After the Fall of the Berlin Wall:
Germany Eighteen Years Later
November 9, 2007
WPI Senior Fellow Belinda Cooper and Roland Jahn
German television journalist Roland Jahn was a key member of the East German opposition throughout much of the 1970s and early 1980s. After being expelled from university and later imprisoned for his dissident activities, including support for Poland’s Solidarity movement, he was forcibly expelled from East Germany against his will in 1983, and was not allowed to return to the country until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In West Berlin, Jahn became one of the main contacts for and supporters of the East German opposition. As a journalist for the television news program Kontraste, which often broadcast clandestine footage by East German dissidents, he also became a crucial source of information on East Germany for those still behind the Wall.
On his first visit to the United States, which coincided with the eighteenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jahn and Senior Fellow Belinda Cooper spoke about how the fall of the Wall has been the framing moment in Germany’s development for nearly two decades. They addressed in particular the ways in which the still salient rift among the generations – those who experienced Germany’s two dictatorships and those who grew up after reunification – as well as the ongoing debate about the past has been a focus of Germany’s domestic and international dialogues, even as new walls are being raised today in many parts of the world to keep people out rather than in.
For Jahn, it is this generational divide that most poignantly defines the Wall’s legacy. Those who came of age in the 1960s, following the horrors of the Nazi period, and those coming of age today, born the year the Wall fell, are asking their parents similar questions about how they dealt with life under oppressive systems. Though Jahn was careful not to equate the Nazi and Communist systems, he emphasized the similarity of the issues and questions they raise, as well as the quality of the debate within families. Both debates have frequently created familial tensions, as parents and grandparents today have difficulty explaining the context of their lives under these repressive systems to the younger generation, as well as facing their own role in those systems.
On a larger scale, the differences among Germans’ perceptions of life in a divided Germany both influence and reflect differing approaches to the processes of healing and transitional justice that have gone hand-in-hand with reunification. In a sense, family dialogues are replicated on a national level. Misconceptions and assignments of blame between East and West often prevail.
Nevertheless, Jahn has identified a clear yearning on the part of the younger generation for dialogue and conversation about the past, and he believes this need is increasingly being recognized by German educators and a broader public. He spoke of ongoing efforts to continue and expand public debate about the past and to adapt its lessons to today’s society. Recent popular films, such as the flawed but powerful “The Lives of Others,” have helped to promote this kind of public discussion. Still, reflecting on the past eighteen years, Jahn expressed surprise that – even as Germans have elected an East German chancellor – the pace of the reunification process remains slow, and many people, especially among the older generation, remain rooted in their pre-1989 identities. This is why, in his view, today’s youth has such an important role to play in giving Germany a fresh start. Without a strong dose of introspection, he feels, young people will not have the ability and knowledge they need to ask the right questions. But if these hard questions are not answered, society cannot entirely overcome the repression of the old regime.