Germany Has Been Unified for 30 Years. Its Identity Still Is Not.


East Germans, bio-Germans, passport Germans: In an increasingly diverse country, the legacy of a divided history has left many feeling like strangers in their own land.

BERLIN — Abenaa Adomako remembers the night the Berlin Wall fell. Joyous and curious like so many of her fellow West Germans, she had gone to the city center to greet East Germans who were pouring across the border for a first taste of freedom.

“Welcome,” she beamed at a disoriented-looking couple in the crowd, offering them sparkling wine.

But they would not take it.

“They spat at me and called me names,” recalled Ms. Adomako, whose family has been in Germany since the 1890s. “They were the foreigners in my country. But to them, as a black woman, I was the foreigner.’’

Three decades later, as Germans mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, the question of what makes a German — who belongs and who does not — is as unsettled as ever.

Across the former Iron Curtain, a new eastern identity is taking root, undermining the joyful narrative that dominated the reunification story on past anniversaries.

“Under the lid of antifascism, the old nationalism partly survived,” said Volkhard Knigge, a historian and director of the memorial at the former Buchenwald concentration camp. “The lid came off in 1989.”

For the first part of her life, the West, too, had been overwhelmingly white. When she was born in the 1960s, she was the only black child in her West Berlin school.

By the time her daughter, Antonia, 20, finished high school last year, one in four of the students in her class were nonwhite.

But four generations after her great-grandfather came to Germany from Cameroon, then a German colony, Antonia still routinely gets asked: “Where are you from?”

“When I’m abroad, I feel German,” she said. “But when I’m in Germany, I don’t know.”

Ulrich Gerst, 36, a teacher in a multiethnic school who grew up in the wealthy southwest of Germany, tries hard to avoid asking that question.

In 2010, Mr. Gerst wrote a master’s thesis about how schools could help students develop their identity. He says he wants to see a Germany that celebrates hyphenated identities. Still, even he sometimes catches himself assuming women in head scarves are not German.

“These subconscious devices are still prevalent,’’ Mr. Gerst said.

For a long time, that discrimination was not merely subconscious, but structural.

Even as Germany became a major immigration country, no real path to citizenship was extended even to the children of immigrants born in the country.

Understanding that it could is key to preventing it, said Mr. Knigge, the historian at the Buchenwald memorial. “That’s the most important lesson from German history,” he added.

The resurgence of pre-fascist ideology today worries him, he said. People crave a strong national identity, he noted, and the old West German recipe of deliberately tying it to humility — “being proud of not being proud” — has not satisfied that need.

It has also proved a difficult template for integrating newcomers. “We need to make the lessons of the Holocaust about human rights and the protection of minorities relevant to all minorities,” Mr. Knigge said.

Now, 30 years after the fall of Communism, Germany has another opportunity to try.

Ibrahim Kodaimi, a 52-year-old father of five, said he would never forget the smiling faces and hot food that greeted his family three years ago after their long, treacherous journey from Syria.

But his 20-year-old daughter Nahida said she felt excluded for wearing a head scarf.

And his 18-year-old son Omar said he had tried to make German friends in school, but had found them unresponsive. He said he spent time mostly with other immigrants during recess.

“It was like that,” Mr. Kodaimi interjected.

“It’s still like that,” Omar responded.

Even so, Omar is determined to make Germany accept him.

One of his proudest moments, he said, was when a German, after hearing him speak the language, asked if he had been born in Germany.

Adapting a phrase that Ms. Merkel used when the waves of migrants came to Germany, he said, “Ich schaffe das” — “I can do it.’’

John Eligon and Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

Produced by Mona Boshnaq, Allison McCann and Gaia Tripoli.



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