I know there was a complicated time in German history, and many people have complicated memories of it. But learn these ten words and you’ll be well on your way to a basic understanding of this complex period in German history.
1. Die Wende
Definition: the change, the turning point
Historical significance: Die Wende is the name for the significant changes that rocked the GDR after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, leading up to reunification in late 1990. Suddenly, East Germans could travel to the west. The GDR moved towards a market economy, held a free election and eventually reunited with West Germany on Oct. 3, 1990.
2. Die Mauer
Definition: the wall
Historical significance: The Berlin Wall was constructed in August 1961 to cut off West Berlin from East Berlin and the rest of East Germany by encircling West Berlin with a physical barrier. Officially referred to as the “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart” in the GDR, the wall was largely dismantled in the 1990s, although sections of it remain in Berlin today, notably the East Side Gallery, a section of the wall that runs between Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg and is decorated with artists’ murals in the 1990s, plus a few chunks at Bornholmer Straße, where border guards first opened the wall in 1989.
3. Die Grenze
Definition: the border, the boundary
Historical significance: Die Grenze signifies the border (called the Inner German Border) that ran between the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany from 1949 to 1990, a 863-mile boundary extending from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia. The heavily-guarded boundary, built to prevent GDR citizens from escaping into West Germany, separated two countries and two ways of life.
Definition: a combination of the German word for east (Ost) and the word Nostalgie, which means nostalgia.
Historical significance: The concept of Ostalgie is used to describe nostalgia for East Germany, something experienced by many residents of the eastern half of the country after reunification. Ostalgie can be used to describe nostalgia for the East German aesthetic (Trabants and the Ampelmann, for example) as well as a deeper nostalgia for a time before the upheaval of reunification. In 1989, the unemployment rate in East Germany was 0 percent; in 1992 the figure clocked in at 15 percent. In 2013 the figure stood at 9.5 percent, versus 5.8 percent in West Germany. It’s easy to see why some East Germans miss the positive aspects of their former country.
5. Die Wiedervereinigung
Definition: the reunification
Historical significance: The Deutsche Wiedervereinigung refers to the process through which East and West Germany reunified into one country—a process that culminated on October 3, 1990, officially celebrated as the Day of German Unity.
Despite the official reunification, 25 years later, many Germans still have a “wall in the head” when it comes to viewing themselves as a united country.
But remember, just as it’s important to avoid focusing too much on the Holocaust while discovering German culture and history, it’s also important to avoid over-emphasizing Germany’s division when visiting and exploring the country. Remember that modern Germany is much more than the burden of its past, and there are many exciting and innovative aspects to modern German culture that have nothing to do with walls.
Definition: to flee
Historical significance: After the Berlin Wall was built, approximately 5,000 people attempted to flee from the GDR by crossing the wall into West Berlin. These people were trying to fliehen von the GDR and make better lives for themselves in the west—a trend that led to up to 200 deaths in the border area during the wall years. Other East Germans tried to flee to other countries through methods such as trying to swim to Hungary.
Definition: a nickname, often derogatory, for Germans from the former east
Historical significance: Twenty-six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the stereotype (das Vorurteil) goes that Ossis are whining and ungrateful for the help given them by West Germany (which paid plenty of money for reunification) as well as racist and uneducated, as evidenced by the PEGIDA demonstrations in fall 2014.
Definition: a nickname, often derogatory, for Germans from the former west
Historical significance: Just as westerners have Vorurteile for the east, so do easterners have Vorurteile for the west. The stereotype goes that Wessis are know-it-alls, quick to criticize and have a superiority complex.