Angela Merkel on the Fall of the Wall 'I Wanted to See the Rockies and Listen to Springsteen'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was 35 when the Berlin Wall came down. In an interview, she speaks of her dreams as a citizen of East Germany, the divide between Germany's East and West and the rise of the populists during her tenure.
Angela Merkel speaks to DER SPIEGEL about life in East Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification.

Angela Merkel speaks to DER SPIEGEL about life in East Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification.

Foto: Peter Rigaud/ DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Germany is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Imagine, if you will, that the wall had never come down and East Germany (GDR) was celebrating the 70th anniversary of its founding this autumn. What do you think would have become of you?

Merkel: We certainly wouldn't be here talking to each other. That much is clear.

DER SPIEGEL: And what would you be doing?

Merkel: I would have at least been able to realize my dream. In East Germany, women retired at 60, so I would have picked up my passport five years ago and traveled to America. Pensioners were allowed to travel outside of East Germany. Those who were no longer needed as socialist workers were allowed out.

DER SPIEGEL: The United States was your dream destination?

Merkel: Of course, I would also have spent some time looking around West Germany. But I wanted my first longer trip to be to America because of its size, variety and culture. I wanted to see the Rocky Mountains, drive around in a car and listen to Bruce Springsteen. That was my dream.

DER SPIEGEL: In a huge American cruiser?

Merkel: No, I prefer smaller cars. But it would certainly have been something better than a Trabant.

DER SPIEGEL: On previous anniversaries celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, you have lamented that you can no longer remember much of your life in East Germany and the period of upheaval in 1989-1990. What does that say about how former citizens of the GDR relate to their history?

Merkel: I would remember some of it again if I spent some time thinking about it. But it is a fact that GDR citizens had to get used to a lot of new things after the fall of the Wall. We had to change our thinking, and some of the skills that we had developed in the GDR were no longer all that important in reunified Germany. Some old things were simply overwritten by the new life. Now, 30 years later, many people are apparently thinking about those things again and memories are coming back.

DER SPIEGEL: And everyone remembers differently. Some even seem quite nostalgic.

"Fundamentally, I wish West German politicians had displayed more curiosity and interest," Merkel says.

"Fundamentally, I wish West German politicians had displayed more curiosity and interest," Merkel says.

Foto: Peter Rigaud/ DER SPIEGEL

Merkel: How we see life in the GDR, of course, partly depends on where each of us East Germans are today. Fundamentally speaking, when it comes to looking back at the GDR, there is one thing that many West Germans have a hard time understanding: That even in a dictatorship, it was possible to lead a successful life. That we had friends and family with whom we celebrated birthdays and Christmas or shared tragedies despite the state -- always, of course, with a certain wariness of the state. But the fact that we could only travel to Hungary or Bulgaria and not to America didn't determine every day of our existence. Because this aspect of our individual lives in the GDR isn't understood, and is sometimes even ignored, by many West Germans, the reaction from many East Germans today is a kind of romanticization, an attitude of: Nobody can take the lives we had in the GDR away from us.

DER SPIEGEL: The result is a certain lack of enthusiasm for celebrating the fall of the Wall. And what is there to celebrate when the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a xenophobic and, in parts, fascist party has emerged as one of the strongest political forces in three recent eastern German state elections?

Merkel: For me, Nov. 9, 1989, remains a happy moment in German history. So many people in the GDR dreamt of freedom between 1949 and 1989, and suddenly we could talk about it openly! We could use our voices. And still today, everyone can use their voices.

I am aware that for a certain generation of East Germans, even as their lives became free by virtue of the peaceful revolution, they did not always become easier. I also know that in addition to the successful regions, there are also those where villages are emptying out because children and grandchildren have moved away. Still, 30 years later it must clearly be said: Even if you aren't satisfied with public transportation in your area, with medical care, with the state or with your own life, that does not give you a right to be hateful or disdainful of other people, or to resort to violence. There can be no tolerance of such behavior.

DER SPIEGEL: There are former GDR citizens who compare present-day political conditions with the time before 1989. What happened?

Merkel: I don't know. One thing that I find completely unacceptable: When people with West German backgrounds go to the East and claim that our current state is no better than the GDR. That is something that must be adamantly rejected.

DER SPIEGEL: There are also former human rights activists, like Vera Lengsfeld, who say such things. And there is the example of a former GDR citizen who spent time in prison for dodging the draft, yet says he is happy that his daughter managed to escape present-day Germany to the U.S. Do such things make you angry?

Merkel: I do not share such views.

DER SPIEGEL: Many eastern Germans are disappointed with you, which is often expressed by voting for the AfD. Are you also disappointed in these eastern Germans?

Merkel: No. I see my task as working on behalf of all people in Germany.

DER SPIEGEL: But is it not discouraging that during your tenure, the AfD has grown so strong, especially in eastern Germany?

Merkel: We live in freedom and people can express themselves and vote as they see fit. At the beginning of my political career, I was a minority four times over in the CDU (eds: the center-right Christian Democratic Union party): young, female, Protestant and East German. Now, I have been chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany for 14 years and am responsible for serving all people in Germany. The assumption that I should prioritize the concerns of eastern Germans is thus wrong. But if you do make that assumption, it will of course lead to disappointment. What I do miss, however, is a more fruitful intra-German dialogue.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you mean?

