Growing up in the GDR: From the daycare center to the university

Mike Reichert was born in East Berlin in 1963 and spent his childhood and youth there. Shortly after the wall came down he joined the Daimler-Benz company, first as an intern in the Press and Public Relations department and then at the Group’s representative office in Berlin. In this interview he talks about his life in the GDR and about the days following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

What can you tell us about your childhood? What was special about it?

Together with my sister, who is two years older than me, I grew up in the Alt-Hohenschönhausen district of East Berlin. Like many children in the GDR, I was already enrolled in a daycare center at the tender age of six months and in a kindergarten when I was three years old. Both of my parents worked. My mother held a series of half-day jobs. The last one was at the GDR’s telephone network. For us children, her best job was the one at the chocolate factory. She would always bring chunks of broken chocolate home for us after work. Of course we thought that was fantastic.

Mike Reichert at the age of five in kindergarten...
School certificate by Mike Reichert from 1971

Was there anything special about your teenage years?

The parents of most of my schoolmates worked for the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of State Security (Stasi). As a result, I too had access to both of these places. We often played in front of the prison in Hohenschönhausen. If one of us kicked or hit a ball over the fence, the soldiers guarding the prison would fetch it back for us.

In spite of these surroundings, my parents were critical of the government. I realized that when I started to go to school. In our home was thought and talked differently, and we watched TV broadcasts from the West almost exclusively. All the same, I was a member of the state organizations for children and young people: the Young Pioneers, the Thälmann Pioneers, and the Free German Youth (FDJ). There I held various positions on the Group Council and the Friendship Council, and later on I was a member of the FDJ leadership. At school I was rather cautious when talking about political topics, if only because of my schoolmates — you never knew what they were telling their families at home and whether their parents might pass this information along to the Stasi. However, this was not a constant preoccupation in my daily life. My parents didn’t consider a high school diploma very important, so I left school after tenth grade and started an apprenticeship as an auto mechanic at a private workshop for Trabant brand cars. After my two-year apprenticeship I worked for the next four years as an auto mechanic.

Of course I was also drafted for a tour of duty in the National People’s Army. During my physical examination, the doctor discovered that there was a problem with my spine. I was ordered to come to a follow-up physical examination so that the problem could be checked out in greater detail. When I showed up at the right date and time, I had no X-ray images with me, so the doctors made a phone call to the hospital. To this day, I still don’t know what the doctor in charge told them on the phone, but after the call was over the doctors offered me a seat. Ten minutes later I was holding my medical discharge in my hand. I’m still endlessly grateful today to this unknown radiologist.

What were your university studies like?

After I completed my apprenticeship as an auto mechanic, I wanted to study at a university. I was influenced in this decision by the church community of which I had become a member. I applied to study German language and literature, but the application process did not go well for me. In the GDR you could only apply once a year and only to one university. I first applied to Leipzig University, and I went there for a “suitability interview.” In addition to the university instructors, the secretary of the FDJ also participated in this conversation. I was asked what my standpoint was regarding the class issue, because after all my father owned a private workshop and I had done my apprenticeship at another private workshop. They also asked me whether I would apply for membership in the party of the working class. The FDJ secretary didn’t leap to my support, and I felt that this was a betrayal of sorts, because after all I was an active member of the FDJ.

At that point I felt somewhat discouraged. But then I spontaneously quit my job as an auto mechanic. I went to the university library of the Humboldt University of Berlin and simply asked if they could give me a job. They actually hired me. In my job as a supervisor of the reading room at the Department of Economics, I could read books from the old Commercial College to my heart’s content. However, the pay was very low. Then too, it was not very motivating to be confronted by the people who had been permitted to study at the university but were not much smarter than me, in my opinion.

One year later, I once again applied to study German language and literature, this time at the Humboldt University of Berlin. The interview at this university was just like the one in Leipzig — and here too I was rejected. But if I had applied to join the Party, I would definitely not have been able to face my parents. The third time around, I applied to study economic history in Berlin, and I was accepted. Here too, I had to go to a suitability interview — but, contrary to my expectations, there were no questions regarding party membership. During this conversation, I was allowed to talk about the art historian Jakob Burckhardt and Heinrich Mann’s novel Henri Quatre.

What were you doing on the evening when the Berlin Wall came down and on the following day?

I was watching the press conference with Günter Schabowski on TV at my parents’ home. At that point, an intense public discussion was already taking place concerning the easing of travel restrictions. Personally, I did not interpret Schabowski’s words as an official opening of the border. That’s why I went back to my own apartment and studied for my university classes. I didn’t watch any TV after that, so I actually didn’t find out about the historic events until the next day. After that, I got moving quite fast, because I couldn’t be sure whether the border would stay open and, if so, for how long. I crossed the border at the Invalidenstraße checkpoint, and from there I took the commuter train to the Bahnhof Zoo station. The streets were full of GDR citizens who wanted to take a look at the West. During these days, many stores and restaurants also accepted GDR currency. Some restaurants even served GDR citizens free of charge.

... and today.

What aspects made a strong impression on you during the GDR era?

In the GDR, people attached great importance by community spirit. The interest and the well-being of the collective was always the top priority. I still consider that a good attitude today.

Is there anything you still miss?

I think it’s more a general sense of youth and origins, which develops independently of any particular political system. With that in mind, it may be a sense of solidarity that I miss.

What makes the West stand out from the East, and vice versa?

In the West, the individual has more personal freedom and a broader spectrum of opportunities to develop. In the GDR there was greater social security. There was no unemployment or homelessness.

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