Rediscovering Germany

The pandemic coincided with the 30th anniversary of the reunification of Germany - the crisis is a chance to find that sense of optimism again.

Berlin fall
Berlin fall: jubilant Germans at the Wall after the opening of the border on 9 November 1989. Credit: Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images.

Towards the end of the year in which a pandemic and the 30th anniversary of German reunification coincided, some of us here wonder whether the togetherness of our hygiene-disciplined nation will continue to hold out, what this winter will be like and whether we can celebrate Christmas with households beyond our own.

In the midst of the second wave, I look back almost nostalgically on the summer. It seemed as if, despite travel restrictions, a kind of normality was within reach. And because tens of millions of us Germans did not travel abroad as usual, because the same dark clouds of crisis were looming all over the world, the gate to the future, which seemed closed to us just a moment ago, was suddenly open wide again. Perhaps as open as it has been any time since 1990.

There was time to take another look at what happened in this country three decades ago; to raise the important question about the sustainability of German reunification again; and to experience it more fully.

Why? Due to Coronavirus restrictions this summer our travel focus was inevitably directed towards home destinations. The moment favoured a unique and intense traveling experience within Germany. In the thirtieth year of their reunification, Germans once again travelled through their federal states with beating hearts, looking at the signs at the edge of the motorways as though they held the promise of extraordinary destinations.

In the months before, there had been too much talk about differences between East and West, about regression, distrust and alienation. This summer offered us the chance to experience our own country with a new awareness, in one’s own car or in a train compartment, albeit with social distancing observed. The outbreak of an inner-German travel fever set hope against fear, which could be found again and again in past media reports about the lost East: especially because the East seemed to have an advantage, at least in terms of infection rates.

The last time we faced such a massive jolt like the one our country is currently going through was thirty years ago. At that time, too, much was decided and suspended very quickly. Risks were not weighed up for long and the fate of millions was at stake. The crucial difference between the two experiences is that during that time everything was done for freedom and rights, whereas today everything is about giving up freedom and rights to protect our safety.

The unlikely recovery of a single Germany, from two ideologically hostile parts, ranks among the historical milestones of our epoch. Perhaps, in a later world chronicle, it will be separated from Corona only by the traumatic event of September 11. After both events the world had to reorganise itself. It was not clear in which direction it would go.

So it goes now: an unimaginable vacuum lies before us, a space without matter, filled only with absence. How far away does the carefree embrace appear to us today? The exuberant social eating and drinking, the immersion in ecstatic dance, the surprise of love. Indeed, one should not underestimate the damage to our erotic life that all this has caused. Now that we can only meet strangers at a distance or digitally (the same thing), now that the clubs and bars are closed and Tinder dates mean a chaste walk together as a precaution, loneliness is increasing.

In Berlin, the advertising pillars are wallpapered with the tasteless advertising posters of a sex toy manufacturer – will this become a symbolic image for a cooled pandemic-struck society? Everyone is alone with their own idea of what will come to pass.

One thing is certain: in 2020, the pandemic and the memory of German unity met. Now the question arises as to whether the ‘we’ feeling of the hygiene-disciplined nation during the Covid crisis can be combined with a community pathos of German memory, so that saying ‘we’ does not just mean putting on a black-red-gold face mask, but celebrating the shift in political powers thirty years ago as a happy template of a united Germany’s fate. Perhaps this moment, when we are all in a more or less ‘monumental’ mood, offers the chance for a new awareness of what unity can mean and how precious it is.

The virus involuntarily gave us the best preparation for this: namely the strong recommendation to spend the summer holidays in our own country. Before the pandemic, the last-minute flight abroad always seemed more attractive than the short train ride. In reference to the traumas of the 20th century, our Federal President Steinmeier recently said in a serious and sensual turn of phrase that one can ‘only love this country with a broken heart’. Now we might add: ‘And if you believe in the great happiness of its unity’.


Simon Strauß