Classical music is not a living art form today. Chilly Gonzales

“We felt like dead weight”

On November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. The author Christian Mackrodt, born and raised in East Berlin, moved from suburbia to Berlin-Friedrichshain after Reunification. He talked with Julia Korbik about living in a parallel reality, drug trips to the Baltic Sea, and how he overslept the Fall of the Wall.

The European: Your autobiographical novel “Ostkreuz. Coming of Age during the Transition” is about Krischan and his friends, who left suburban Marzahn for Berlin-Friedrichshain during the Transition. Now in the 1990s, they are living for the moment, only working if necessary, and taking drugs. Where did the need to write down your personal story come from?
Mackrodt: It was some kind of self-therapy. I grew up in the Berlin suburbs, had a typical suburban career with schooldays in Marzahn and the extreme problems like neo-fascism and violence. All of this was pouring down on us and then, in the 1990s, it turned into the partying with techno and drugs. It was a complex consisting of internal injuries and of friends I lost – in most of the cases figuratively, but some really died or landed in psychiatric wards. I was deeply impressed by Rick Moody’s novel “Garden State”, which is about his counterculture youth in New Jersey in the 1980s. He actually wrote it while in therapy and he totally killed me with his rawness! I like it raw and direct. Even if it’s not always beautiful. The big emotional lump in me is still there.

The European: For you personally, how difficult was the adjustment to another political and therefore social system?
Mackrodt: Difficult. Because the break happened during puberty. I just didn’t want to do anything: no job training, no studies. It wasn’t until three years after my A-levels that I started studying. I never wanted to have an ego-driven job. That was really frowned upon! My friends and I did some work at building sites and we were looking for a life or even happiness which didn’t exist. When I think about it now, I realize: Maybe we just needed this time to finally feel the GDR (German Democratic Republic) in us.

The European: “To feel the GDR”?
Mackrodt: Well, we were born into this system and we were naturalized there. After the reunification I didn’t want to be in a room with an authority or have a big check. Strange times. People were affected differently by it. Some do their own thing today: have their own companies, their own art, their own music. It’s funny, a lot of my friends from way back then have become pedagogues – we always used to hang out in youth clubs and were overseen by social workers.

The European: And the others?
Mackrodt: They still don’t do anything; they put off the decision.

The European: The German newspaper Die Zeit wrote: “Sociologists observe that young people from the East are more ‘upwardly mobile’ than others – because career advancement is possible, unlike during their parents’ adolescence in the GDR.” Is that true?
Mackrodt: I’m married to a woman from West Germany and we live with our children at the Schlachtensee in Zehlendorf, West Berlin. Is that an advancement via marriage? Back in the days the issue of advancement possibilities was difficult for me and my friends. We were just kids from suburbia. Of course there were some pretty decent biographies and one or two who really made it. All the others have normal careers – or none at all.

“The biggest problem wasn’t the drugs”

The European: In “Ostkreuz” nearly everybody takes drugs. Did this begin with the Reunification or did it start already in the GDR?
Mackrodt: Rather after the Reunification. In the GDR, the whole education was really against drugs. And there was a big fear of drugs, for example because of this thing with Christiane F. (a girl who became famous for her teenage drug use in the book “Christiane F. – Autobiography of a Girl of the Streets and Heroin Addict” published in 1979, N.B.). What you have to realize is that when the Wall came down in 1989, West Berlin was completely different from today. If you looked around West Berlin, especially Schöneberg, there was the first wave of AIDS, heroine junkies and all that drug misery – we didn’t know that from the GDR and it pretty shocked us.

The European: But obviously not enough to not start taking drugs yourself.
Mackrodt: We started out carefully, by smoking a joint sometimes – that was between 1992 and 1994. From 1995 on the chemical drugs came up, the raves… What we did on a regular basis was this whole taking drugs ritually: driving to the Baltic Sea with 20 people and taking a trip at Hiddensee. I don’t want to glorify that, but those are beautiful memories. The biggest problem weren’t the drugs themselves, but the addiction: You felt so free but then you quickly forgot how to function without them. Drug communities are wonderfully purpose free. Nobody asks you: Why are you here, what do you want?

