When we first conceived the idea for The German Riveter we wanted to bring you snapshots of 1989 from the point of view of those who’d lived through it. The writer, translator and publisher Katy Derbyshire has collected and translated for us a selection of memories of the Wende (‘the changes, the turning point’) from eight of Germany’s best-known writers.
The wall never fell. I look for it in the pages of my dusty diaries, flick back and forth, run my finger down the lines, decipher the scrawls and sentences of my past writing. I look and look, but I simply can’t find it. I was fifteen at the time; Nuremberg was my home. We weren’t unpolitical; Chernobyl had roused us to activity. We went on Easter marches, wrote articles against factory farming and stopped eating meat. We demonstrated for the rainforest and against nuclear power, we wrote indignant letters to all the papers that ran McDonalds’ adverts, collected signatures for and against things, and wanted to convert everyone. But the fall of the wall and all that came with it doesn’t occur in my notes from 1989–90; I can’t find it anywhere, no matter how hard I look. Discussions with teachers are detailed in my once brightly coloured, now fading diaries, plus school trips, holidays with my parents, parties with friends and (of course!) every smile from that boy in the year above me who was finally showing an interest. It says we were thinking about spending a school year in New Zealand; it says we wanted to go to the Antarctic for Greenpeace one day or help sink wells in Africa. The world seemed so close – but the East was so far away.
Only later are there notes in the margins. Reunification, so I read, didn’t feel quite right to us. Something about it scared us; we had rows with the few boneheads and bomber jackets in our suburb and feared a Greater German Empire. So we wound ribbons around the town hall and chanted: ‘Be it East or West, down with the Nazi pest.’ And then we secretly daubed ‘No blood for oil’ on the school walls by night, and that was just as important to us.
At some point there was a seminar about setting up the first all-German youth newspaper in Nuremberg Castle. I ought to remember whether the participants from Jena, Gera and Erfurt seemed strange to me. But I can’t find anything about it. I can read names, who smiled at whom, who was jealous of whom – but nowhere does it say who came from where. It wasn’t important to us.
By the time I moved to East Berlin in my early twenties, I was no longer writing a diary. But I do know I was ashamed. Because I couldn’t grasp the dimension of my being here, while my older visitors from home would say amazed things like: ‘It’s incredible!’ Or: ‘You really live there!’ And: ‘I can’t quite believe it!’
All that is perfectly normal now. Only occasionally are there moments when we remember. We sit together and talk about our past. And suddenly there’s a dividing line; some of my friends become strangers. The friend who mentions in passing: ‘seeing as I’d escaped via Hungary’. The dancer who ate toothpaste to meet the insane weight expectations at the state ballet school. The friend who talks about her favourite lake, the one that was divided along the border, which her parents cycle around every day even now because they still can’t believe it’s possible.
Then I go quiet and don’t know how to tell them – that they come from a country that barely existed for me back then. Because it felt further away than the rainforest.
By Christiane Neudecker
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Christiane Neudecker studied stage direction and is now a freelance writer and director in Berlin. Her 2015 book Summer Novella made it onto the Spiegel bestseller list and was the NDR broadcasting Book of the Month.
Katy Derbyshire is a London-born, award-winning translator who has lived in Berlin for over twenty years. She is now also publisher at V & Q Books, and in 2020 will be the London Book Fair’s Literary Translator of the Fair.