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Katrin Hattenhauer (Germany)

"Paradise Bound"

February 6 - February 28, 2010

Living in opposition

I cannot say that at the age of twenty I called for a united Germany. I cannot say that this was my ambition. I was born in 1968 (nineteen sixty eight) in the eastern part of an already divided Germany. That there had been another time, I only knew from the stories my mother told me; my mother who had scarcely been twenty years old herself when the wall was built and divided Germany.

In the budding opposition in the GDR of the 1980s (nineteen eighties), in Leipzig and Berlin, I met no one who called for reunification. I wanted an honest state with a freely elected government who does not need to lie to the people about the general economic situation. A country one could be proud of, a free country where one would love to stay instead of being forced to stay. A country where you could believe in anything you liked – including God – without being persecuted for it. A country where I could study at university because I was good in a particular field and not because I had “connections.”

I was very young then and had no clear idea of a “new state.” I wasn’t a politician, but I understood what was wrong, and I had suggestions and ideas. The opposition didn’t know all the answers but I think in those days we asked the right questions. I did not fight for a united Germany, that was no solution for me, but I wasn’t a “new socialist” either. In my ears, the word “socialism” was a GDR word – in that country “socialist” was an adjective placed in front of every other word or behind it. So I was trying to stay away from it as much as possible. Everything I did I did because I absolutely believed that I was right in doing so. It was impossible for me to see what would be the effects, either for me or for others. I firmly believed that it was right to act according to your beliefs and share your beliefs with others. I believed that I should act as a Christian even when that was contrary to the attitude of the majority of the people in the country where I lived.

Today I am content that we are one country again. There is no reason why forty years of GDR should have been so definitive that we should have allowed that state to exist eternally. My grandparents lived in a united Germany, and my son lives in a united Germany again. He also lives in Italy, in Europe – and this is the way it should be. But I am also aware that West Germans and East Germans very often do not understand each other, although we speak the same language. 

On the East German side, the problem is that people tend to compare their living conditions with those in centers of the big cities, with Munich or Cologne, and not with those in the not so well-off parts of these cities or with rural areas. In West Germany, too, there are areas with massive unemployment and very low salaries. Also, when I listen to some of my acquaintances or family from the east, how they speak about the GDR (if they continue to talk when I enter the room), I always think: “Hey, what a great country they are talking about –

I would have liked to have lived there, too!” They paint an ideal picture of the GDR, including their own part in it, and because the vast majority of the people had arranged themselves with the system then, this conformism is now still considered to be normal behavior and right. All others (myself, for example) were and are considered trouble-makers. The more West Germans judge this behavior, the more the East Germans pull together to defend themselves, mentally transforming a dictatorial system into a freely chosen way of life – a community, where everybody was everybody’s friend and money was not important at all.

On the West German side, the problem is that most West Germans naturally imagine that they would have been members of the opposition or at least acted differently, in a non-conformist way, had they lived in the GDR. So they judge the East in a harsh and self-righteous manner. And I have met some of those who rebelled in 1968 (nineteen sixty eight) in the West and then went on to become professors and adapted to the circumstances, or managers, or obedient civil servants heading for a secure pension. They do not realize that living in the free West was a privilege, not their own achievement.

Perhaps it will take as long as the GDR has lasted for the traces of the divided Germany to vanish from everyday life. But I do not want to forget, not even the not so nice and not so enjoyable things.

I wanted to be courageous, I wanted to tell what I saw and thought. I was struck with fear, I was observed, intimidated, imprisoned and threatened with life-long custody. I grew up in a dictatorial system, I spoke out, and I went to prison. I have no reason to be thankful or nostalgic when I look back on that state, the GDR, and its society. But nevertheless, at the age of twenty I made experiences that strengthened me and shaped me and are fruitful to this very day.

I am what I am, what I paint, think, feel, also because of that time. Experiencing a dictatorial system has alerted me for any kind of injustice. I ask more directly, and I do not believe everything. I am grateful that I do not take democracy with all its freedom for granted, even when living in one today. The night the wall came down I turned twenty one in the streets of Berlin and danced and caroused with “brothers” who were complete strangers, for we wished for a new life to begin.

And it worked.

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