Merkel: The different life experiences in eastern and western Germany are a reality. We should talk more about that and try harder to understand each other.

DER SPIEGEL: You were 35 when the Wall came down. Knowing what you know now about the post-unification period, and if you could reshape reunification, what would you do differently?

Merkel: Everything went so fast back then. And of course mistakes were made.

Merkel speaks to DER SPIEGEL about her experiences in East Germany.

Merkel speaks to DER SPIEGEL about her experiences in East Germany.

Foto: Peter Rigaud/ DER SPIEGEL


Merkel: Günther Krause (eds: CDU member, federal transport minister from 1991 to 1993 and East German), for example, had to raise his voice on one occasion when speaking to Klaus Kinkel (eds: Free Democrat, federal justice minister from 1991 to 1992 and West German) to get him to put on some boots and come out for a closer look at the complicated property ownership situation. It was quite a scene. To avoid any misunderstandings, I had a lot of respect for Klaus Kinkel. But the story illustrates a problem early on after reunification. Fundamentally, I wish West German politicians had displayed more curiosity and interest. When I was the deputy spokesperson of the last East German government, long-time Prime Minister Lothar de Maizière, for example, wanted to take a final trip to visit the allies. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had no understanding for that wish. He said, there is enough to do at home and unification was coming no matter what. But it was important to us.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think the East German role in the fall of the Wall hasn't been sufficiently recognized?

Merkel: German unification was shaped by both the East and the West, and Helmut Kohl's political skill and the trust he enjoyed with the allies played a significant role. But the peaceful revolution and Nov. 9, 1989, was the work of the citizens of the GDR. We are happy to share it, including the joy, but it was done by the citizens of the GDR with a huge amount of courage. And because I know that not everyone in West Germany at the time was exactly brimming with courage -- I can remember that some found it too risky when they were asked to smuggle a book across the border for us -- it is something that could certainly be given more recognition.

Merkel with the two DER SPIEGEL editors, Melanie Amann and Florian Gathmann.

Merkel with the two DER SPIEGEL editors, Melanie Amann and Florian Gathmann.

Foto: Peter Rigaud/ DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: At the moment, there is a lot of debate about freedom of speech and its limits. Might this have to do with the fact that people in East Germany underestimated just how difficult living in a free society can be?

Merkel: Vaclav Havel wrote very beautifully about how parents must teach their children to live in freedom. Naturally, this was hardly possible in the GDR. So, there was and still is a lot of catching up to do -- also with regard to freedom of speech. It's not that I think people need to always agree with each other. Freedom of speech doesn't mean outlawing disagreement.

DER SPIEGEL: So you don't think freedom of speech is in danger?

Merkel: No. Of course someone like Bernd Lucke, the founder of the AfD, must be allowed to give a lecture at the University of Hamburg. And the state must step in if necessary. But debates unfold in such a way that a so-called mainstream is defined, which supposedly imposes limits on freedom of speech. But that's just not true. One must expect to encounter headwinds and indignant counterarguments. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to be contradicted. I encourage everyone to express his or her opinion, but you must endure having it called into question. Sometimes, there may even be a so-called "shitstorm." I've experienced this too. It is all part of democracy. In the old Federal Republic of Germany, there were much different debates, such as at the end of the 1960s, if I am informed correctly.

"One must expect to encounter headwinds and indignant counterarguments," Merkel says.

"One must expect to encounter headwinds and indignant counterarguments," Merkel says.

Foto: Peter Rigaud/ DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, your party is discussing whether it should hold political talks in the eastern state of Thuringia with the Left Party, the successor to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which ruled East Germany. Why does it find this so difficult?

Merkel: The CDU is right to find this difficult. Even though the state's governor, Bodo Ramelow, is from the West and a Christian and tries to be as independent as possible, he is a Left Party politician and is to an extent bound to their platform. To this day, the Left Party has not delivered an honest account of its history in the GDR. At the same time, the Left is worlds away from the CDU in terms of its platform. This is why the CDU is considering not cooperating with the Left Party. But I find it completely acceptable that Thuringia's CDU leader Mike Mohring would like to speak with Governor Ramelow, if he's willing to do so. This has nothing to do with a coalition.

DER SPIEGEL: That's more than many of your party colleagues are willing to tolerate, for whom talks with Ramelow are strictly taboo.

Merkel: Mr. Ramelow faces the problem of no longer having a majority. For him, it's now a question of whether to try and put together a majority or not. My basic advice to the CDU would be: Wait and see. Maybe he doesn't even want to talk to us. And if Mr. Ramelow does seek out a dialogue with the CDU, we should not deny him this. After all, he is the governor. But this has nothing to do with coalitions and cooperation.

DER SPIEGEL: Apart from you, there is only one other cabinet member from the former East, Franziska Giffey. Germany's blue chip DAX corporations are all run by West Germans. In almost all areas, the imbalance is similarly blatant. Why?

Merkel: Someone recently told me that there is not a single German university run by an eastern German. This isn't just strange, it's a genuine deficit. We still have a lot of work to do. The reason may be that many were too old in 1989-90. At 35, I would have had a hard time climbing the career ladder all the way to the top of a company. Anyone who was a child back then could have still reached a top position, of course. You have to be clear and forthright and sometimes a bit loud to make a career -- I can only encourage us eastern Germans to do so. But again: This is not a good situation.

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