I guess I cannot deny being German, having the accent, efficiency and all. However, I have lived in the UK for over 8 years now. I remember like it was yesterday when I took off from Duesseldorf to Heathrow in August, wearing my Barbour jacket to save weight in the suitcases, and arrived in Aberdeen about 5 hours later. That was 2001. Only a few weeks later the world changed when two planes flew into the world trade center. Then Google became popular in the UK and I was about to start a new life.
Tradition is very important for me. However, for me it is important to look forward without forgetting the past. If I had looked back in 2001, I would have left the UK 2 years later after my Bachelor’s degree. But I didn’t because I wanted to grow, I wanted to get my MBA and have a career in the oil and gas industry as a manager. This never happened and I have now lived in Beckenham, just outside London, for over 5 years. And I love London, I like the UK and I am very happy.
So what has changed? I got used to instant coffee, don’t mind not having a canteen at work and eat sandwiches during the day and cooked food at night, I drink ale, love bacon butties after a late night out, and love to joke about “Don’t mention the war” or “We are slowly taking over the world again”. That is of course all bollocks and I don’t want to take over the world or think that the 2nd World War was good. Maybe good in terms of drawing new boundaries and destroying the confidence of a generation of Germans. And, it makes good jokes if you are up for it, and living in the UK you need to be up for that. But never mind.
Ever since my first time living abroad, in the USA, going back over 15 years, I had to learn how to take the mickey out of my own nation. Not sure if this is good but it is just the way it is. We just get on with it, because fighting it would make things worse.
So what happened on the 9th of November 1989, 20 years ago? I can tell you what happened in our living room. I got up in the morning and my mum was crying in front of the TV. The wall came down, she said. I wasn’t touched at all. My dad was born in the East and then moved to the West a few weeks later, long before the wall was built. Both my parents grew up just a few miles from the iron curtain. As a young child, and in 1989 I was still a child, I always saw the wall, the iron curtain and the self shooting mechanisms in case anyone tried to escape. I visited the East, loved to eat very cheap and stock up on books. I didn’t understand that people in Eastern Germany were glad to have a mono cassette player which was out of date or some nice food we had smuggled across the border. And, of course I remember mum packing several parcels for Christmas with West German chocolate (Eastern German chocolate used beef blood instead of cocoa) and wrapping some things up in aluminum foil so the border police couldn’t see what was in there. Some parcels never arrived. That was just normal for me. That was the way my life was, being born in 1977, the wall had been up for over 15 years.
And now the wall was gone. Does that mean we can now travel freely to Berlin, I remember me asking my mum. I couldn’t understand the emotions because I could never understand the wall. How could have I? If our children grow up with climate change and nuclear power, they might never understand what it would mean for us to not being dependent on it. For me, I thought, nothing changed. So why was my mum crying?
We took my grandparents Charlotte and Heinrich back to the East in 1992. Five of us in our Audi 80. And I saw my grandparents crying. My grandma cried when she saw the house in which she gave birth to her two sons just before the end of the second world war. The house that had a stiff iron gate that had prevented the Russians coming in and harming her. She heard her neighbours crying. She never really spoke about it unless I persistently asked “what happened grandma”. It must have been a terrible time. Granddad with both boys on his old motorbike (the picture is from the web and doesn’t show my dad and uncle but I guess it must have looked similar). And grandma spoke about her boots that she could heat up inside when she had to que for food rations. And they spoke about the train which transported their furniture from Sonneberg to Geroldsgruen. From East to West, even if it doesn’t look like it on the map.
So if you can ever understand why your granddad joined the Nazi-Party two weeks before the end of the war to prevent being shipped to the Russian front and then cancelled his membership the day the war ended, then you might understand why the wall was such a terrible thing. Even if the communists in the GDR spoke about “we prevent capitalism to enter our country”, it was more about “we prevent our people to flee to a free and democratic state”. If you can ever understand that my dad never found out about my granddad’s party membership until I asked him, one generation later, you might get a picture of how deep the scars were. What the war had done to Germany and our confidence. We were the scapegoat for everything. And, maybe my humour is just a way of dealing with the scars that you still find in my generation – over 60 years on.
I am writing this on a Sunday morning, it is rainy and cold outside. My wife who is Scottish is upstairs, still sleeping. So is my boy, Colin Heinrich. You might now understand why I wanted to name him Heinrich, and why my cousin is a godmother to him. It is because it is important to keep tradition alive but having Colin growing up without the pressure and scars my generation and more so my parents’ generation grew up with. Germany has changed, so have the Germans. And the 9th of November 1989 made this change happen. Never have I seen more proud Germans than at the world cup a few years ago, after they had a chance to grow together, East and West. But also, when the 3rd generation Turks and Greeks were celebrating with our generation for Germany’s success in the world cup. Seeing that kind of change in your country, in Germany, is new, it is fantastic.
For many years I just didn’t get it. I didn’t want to live in Germany ever again. My mother in law grew up with a fear of Germans. She stands for a generation in the UK that were told about the evil Germans. My neighbour in Beckenham got bombed three times in the 2nd World War. There are scars on both sides. But, in this country, the UK, I feel more at home now. I have my wife, my little family, my house and all. I work in an industry that my grandparents wouldn’t understand. Anything beyond a normal phone line would have been difficult to explain to someone who never flew in a plane. Digital Marketing, mobile phones, blackberries?
My granddad called me a few days before I was flying home for an internship in Frankfurt. He said that he was proud of what I have achieved and that I should carry on with what I was doing, encouraging the free will and the life I had chosen. He was immensely proud of his grandson. The day before I flew home my dad called me and told me that he had died. All he wanted to do was say goodbye. We were close. Then, on my birthday a year later my grandmother passed away. I am confident she chose my birthday to send me a message, a message to her grandchild living abroad that life is there for living and enjoying – and for living on, no matter what happens.
It makes me cry to think about it. It makes me cry to reflect on it. This is my personal life, my family life and maybe this is my wall, the wall between the generations that came down between my grandparents and myself. Now, I understood why my parents were emotional when the wall came down. When they were reunited with friends and family in the East. There were so many personal relationships that the wall had destroyed.
Over 8 years ago I left Germany. Never before would I have considered to go back to my fatherland but this year. This year I started thinking differently. I started speaking to my son in German and want to make sure he will understand why my mum cried and why I cry thinking of my grandparents. It is important to keep the flame burning, the tradition going. It is important to make future generations understand.
This year a new generation was born for me. My son who grows up without a wall, without scars and as a “product” of internationalisation and globalisation. A son that will not preserve the ashes but hopefully understands and continues tradition. Tradition from both sides of the family. A person that can wear the Lederhosen and the Kilt and feels comfortable in both. And, maybe one day he will read this blog post on his smartphone. Many years from now, when the technology we use now, that was not comprehensible for my grandparents’ generation, will be old and the technology Colin uses will not be comprehensible for me anymore.
Life is moving on. 20 years ago, the wall came down. For 20 years we have been healing scars and fighting for freedom. We started living again as German people, as “ein Volk”, and we are not afraid to stand up and be German. It is not a bad thing anymore. Things have changed. We are the new generation, and we don’t want to take over the world anymore, we just want to be free and living.