East/West narratives – It’s raining generations

Jana Hensel‘s generational memoir, After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life That Came Next. Transl. by Jefferson Chase. New York: Public Affairs, 2004 (Zonenkinder, 2002) describes the experiences of the “last generation of GRD kids” growing up in reunified Berlin. Full of insightful observations about a whole generation whose childhood took place in a country that no longer exists, and adult years were spent listening, learning, and adapting to West-German (pop-)culture, styles, and vernacular. Looking back at her own experiences, Hensel manages to translate personal memories “into words that had not been part of her experience” (p.17-18):

Today, I can’t help feeling a bit jealous when my West German friends go on about how much they love going home for visits with their folks. Even though they would never dream of moving back to Heidelberg or Krefeld, it’s nice to have everything just as they remember it. That always makes me imagine walking the streets of my childhood, retracting my route to school and rediscovering past sights and smells. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.15)

I wanted to know everything everyone else knew. My brain was a perpetual  scanner, registering the body language, the behaviour, the slang, the haircuts, and the wardrobe of my fellow citizens from the West. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.59)

Western women displayed a clear sense of ease when dealing with brand-name fashions. In a gesture of understatement, they would combine designer names with things they picked up in second-hand shops or run-of-the-mill department stores. It was how they showed that they’d kept their feet on the ground. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.59)

By the end of the ‘90s, at least in the German capital, it had become impossible to differentiate native from non-native Berliners, or East and West Germans, by the way they dressed. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.61)

What did people think when they saw me? In the later years and the decade, more and more people thought I came from the West. I had learned my lessons and could no longer be easily unmasked. I had long since begun to combine brand names with cheaper things to show that I had kept my feet on the ground. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.61)

Our new West German university friends had a lot of funny ideas about intergenerational relationships. … Their parents were their friends, who’d stuck by them through thick and thin. Every time our West German peers had relationship problems or failed an exam, they’d call their folks, pour their hearts out on the phone, and then catch the next train back home. They’d stay there until their egos had recovered, spending most of their time on their parents’ couches, and only returning to us and life in the big city once they’d made a complete recovery. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.63)

By contrast, we Easterners could never help feeling a bit frustrated when we had to deal with our parents. Because we kept them hidden away, there were no evenings with them and our West German friends, but if there had been, the mood would hardly have been one of patriotically inflected mutual glee. And taking your boyfriend along was a big mistake. Jenny and I knew that no occasion, however celebratory, could prevent our parents from engaging in one of their typical monologues. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.67)

In our parents’ view, children weren’t supposed to know as much as their parents – so we kept the things we had experienced, and they hadn’t carefully concealed from them. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.70)

We protected them from our lives and protected our lived from them. The fall of the Wall had transformed each of us into something akin to a child prodigy, upon whom great expectations were placed. There was not much for older East Germans to be proud of. The GDR had lost to the West, and now all East Germans were expected to assimilate into West German society. That in turn, was viewed as a kind of collective upward mobility, and we, the children of the first “immigrants,” were expected to achieve that goal. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.71)

It was crucial for us to forget our roots as quickly as possible. We had to become flexible, adaptable. It made no difference whether we came from a family of painters, plumbers, photographers, dentists, or teachers. We were the sons and daughters of history’s losers – mocked by the victors as proletarians, people to whom totalitarian conformity and the reputation for laziness clung like a bad odour. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.71)

We East Germans couldn’t afford to engage in “constructive” generational conflict. We didn’t have the luxury of rebelling against our parents. Their generation was depressed and defeated enough as it was, and we, who had been lucky enough to have been born relatively late in the life of the GDR, didn’t want to kick people who were already down. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.74)

Our common history ended the day the Wall came down. After that, they’d spent their time worrying about their jobs, while we memorized the organizational structures of the West German parliament, the lyrics to the national anthem, and the facts surrounding the 1953 popular uprising against the Communist regime. Their marriages failed, while we tried to decide whether to spend our year abroad in the United States during high school or to wait until after we started university. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.75)

Strange as it may sound, the GDR was basically a petty bourgeois society. All most people wanted were two kids (one boy and one girl), a car, and a weekend cottage. As the 1980s Socialist preteens, our official attitude toward the West was that of contempt. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.90)

Not that we stopped fighting. We had been trained to fight, and now that our struggles no longer took place on practice fields behind our school – but instead on the streets – they seemed more worthwhile than ever. We demonstrated for a shorter school week. As long as we could fight for something, we were happy.  We were engaging the authorities in a dialogue, we told ourselves. That was what democracy was all about. Citizens were supposed to use the instruments of democracy and actively lobby for their interests. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.98)

But I still didn’t believe that kids raised in the material comfort of the West could feel the same intense emotions that we did.  If they acted that way, they had to be posers. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.134)

West German students were always going on about how psychologists had advised them to concentrate on what they wanted, to pursue their goals more aggressively, and, above all, to waste less energy worrying about the wants and needs of everybody else. Glancing over at West Germans at the next table, I would wish that, for their sakes, they could somehow see how empty their young lives had been. What had they ever done other than go to school? It was only much later – several years and thousands of photocopied flyers after the Wall – that I began to appreciate the finer points of their boring, postmodern lives. I began to enjoy hearing stories from their world, a world in which there was no enemy. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.135)

We’re the children of a zone, in which everything was started from scratch, in which things were torn down brick by brick and in which few of the heady goals of the early ‘90s have yet been attained. Our entire generation arose because our nation disappeared. That’s what defines us: absence. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.163-64)

For us, there have never been transitions, only breaks with the past. Our childhood seems like yesterday, but yesterday is completely gone. We wouldn’t be bothered if the changes amounted merely to a different smell at the bakery or a new coat of paint on the school – but, for us, everything has changed. The bakery is gone; the school is gone. It’s all been replaced. The only constant in our lives is something we ourselves constructed: the feeling of belonging to a generation. (Jana Hensel, After the Wall, p.164)

Henssel’s book was in part a response to a West German bestseller, Florian Illies’ Generation Golf (2000), and the Western “pop literature” trend of the late 1990s. With its title taken from a Volkswagen ad campaign, the message was that the generation of young adults (born between 1965 and 1975 in West Germany) is defined by unquestioning materialism, brand and fashion fetishism, and a “complete lack of distance to the fantasy world of advertising” (p.27).

The book was a massive hit, appealing not only to its target audience but also to older readers curious about how their sons and daughters viewed the world. The only group that was left out were those from the East.

The Love Parade is the only demonstration, that our narcissistic generation is still capable of. (Florian Illies. Generation Golf.  Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2000, p.165)

The history of National Socialism was so carefully implanted in the brain of each member of the Golf generation, that to this day we can name the eight reasons that lead to the collapse of the Weimar Republic faster than the Ten Commandments. And since we had covered the years between 1933 to 1945 in all details so many times, we barely know anything about the time afterwards. We never made it to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, or Willy Brand before the school year was over. And the next year started with the collapse of the Weimar Republic again. (Florian Illies. Generation Golf, p.175-76)

When one thinks of everything in quotation marks, everything becomes acceptable. (Florian Illies. Generation Golf, p.193)

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