The European: Were drugs thus also a reaction to the Reunification?
Mackrodt: Kind of. In my memories, the GDR is a gloomy, dull monotony. I did competitive sports five or six times a week. We lived in a new building, both my parents were in the Party. Everything was so predetermined. The “future talks” were the worst. They asked you: Do you want to study or do you want to enter the army? If you want to study, then you have to sign a declaration of intent that you’ll serve in the army beyond your normal military service – something like that. Indeed: In the GDR they were always interested in what you do. What you think, what you feel. They always wanted something from you. And after the Wall came down, nobody still wanted anything from you.

The European: A difficult adjustment.
Mackrodt: A total blankness resulted from this break. Furthermore we felt like dead weight to the Federal Republic because it already had enough problems: unemployment, youth unemployment, migrant unemployment… To this day I think the whole German integration policy is completely misdirected. The integrative power of the German society is very low. This “being East German” is applied to us like some ethnological category – the “Ostler” (people from the East). From that you developed an own identity. Is this necessarily positive? No idea.

The European: Do you feel East German?
Mackrodt: It depends. I notice that I always use the category if it’s convenient for me, for example when I’m arguing with a West German. But: If I’m walking around Zehlendorf and somebody in a car with a Potsdam label is cutting me, I’ll insult him as “Ostler”. I think this whole East-West-thing is still primarily an issue for those who still live in East Berlin. My family and I moved from Prenzlauer Berg to Treptow, because all this talk got on our nerves. In Treptow, near the border to Neukölln, nobody was interested in knowing if you were from the East or from the West of Berlin.

The European: But in general we do still separate the world into East and West, right?
Mackrodt: In my generation it was like this: The people came from all over Germany to Berlin. Today they come from all parts of the world! Because of that the East-West-thinking is definitely outdated in my opinion. Except for the people who have lived with the Wall for too long. If you’re 60 years old today it’s questionable if you’ll be able to get this kind of thinking out of your head. Maybe I myself still react too irritated when people use “East German” deprecatingly. But for the younger generation this part of the biography is more likely something which makes you interesting. Like, when you have lived abroad. It’s something you have additionally. Funny enough, like me my mother lives in an East-West-relationship – she’s 66 and of course the German division is still an issue.

„There was a tendency to live in a parallel reality“

The European: Your area was Friedrichshain. What did it mean to you?
Mackrodt: If it would have been up to me, the book wouldn’t have had the caption “Coming of age during the Transition”, but “Coming of age in Friedrichshain” – as a joke, because I think nobody comes of age in Friedrichshain. A friend of mine calls it “S.O.S. Children’s Village”. It was a laboratory: All the people coming from anywhere first came to Friedrichshain.

The European: Why?
Mackrodt: Friedrichshain was like a blank sheet. There wasn’t this bohemian-snobism, like for example in Prenzlauer Berg. And there were a lot of dark, cheap apartments. That was great in spring and summer, in winter not so much.

The European: What was the attitude to life like there?
Mackrodt: There was a tendency to live in a parallel reality. Everybody had a big plan or big ideas. You read half a book by Noam Chomsky or some other intellectual and then everybody talked about it for two years. You could have studied under Slavoj Žižek, who teached in Berlin in the 1990’s. Instead of that you rather watched a documentary about him. The step to say: I’ll do it now, was missing. Of course this wounding up in Friedrichshain also had a certain charm.

The European: An important part of this attitude to life was music: punk rock, jungle, techno.
Mackrodt: In the GDR we had a very good classical education and humanistic values were always upheld by our families. What counted for my parents was that everybody had to read and even the rare West money was spent on books, so that I was able to read the German translation of “The catcher in the rye” at age 12. Reading was important, travelling also – but everything having to do with feeling and emotions was music. Music was the sublime way of life. I wanted “Ostkreuz” to sound like an early Elliott Smith record: kind of sad, but also beautiful and stripped down. Hardcore with an acoustic guitar. Open and vulnerable, not hiding behind all that noise. Music is the art form which succeeds the fastest in not being perceived via the brain but emotionally.

