I started coming to Germany back in 1995 when an official with the former USIS (United States Information Service) noticed a book I just wrote that fit the theme the Foreign Service was pushing that year.
The book was about new media technologies which, of course, are old media technologies now. But that’s okay because the Germany I experienced then is not the Germany that I experience today. And that Germany was definitely not the same country that existed before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I have witnessed many of those changes as I’ve returned for several lecture tours and collaborations.
For example, take a look at this picture that warned East Germans they were entering the American Sector and leaving the East German Sector. This served as an ominous alert. Between the lines it warned East Germans they better have the right documentation or they could be shot on the spot. The signs still stand, but only as a reminder of how divided the country was then.
Later this week I’ll go over some of the personal stories of brave East Germans who paid that price in their flight to freedom. Clearly, however, that danger no longer exists as there is no East Germany and West Germany anymore. There is only one Germany, although it is still struggling to be unified in life, as well as on paper.
I read once that some 27 percent of all Americans surveyed said back in the mid-1990s that they would never set foot in Germany. I have this obvious hunch that a large segment of that group had lived through the horrors of World War II and the fight against Hitler’s Third Reich. But I also have a hunch that if the same survey were done today, there would be far fewer Americans inclined to stay away from Germany as the memories of WWII have faded.
For almost 15 years I have discovered Germany to be a great place to visit and work, largely because of the Germans themselves. These are largely people who give a new positive meaning to the words loyalty and friendship. Once a German decides you are his or her friend, that’s it. You become a friend for life, and you’d better stay in touch. Happily, I have many such friends in Deutschland.
I have noticed some big changes in this country over the years, however.
First is that this nation which has been so afraid since WWII of displaying signs of patriotism for fear it might conjure up remnants of the Nazi years, has once again begun to show public pride in being German. I first noticed that in 2006 when Germany hosted the World Cup. All of a sudden, German flags were replacing ubiquitous European Union flags on homes, cars, and even motorcycle helmets as bikers raced down the Autobahn. Display of national pride is still a sore spot for many Germans, but that wall has fallen for younger Germans.
A second change is that these people who used to smoke like chimneys — as is the case in much of Europe — have caught on bigtime to the dangers of tobacco. Smoke-free zones are now the norm in Germany, and this country does not hesitate to let you know smoking is bad for you. One of the favorite warnings standardized in country is simply, SMOKING KILLS!
Third, Germans used to be the brunt of jokes about having the shortest work week imagineable. Stores would not open on weekends, with the exception of certain designated Saturdays throughout the year, and very few professionals seemed to work late at the office. But today stores keep about the same hours as in the states, and the work week looks more like what Americans are accustomed to.
About that apparent reluctance to work late at the office? Actually there’s a cultural reason for that. Part of the German mindset is the concept of efficiency. So the notion is that, if you are efficient with your time, you should be able to get your work done during normal business hours.
A fourth obvious change is that, as late as 1995 and beyond, most stores would not accept credit cards in Germany, nor would most thrifty Germans think of using them. Not so today, as consumers use plastic almost as much as we do in the states. Not sure if that goes in the plus or minus column for progress, though.
There have also been big changes in the former East Germany or the GDR (German Democratic Republic). During my first lecture tour in Dresden and Leipzig in 1995, I needed an English translator in the university classrooms because few German college students in the East spoke English. Russian was their second language because of their control by the USSR. Today, however, English has replaced Russian in the East. No translators needed on my last several lecture trips there.
The physical landscape of the former East German cities has changed, too, as western capital has flowed into the East to bring it into the 21st century. Leipzig and Dresden have taken on new beauty as has the former East Berlin itself.
Another big change has been the return of Berlin as the seat of German government. From 1949 to the 1990 German reunification the federal capital moved to the university city of Bonn, and it was not until the Wall fell that it was able to move back to Berlin, although several federal branches remained in Bonn until recent years.
Of course the biggest change is that there is no more Berlin Wall, no more Iron Curtain dividing this country. All Germans are now free to pursue their dreams. And that, of course, is the happiest change of all.