On the day the Berlin Wall fell, as it happened, I almost died. Constipated from too much chocolate, I battled for my life in an east-Berlin hospital with my panic-stricken mother at my bedside, while my father had been sent out to secure the border. At the age of two and a half, I was not part of the political story. I had my own problems digesting die Wende.
Obviously, I cannot say much about life in the GDR. Nevertheless, the stories of my family were so vivid that it sometimes felt like I lived through it myself. In fact, I did – through their narratives, through their fears and the injustices they felt, which endure until today. The trouble finding a job in the free-market economy, the devaluation of their professional education and the (self-)destructive forces die Wende unleashed: alcoholism, divorce and loneliness. The feeling of having lived through the best times in the GDR prompted much of the (cultural) pessimism that reigns in a large part of the rural east. And it has been handed down to the next generation.
The feeling of having lived through the best times in the GDR prompted much of the (cultural) pessimism that reigns in a large part of the rural East.
For my peers, forming political beliefs has been a tricky issue. With our parents still reluctant to play their part in the citizenship model of reunited Germany, a vacuum evolved that has been filled with swastikas and violence. The Nazis of my generation dominated the various spheres of social life. They were proud of their east German descent and they were cherished by their west German comrades for their steadfastness and ultra-brutality. Becoming a real national socialist was a lifelong aim for some. One of my best friends from primary school went this way. When we met again, he was about to batter me. We recognised each other and he released me. “Was just looking for some reds to beat up”, he said. We went our different ways – but not without another sieg heil as a farewell.
Zecken klatschen (beating up lefties) was a pastime. Drinking, chasing, mugging. It was a ritual. For some it was the adrenaline rush, a feeling of power, for others it was a political project to establish a right-wing hegemony. A nationally liberated zone as they called it. Growing up in such a neighbourhood in the east Berlin periphery meant being vigilant. Always. It meant knowing the right time to cross the street, scanning everyone on the street for Nazi codes, having antennae to sense trouble. It also meant knowing people who could protect you. Having friends who would never accept your political opinion but stand with you when it came down to it. I was lucky to have these friends. I was the captain of the local football team and some people wouldn’t touch me for the sake of the club. I could even call them in case of trouble. Sometimes this made it difficult to draw the line between friend and foe.
I was lucky to have these friends. I was the captain of the local football team and some people wouldn’t touch me for the sake of the club.
Looking back, the most puzzling thing for me was the permanent dissonance: Nazi skinheads meeting in a kebab shop while they set other similar shops on fire. Right-wing teammates making friends with our Vietnamese players and insulting them as filthy “fidschis” behind their backs. Right-wing people consuming drugs from dealers of a foreign origin. And somehow it always came back down to me: sitting on the fence when my team clashed with Turkish football clubs from west Berlin. Trying to explain to friends from elsewhere that some guys are ok, and they don’t mean it. Not making a scene when Nazi music is played at parties and racist jokes are met with laughter and malice. It was difficult to resist during teenage years without being socially isolated and unprotected in my neighbourhood.
“Are you left-wing or right-wing?” was a constant cry in the schoolyard. I remember it starting from primary school. To avoid imminent trouble, the safest option was to say that you were neutral – “leaning towards the right”. It was a control mechanism in our neighbourhood. The cool guys were the skinheads and the losers the lefties (Zecken). It was that easy. If you wanted to have a safe life, you knew what was good for you. And you would know that it is better to hang around in other areas. In my teenage years, it was always exciting to go out in the city, to see a vivid anti-fascist youth culture that inspired us and connected us to people with similar experiences. The rides back on the night bus meant the return to the frustrating clash with the local reality of our district. We began living in two worlds. Knowing how to behave, dress and speak in changing contexts was the central challenge.
We began living in two worlds. Knowing how to behave, dress and speak in changing contexts was the central challenge.
Neo-nazis then and now
Together with a close friend, I left Berlin in 2007 to study in the east Germany city of Jena. At that time, the story of the terrorist organisation National Socialist Underground (NSU) was still to be discovered. The core trio grew up here and went underground. The milieu around the NSU didn’t go unnoticed. They owned a house close to the plattenbau settlement where we lived, far outside the city centre.
Avoiding critical situations was not easy. But we learned to resist, and we knew how to handle trouble. To avoid an awkward situation, we once accepted an invitation from one of our neighbours who proudly presented us with his memorabilia: flags, books, knives. Swastikas upon swastikas. I thought I would never see him again. But when I came back to Jena for work in 2017, I recognized him in a video recorded during an AfD demonstration, singing anti-Semitic slurs and attacking counter-protesters. In a way, it was a surprising déjà-vu that was not a surprise at all. Like our neighbour, many who had once voted for the neo-Nazi party NPD moved over to the AfD as the more realistic force within this authoritarian shift. In the federal elections in Thuringia in October, the AfD won 23.4 per cent of the vote. During the same period, a court confirmed that the AfD regional leader Björn Höcke was rightfully called a fascist.
He has been campaigning with the slogan: “Complete die Wende.” Could it be more contradictory? Thirty years after the fall of the wall, a fascist from the West summoned Thuringians to continue the peaceful revolution that had led to the fall of the Communist regime. This time, the legacy of the revolution has been mobilised to oppose the ‘degenerate system of political correctness’ and to incite resentments against migrants – a predictable pattern, as fascists always take their legitimacy from flawed interpretations of the past.
And yet, almost a third of my generation (aged 30-44) voted for Höcke’s party. It was thanks to the pensioners that the AfD did not come first. But still. Along with the federal elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, it gets difficult to remain positive, especially after everything we experienced in our youth, and since the swing to the right has become so “normal” nowadays. This all comes together with a new generation of far-right violence that has been erupting at regular intervals since 2015.
The ‘baseball bat years’
It is no surprise that 30 years after the fall of the Wall, a debate on the ‘baseball bat years’ – as the journalist Christian Bangel calls them – is spreading. On Twitter, people share their experiences of being totally defenceless against the Nazi mob using the hashtag #baseballschlaegerjahre.
It is time that these stories were heard. They have long been silenced and ignored in favour of the ‘fears and concerns’ of Pegida demonstrators. It is time that we also tell the stories of how to build solidarity against the shift to the far-right. Stories such as recent developments in Jena, where Nazis have no say any more. Or of my own Berlin district, where neo-Nazis once owned or occupied seven bars within a distance of 500 meters. They have disappeared from there, although they are re-appearing elsewhere: in nearby villages and online. The Nazis of my generation grew up. They have kids now. But they still carry the hate of their teenage years.
All that I have experienced is nothing when compared to the fears that people of colour have lived through – especially outside the larger cities.
Since 1990, 198 people have died as a result of far-right violence in the reunited Germany. Most of them were from a migrant background. In fact, all that I have experienced is nothing when compared to the fears that people of colour have lived through – especially outside the larger cities.
Digesting these experiences needs public attention and it demands solidarity and protection. The threat is real. And parties like the AfD offer a voice for racist resentments exploiting die Wende for political efficacy. 30 years after the fall of the wall, it is time to give the legacy of the peaceful revolution an anti-fascist turn. Just like every revolution, this can only arise from below.