Learning (to be) German

8-1989-12-31-A1-12 Berlin, New Year's Eve 1989 © akg-images / Günther Schaefer
8-1989-12-31-A1-12 Berlin, New Year’s Eve 1989 © akg-images / Günther Schaefer

I was thirteen years old when the Berlin Wall came down.

The reunification of East and West Germany happened while I was in my third year of learning German at school. I enjoyed German lessons, but it wasn’t really until sixth form that I completly fell in love with the language, thanks mostly to a charismatic teacher who loved Germany so much she had gone to the country and came back with a German husband in tow. I vividly remember watching a documentary on the fall of the Wall in class one day and, when the programme ended and the lights were switched back on, our German teacher was standing with tears streaked down her face. The images of Trabis driving through checkpoints and Berliners clambering onto and over the Berlin Wall still moved her, even though by that point she must have had to watch that documentary numerous times as part of the A Level syllabus.

As a non-German living in London, I look at the reunification of the country as an outsider. Germany continues to be the powerhouse of Europe and her fiscal stability stopped the Eurozone from completely imploding during the last few years so, to me, reunification seems a success. I appreciate, however, that many inside Germany feel differently. Certainly many Germans still see reunification as a source of social and economic tension, even today, and I cannot imagine how it must have felt for an East German to watch their country be subsumed by the West, as the ‘old’ order was simply replaced by the existing West German one.

8-1989-12-22-A1-21 East and West Berliners storm the Berlin Wall, December 1989 © akg-images / Günther Schaefer
8-1989-12-22-A1-21 East and West Berliners storm the
Berlin Wall, December 1989 © akg-images / Günther Schaefer

Despite these on-going difficulties,  I still am thrilled whenever I look at photographs and footage from the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s (yes, even David Hasselhoff stood on top of the Wall belting out ‘Looking for Freedom’). There is a sense of hope, a unalloyed joy, a mixture of anarchy and comedy, which is visible in images in our collection, including these choices from the photographer Günther Schaefer. I’ve never regretted learning German and, on this Day of German Unity, I hope for more years of German unity to come.

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