“I am a German,” what does that mean?
What do we mean when we, East Germans and West Germans, now say: “We are Germans”?
My answer: nothing special, but something specific. After all, when someone says: “I’m a cabinetmaker,” he is not claiming that this profession is far superior to all others; rather: among many honorable professions this just happens to be my profession. I know something about this one; I don’t know anything – or at least, less – about the others. Even though we Germans lived for forty years in separate states, the commonalities between us are evidently much greater than those between Serbs and Croats, who, after all, lived together in one state for 73 years (with one four-and-a-half year interruption). Indeed, the many millions of refugees who left the GDR during the past forty years de facto laid claim to this self-evident belongingness. Hardly any of them went to Austria, or Switzerland, or the United States. Of course, one reason was no doubt the uncomplicated reception they were given in the Federal Republic, but another reason was surely that the Federal Republic was neither a foreign nor a strange country. It was the millions of GDR refugees who, in spite of the Eastern policy of separation, constantly created new connections between East and West. The departure of every refugee, the ransoming of every prisoner, the “unification” of every family meant separation from friends and relatives who were left behind, and new contacts were thus constantly created across the border, though these contacts were, of course, experienced more intensely in the East than the West. There a person was more likely to emigrate to Australia than go to the GDR.
In this sense, the statement “I am a German” is more modest than the statement “I am a citizen of the GDR,” for the latter implied – at least officially – the claim of belonging to the best state in the history of Germany and of representing historical progress, as it were: “Am sozialistischen Wesen soll die Welt genesen” [Let socialism heal the world”]. It wasn’t good that some used it to flatter themselves. We Germans are nothing special, but are something specific, not above but alongside other nations. We have an especially large number of neighbors. That obligates us to be especially neighborly.