This interview was first published in the n°31 print magazine of Eyes on Europe, as an introduction to our special dossier “Where does Europe stand three decades after the Berlin Wall ?”
Our editor-in-chief Frederic did not have to look far to find someone to witness about the fall of the Berlin Wall and its consequences. He interviewed his father, Igor Göldner, who grew up in the GDR and is today a journalist in Potsdam (near Berlin).
You were in your mid-20s when the wall came down. How did you experience the Wende [the “turning point,” period around 1989]?
First of all, as an extremely exciting time, the outcome of which always was uncertain. In the spring of 1989, dissatisfaction of many already was palpable. Despite Michael Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, nothing happened in the GDR. Then, the border between Hungary and Austria fell in summer, and many people, including friends of mine, left the country. The situation became increasingly critical, and nobody knew at that time whether the government would not resort to the “Chinese solution” as in Beijing and violently repress the protests.
What were key moments for you?
Definitively October 9, 1989, in Leipzig. I was studying there at the time. In the evening, one of the largest Monday demonstrations was planned, and nobody knew how it would end. Many were afraid, including me, as there had been rumors that the state would strike back this time. Hospitals were on alert. But the protest remained peaceful until the end, and that was perhaps the great miracle of the time. On this day, the highly armed state apparatus did not intervene – that was a turning point!
What did you hope for, and was it already about reunification of East and West Germany?
No. Calls for German unity came much later. Like for many others, the protests were for me about opening the country, about a better GDR. Without political paternalism, without patronization, with truly free elections. I wanted to travel wherever I wanted. I wanted freedom of opinion and freedom of the press. I wanted to read all the books and see all the films I wanted.
And what about November 9, how did you experience this night?
November 9 completely turned my life upside down and changed everything – for the better. But I didn’t know that at that time. When I sat in front of the TV with my parents in Berlin on that evening, I couldn’t believe my eyes. What was happening? At first, I was very skeptical and didn’t trust the whole thing. I didn’t immediately run to the border but waited a few days. I didn’t want to believe that this highly equipped regime would just give in. I was afraid that the next day everything could be over and the Wall would be closed again. But that didn’t happen, and I’m still very happy about that today.
To what extent have East and West Germany bridged the divide after 30 years?
Many people, including myself, imagined unification would be easier. Dreams of a new Germany quickly burst for many whose first encounter with the West was their own unemployment. I experienced the complete collapse of a country from which barely anything remained. It was a takeover by the West. Many had no idea what it meant to question their own identity and everything they had done before reunification. The generation of my parents had a particularly hard time as they were basically left with nothing and had to start from scratch in their mid-fifties. A lot of East Germans experienced insults and humiliations and did not feel taken seriously. That continues to have an effect today. There are documented structural disadvantages for East Germans with regard to pensions, income, and wealth. It’s strange, but today I feel more “East German” than 30 years ago. Even if many in the West don’t understand that.
Interview by Frederic Göldner, editor-in-chief at Eyes on Europe.