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Germany Has Been Unified for 30 Years. Its Identity Still Is Not.




East Germans, bio-Germans, passport Germans: In an increasingly diverse country, the legacy of a divided history has left many feeling like strangers in their own land.

BERLIN — Abenaa Adomako remembers the night the Berlin Wall fell. Joyous and curious like so many of her fellow West Germans, she had gone to the city center to greet East Germans who were pouring across the border for a first taste of freedom.

“Welcome,” she beamed at a disoriented-looking couple in the crowd, offering them sparkling wine.

But they would not take it.

“They spat at me and called me names,” recalled Ms. Adomako, whose family has been in Germany since the 1890s. “They were the foreigners in my country. But to them, as a black woman, I was the foreigner.’’

Three decades later, as Germans mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, the question of what makes a German — who belongs and who does not — is as unsettled as ever.

The integration of East and West has in many ways been a success. Germany is an economic and political powerhouse, its reunification central to its dominant place in Europe.

But while unification fixed German borders for the first time in the country’s history, it did little to settle the neuralgic issue of German identity. Thirty years later, it seems, it has even exacerbated it.

Ethnic hatred and violence are on the rise. A far-right party thrives in the former East. Ms. Adomako says she is still afraid to go there. But she is not the only one who feels like a stranger in her own land.

[Readers in Germany told us how they think about German identity.]

Germany’s current effort to integrate more than a million asylum seekers welcomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 is just the most immediate challenge. It is compounded by past failures in a country that opened a regular path to citizenship for the children of immigrants only in 2000.

In the decades since the wall fell, Germany’s immigrant population has become the second largest in the world, behind the United States. One in four people now living in Germany has an immigrant background.

But that is not the story Germans have been telling themselves.

Two decades after the country stopped defining citizenship exclusively by ancestral bloodline, the far right and others have started distinguishing between “passport Germans” and “bio-Germans.”

The descendants of Turkish guest workers who arrived after World War II still struggle for acceptance. Jews, most of whom arrived from the former Soviet Union, are wary after a synagogue attack in the eastern city of Halle last month shocked the country that had made ‘‘Never Again’’ a pillar of its postwar identity.

Not least, many East Germans feel like second-class citizens after a reunification that Dr. Hans-Joachim Maaz, a psychoanalyst in the eastern city of Halle, calls a “cultural takeover.”

Across the former Iron Curtain, a new eastern identity is taking root, undermining the joyful narrative that dominated the reunification story on past anniversaries.

“It’s an existential moment for the country,” said Yury Kharchenko, a Berlin-based artist who defiantly identifies as a German Jew despite — and because of — the armed guards outside his son’s nursery in Berlin. “Everyone is searching for their identity.”’

Overcoming the past, especially the Nazi ideology that gave rise to the Holocaust, has been a guiding precept of German identity since World War II. In West and East alike, the ambition was to create a different, better Germany.

The West resolved to become a model liberal democracy, atoning for Nazi crimes and subjugating national interests to those of a post-nationalist Europe.

The East defined itself in the tradition of communists who had resisted fascism, giving rise to a state doctrine of remembrance that effectively exculpated it from wartime atrocities.

Behind the wall, the East was frozen in time, a largely homogeneous white country where nationalism was allowed to live on.

“Under the lid of antifascism, the old nationalism partly survived,” said Volkhard Knigge, a historian and director of the memorial at the former Buchenwald concentration camp. “The lid came off in 1989.”

That is one reason nationalist populism thrives more openly in the former East. The other is that easterners have been rebelling against a western narrative that has disempowered them.

Dr. Maaz, like many of his patients, now identifies as East German, something he never did under Communism.

The West, he said, had misunderstood 1989. It had overlooked the role national identity played in the East’s peaceful revolution against Soviet rule.

“We marched, we defeated communism, but it all became a victory of the West,” he said.

“We were never given the power to tell our version of the story,” he added. “You can’t even say that you had a happy childhood without breaking a taboo.”

That eats away at people, he said.

The bitterness is all the greater as easterners were complicit in their own subjugation, he said. “The western prejudice was: We are better. The eastern prejudice was: We are not as good,” he said. “Now easterners are saying: We are different.”

The far-right Alternative for Germany has successfully tapped into that feeling, styling itself as an eastern identity party and fueling resentments — not least toward migrants, who they say threaten German identity.

More than nine in 10 migrants live in the former West. But it is in the former East that antimigrant sentiment is strongest. Dr. Maaz says that has less to do with immigration than mass emigration in the years following 1989.

Some regions lost two generations. “There is demographic anxiety and that has sharpened the sense of a threat to identity,” he said.

