East Is East and West Is West

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While commemorating german reunification's 10th anniversary earlier this month in Dresden, German President Johannes Rau noted that his compatriots could still learn a lot from the French about how to "happily celebrate" rather than "solemnly mark" a national holiday. Someday, yes. But from the relatively short vantage point of 10 years, reunification still strikes many Germans as a mixed blessing.

The 15- and 16-year-olds in class 10 at the Immanuel Kant Gymnasium, a university-track high school in the formerly East Berlin quarter of Lichtenberg, were still in kindergarten when the German Democratic Republic came to its ignoble end. Their memories of 1989 and 1990 are a child's simple registry of concrete gains and losses: chewing gum pressed into their hands when they ventured into West Berlin, disappointment at not getting to wear the red scarf of the Young Pioneers. Now, 10 years later, East Germany's legacy — like the lives of these students — has become a lot more complicated. Across the city at the Sophie-Charlotte Gymnasium in Charlottenburg, in the heart of what was West Berlin, it's much the same: teenagers who barely remember reunification have yet to get out entirely from under the weight of division.

Some in the east cherish the old ways without quite wishing them back. Lichtenberg's Markus Glänzel, 15, is proud of his father's tenure in the east's National People's Army and of the stellar medal counts of East German athletes at past Olympics. The new right to travel anywhere doesn't mean much to him. "The Baltic coast has always been good enough," he says. Yet other students at the Kant Gymnasium feel truly liberated. Rebecca Wüstneck figures the end of the G.D.R. means she'll get the chance to go to university. Her mother never could, she says, because as a pastor's daughter she was considered politically untrustworthy. "Who isn't happy that we're not all being watched constantly anymore?" she asks.

Many of these teenagers feel a diffuse sense of loss over the old G.D.R. Tanja Seemann finds it "sad and fascinating at the same time" that her mother keeps her old Free German Youth blouse neatly ironed. Sure, the curtains and the wallpaper were dowdy back then, but there was solidarity, a kind of simplicity, a certain pride in making do with less. "These days everything revolves around money," sighs Claudia Neupert. "I don't know whether it was like that before."

There is no question in Lichtenberg but that Mammon's true home is in the West, and for many students that creates a certain wariness about the seemingly richer and more privileged people there. The distance can be measured in either direction. Charlottenburg's Jakob Cromer says he gets the evil eye when he visits his father in a formerly East German suburb. "The kids who live there give me grief just because I come in a taxi," he says. Some of the many foreign-born students at the Sophie-Charlotte Gymnasium won't venture east at all for fear of skinheads, though the west has xenophobes of its own. On one level, of course, these attitudes aren't much different from the ones that divide London's East-Enders from the denizens of Mayfair.

But economic and cultural differences are exaggerated by the political weight of the East-West rubric, figures Marion Weigelt, superintendent of schools in Lichtenberg. She has been working for years to transform the schools in her district to the standards of the Federal Republic. Like all tenured bureaucrats whose careers began in East Berlin, she gets paid only 86% of what her exact counterparts in former West Berlin earn. "It would be a lot easier after 10 years," she says, "if we would finish up with this stuff about East and West and simply get on with educating the children."

But the hangovers of history are not so easily cured. According to a study of 16- to 29-year-olds by the German Youth Institute in Munich, a drop in political interest and satisfaction with democracy in former East Germany "is bound to dampen hopes for a rapid evening-out of political attitudes in east and west." In Charlottenburg, many students feel they still don't know enough about what their compatriots across the city and around them have been through. "We get too negative a picture from the media," says Moritz Beber. "This stuff belongs in the school books. Some people don't want to handle the Third Reich, either, but it has to be done."

The differences teenagers see between East and West today are bound to fade with time. But the government could speed that change if it acts to quell the festering resentment among easterners who feel they aren't getting the same opportunities as those who live in the west. Then maybe young people east and west will be able to define themselves as Lichtenberg student Tim Jänicke does: "a person who speaks German, lives in Berlin and thinks like a European." If it works for him, it ought to work for everyone.