed to be told. Last year we had a big tour with a bus through East Germany where we set up some events in each and every little city or village we went through. We had discussions on different topics and invited young people to do something in their area. That's one problem in East Germany: Our generation is leaving. They live in other parts of the world like West Germany or somewhere in Europe. The ones that left and just came back, we wanted to meet them and see what they were doing and how they were doing it. We wanted to talk to politicians. We have a lot of supporters on the political side, which is very good, people who think that it's good for the young generation to make connections between the generations and between East and West.
How did you get involved?
When I was driving to Leipzig, I heard two speeches from the first conference on the radio. They were broadcasting presentations from two scientists. I'd never really heard people dealing with such experiences in such an open and direct way. There was one scientist who was talking about the feeling of the Wall coming down. She thought, "Yes, it's good that we are now unified." She began to study at the university in West Berlin and then realized, "but the image they have of me is totally wrong." So she started to be East German even though she wasn't feeling that way before at all: she felt German living in a unified country. But she put it in a very scientific way that was very interesting for me -- to get away from the emotional part and look at it as a matter of what actually happened. I was very interested, so I looked up the organization and found that they were looking for people to help with the organizing. I applied, and then organized this bus tour.
Were there stories or encounters from that bus tour were just really surprising to you?
Every day we were in another place, every day we met different people, and every day we had an event going on. It was very exhausting, and you got so many impressions from one day to another. One experience that touched me very much was the prison we went to in Bautzen. This was a part of East German history, the Stasi prisons, that I somehow had avoided dealing with before. It was really exhausting talking about the past, but this part surprised me that it touched me so much. I started to wonder why I hadn't dealt with it in the last 20 years, with how they treated prisoners and how they did business with political prisoners and so forth.
I was also really surprised by how much was going in Oberlausitz in the east close to the Czech Republic. There are many brave, young engaged people that have different projects and really want to do something there. There were Western Germans there because they feel like they have some freedom from their hometown. This mixture of people was very interesting, and there were these beautiful mountains and so much space where you can do so much: You can really make your dreams come true if you like. Of course, you have to be more engaged than in other parts of the country where the infrastructure is better. But we saw an old pasta factory that they'd restored and made a cultural house out of, where they have meetings and regional art shows.
There were so many good things we saw, so many people trying to make the best out of a very special situation. In the north it was sometimes a bit difficult to find people who are optimistic and want to do something and really see their responsibility for the country as a whole. That's something that's still missing. People complain: they don't see that they are responsible for part of it.
Before you took the job, what were you doing?
To read the rest of the interview, click here.