Ms. Adomako, who grew up in West Germany, recalled the wave of antimigrant attacks in the years after the fall of the wall. She is still afraid to travel in the East, which remains largely white.


For the first part of her life, the West, too, had been overwhelmingly white. When she was born in the 1960s, she was the only black child in her West Berlin school.

By the time her daughter, Antonia, 20, finished high school last year, one in four of the students in her class were nonwhite.

But four generations after her great-grandfather came to Germany from Cameroon, then a German colony, Antonia still routinely gets asked: “Where are you from?”

“When I’m abroad, I feel German,” she said. “But when I’m in Germany, I don’t know.”

Ulrich Gerst, 36, a teacher in a multiethnic school who grew up in the wealthy southwest of Germany, tries hard to avoid asking that question.

In 2010, Mr. Gerst wrote a master’s thesis about how schools could help students develop their identity. He says he wants to see a Germany that celebrates hyphenated identities. Still, even he sometimes catches himself assuming women in head scarves are not German.

“These subconscious devices are still prevalent,’’ Mr. Gerst said.

For a long time, that discrimination was not merely subconscious, but structural.

Even as Germany became a major immigration country, no real path to citizenship was extended even to the children of immigrants born in the country.

After the fall of communism, the intrinsic racism of German citizenship law became impossible to ignore. Russian citizens with German ancestry who spoke no German were suddenly allowed passports, while second-generation Turks born and raised in Germany were not.

The change to the immigration law in 2000 opened parallel tracks to citizenship for those who were born in Germany or who had lived in the country for at least eight years.

As a child, Idil Baydar says she felt German. But that has changed. The 44-year-old daughter of a Turkish guest worker who arrived in the 1970s now describes herself as a “passport German foreigner.”

“The Germans have turned me into a migrant,” said Ms. Baydar, a comedian who has grown popular on YouTube by mocking Germany’s uneasy relationship with its largest immigrant group.

The final straw came last year when a verdict was reached in a series of 10 murders of mostly Turkish immigrants that had been blamed on other immigrants. In reality, they had been carried out over seven years by an underground neo-Nazi group shielded by Germany’s own intelligence service.

For many in Germany, the case became a byword for the failure of the postwar security apparatus to control far-right extremism. For Ms. Baydar, it took away the last shred of confidence that the country of her birth had her back.

Recently, she has been planning an “escape route,” possibly to Canada.

“My German friends tell me: ‘You’re overreacting,” she said. “I tell them: ‘If I had blue eyes and blond hair, I’d say the same.”

“And now they’re chasing foreigners on German streets,” she added, referring to far-right extremists attacking people who looked “foreign” in the eastern city of Chemnitz last year.

Chemnitz came to symbolize an emboldened far right. But it was not a singular event.

In June this year, a regional politician who had defended Germany’s refugee policy was shot dead on his front porch. Then in October, there was the attack in Halle on the synagogue, which narrowly escaped a massacre, though two were killed.

The Jewish community in Germany, which counts around 200,000 members, is nervous. As a Jew in Germany, said Mr. Kharchenko, the Berlin-based artist, “You’re inevitably asking yourself: Could it happen again?”

Understanding that it could is key to preventing it, said Mr. Knigge, the historian at the Buchenwald memorial. “That’s the most important lesson from German history,” he added.

The resurgence of pre-fascist ideology today worries him, he said. People crave a strong national identity, he noted, and the old West German recipe of deliberately tying it to humility — “being proud of not being proud” — has not satisfied that need.

It has also proved a difficult template for integrating newcomers. “We need to make the lessons of the Holocaust about human rights and the protection of minorities relevant to all minorities,” Mr. Knigge said.

Now, 30 years after the fall of Communism, Germany has another opportunity to try.

Ibrahim Kodaimi, a 52-year-old father of five, said he would never forget the smiling faces and hot food that greeted his family three years ago after their long, treacherous journey from Syria.

But his 20-year-old daughter Nahida said she felt excluded for wearing a head scarf.

And his 18-year-old son Omar said he had tried to make German friends in school, but had found them unresponsive. He said he spent time mostly with other immigrants during recess.

“It was like that,” Mr. Kodaimi interjected.

“It’s still like that,” Omar responded.

Even so, Omar is determined to make Germany accept him.

One of his proudest moments, he said, was when a German, after hearing him speak the language, asked if he had been born in Germany.

Adapting a phrase that Ms. Merkel used when the waves of migrants came to Germany, he said, “Ich schaffe das” — “I can do it.’’

John Eligon and Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

Produced by Mona Boshnaq, Allison McCann and Gaia Tripoli.

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