The European: How difficult was it to get into possession of music in the GDR?
Mackrodt: That was a full-time employment. We all had cassette recorders, everybody was saving their money for a stereo cassette recorder and West tapes. The music was then exchanged. Later I marveled at the amount of music we already had as teenagers. Obtaining LPs was extremely hard though. At the black market at Plänterwald an Udo Lindenberg LP was about 120 Ostmark (the GDR currenccy, N.B.). That was unaffordable. I think that because all those things simply weren’t there or they were very expensive, you developped a materialistic fetish: When those things were finally avaiable, you absolutely had to have everything. I notice that about a lot of people from my generation.

„I overslept the Fall of the Berlin Wall“

The European: How did you experience the Fall of the Berlin Wall?
Mackrodt: I overslept. I woke up to late, my parents weren’t there. When I heard about it in school I couldn’t believe it. We did two hours of class, then we collected our GDR-passes and passed the former border at Brandenburger Tor. We were completely flashed. The next week me and a couple of friends took off from school and headed off with a real plan – today we’re going to visit Kreuzberg, today we’re driving to Ku’damm. Especially on the first day I was interviewed a lot.

The European: You just looked „East German“.
Mackrodt: Exactly, and that was then some kind of sport: identifying “Ossis” (people from the East_). This became unpleasant when it was still hip in the 1990s. You were always called out when you said “Zweiraumwohnung” (two chamber apartment_) instead of “Zweizimmerwohnung” (two room apartment). This sardonic joy at exposing others really annoyed me. I mean, you didn’t really choose to have this part in your biography. Of course I also have friends and acquaintances from back in the days who today are still living and working in hermetically sealed circles of friends. They live an East identity which doesn’t exist anymore.

The European: Ostalgie, or “nostalgia for the East”, so to speak.
Mackrodt: Yes, I always make fun of it. At soccer there were eventually those t-shirts having “Ostler” printed on them. Or we used to call each other “Zonengranaten” (zone grenades_) when we thought we had detected a very East German character trait at the other. When I think something is too expensive, I firstly convert it into D-Mark (_the West German Currency, N.B.) and then into Ostmark. Totally cranky. My wife always says: You’re telling tales from the GDR and my Dad from the air-raid shelter. You just experienced this historical thing and have to decide for yourself how to deal with it. And you have to accept that it is a part of you. But it shouldn’t stand between the people.

The European: And according to you, it doesn’t.
Mackrodt: Well, Berlin is a special case – the “test market” for the reunification, as Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit puts it. I think that for people from Dresden or Thuringia it’s more difficult. A lot of people moved to Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg or the Pfalz. Those are regions where everybody not coming from the neighbor village is a foreigner anyway. And if you then also have a dialect… I personally try to handle it humorously. If somebody in Munich calls me a “Saupreuße” (Prussian sod) I’ll say: And even worse, I’m from the East! But for other people it is rather terrible – they can’t escape this stigmatization.

*Ostkreuz is the name of a railway station in the former East of Berlin.

„Ostkreuz. Erwachsenwerden in der Wendezeit” by Christian Mackrodt was published by Eden Books.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Jessica Erickson: "Silicon Valley is 90 Percent Men"


comments powered by Disqus

Related Content: Berlin, Literature, Music


The reunification of East and West


Reunited at last

Our understanding of 1989 as a “reunification” and a “return to the normal course of history” is very much conditioned by our (mis?)understanding of the ruptures of 1914 and 1939. read more

by David Pizzo


History lessons from two dictatorships


“Generation German Unity”

It’s up to the post-reunification generation to debate which lessons from the Nazi and GDR experiences should be passed down. read more

by Manfred Wilke


Getting to know Eastern Germany


The exotic appeal of chicken-shaped egg cups

How I came to discover East Germany: Musings from a naïve Western German. read more

by Julia Korbik
Most Read