Dt word is slowly getting around, at least in the media, that “the” East Germans don’t exist, and there is hardly another question that is making this clearer than the assessment of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine: it reveals a deep rift, especially between old and young in the East. The “Sportschau” presenter Jessy Wellmer, born in Güstrow in 1979, gets to the bottom of the phenomenon in a remarkable documentary. Just don’t let yourself be fooled by the beginning, when she visits her parents, which initially suggests that one of the now inflationary and often annoying films (or texts) about one’s own self is being served here in German journalism.
Rather, Wellmer gets to the heart of the matter with this introduction: while the majority of younger East Germans like her clearly see Putin as an aggressor, older ones also condemn the war, but they look for and find explanations that at least share the blame, if not even that see full responsibility for this in the West. The question of where this comes from is answered by Wellmer from cleverly chosen – and exclusively East German – protagonists. In addition to her parents, the historian Silke Satjukow, the “Silly” guitarist Uwe Hassbecker, the Eastern Commissioner Carsten Schneider and Gregor Gysi have their say.
While the latter in the film appropriately comes directly from the American embassy and initially puts it into perspective by explaining that East Germans allegedly differentiate between Putin and the Russian population, he finally provides one of the decisive answers to Wellmer’s questions: “If you have a fundamental anti-NATO attitude and to the West, then try not to limit your ideology, you don’t want to have been wrong. So you’re always looking for explanations as to what bad and wrong things the West has done that pushed Putin to do it.”
Very few can escape their own biographical character, as the film keeps coming back to. Older East Germans grew up with the enemy image of NATO, but Silke Satjukow points out that they “also understood that Germany was responsible for 27 million deaths in the Soviet Union”. That was never suppressed in the GDR. The proximity to Russia has shaped many people in the GDR, from – compulsory – learning the language to books, films, music and travel. Admittedly, only a few people developed a love for the Soviet Union. On the contrary, most were relieved when “the Russians”, who were soldiers from 15 Soviet republics, finally withdrew as occupiers in 1994. The fact that older East Germans in particular tend to defend Russia today is also a product of the post-reunification period, when things went steeply downhill in the East, when mass unemployment, emigration and de-industrialization prevailed and West Germans felt called upon to explain the GDR to East Germans. Just think of the educational scientist Johannes Niermann, who described East Germans as “mentally deformed” in the Bundestag, the criminologist Christian Pfeiffer, who saw them as lost for democracy because of alleged potty training in crèches, or the historian Arnulf Baring, who claimed that they were Ossis “botched up” and “dwarfed”.
Aversions break out
Publicly defending oneself against such injuries, protesting visibly against the degradation of a third of the country, turned out to be difficult, because the all-German media are located exclusively in the West and with a West German perspective and are often not very accurate about life in the GDR and in the so-called judged in new countries, and often did not even perceive problems as such. Even if things have changed noticeably for the better in recent years – late enough, but at least – the damage is great. The film also clearly shows that “the media” is hardly believed anymore, especially when it comes to the question of war and peace. “The 1990s,” says the historian Satyukov in the film, “created an atmosphere of insult.” Many aversions stemmed from this period that are now breaking through in the age of the internet and social media.
In order to defend themselves against the impositions of the post-reunification period, East Germans suddenly also remembered Russia, because knowledge of the language and the country, no matter how rudimentary it might be, was finally something in which they were superior to most Wessis. The Saxony-born writer Marko Martin recently put it succinctly to the editorial network Germany: “Out of a feeling of inferiority coupled with complexes, many East Germans discovered the Russians who had now withdrawn as secret allies at the time, the new enemy was the arrogant, ignorant Wessi. ‘ Putin became the best projection screen for expressing rejection of the West.
And this valve is supposed to be sealed permanently because of the war? There are East Germans who hate war but don’t want to lose control of their lives. Many people can see in the film how difficult it is. A former NVA officer, on the other hand, makes it very easy for himself, who simply ignores the Ukraine and praises Russia as a “guarantor of peace” and “sympathizer” because “that’s how we learned it”. It is one of the strengths of this film, which is well worth seeing, that Wellmer does not judge, but rather listens. So these 45 minutes contribute a lot to the understanding of a part of the country that was itself the result of a war. If West Germany had been occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II, “you would have become like us,” Gregor Gysi says to the West Germans. And that also applies vice versa.
Russia, Putin and we East Germans runs on Monday, October 24, at 8:15 p.m. in the first and in the ARD media library.
Leave a Reply