MAINZ, Germany – I vividly recall the car journeys I would take as a teenager from Frankfurt to Berlin. In those days, the trip to the isolated city of West Berlin, which was located in the heart of East Germany, required us to take the so-called "transit route" through communist East Germany. It was a bumpy ride in many ways.
There were extensive waits at the Herleshausen border crossing, where grim and often unfriendly East German border guards took our passports and checked them for hours. Once allowed through, we had to travel for more than 200 miles through the communist country on roads that made a clacking sound as you drove over them – making it feel like a journey on old railroad tracks.
Along the roadside we passed East German police, who laid in wait to issue speeding tickets to "foreigners," as it was a quick and easy way to get some cash in the much stronger West German currency.
But that all changed after the collapse of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.
|VIDEO: 20 years later, Wall's fall still being felt|
Today, we travel the same route from Frankfurt to Berlin on spanking new highways. And it is difficult to find traces of the former 870 mile long East-West border with its hundreds of watch towers, barbed-wire fences and automatic shooting devices that once divided the two Germanys.
And there are only few signs of the original Berlin Wall, which was fortified with tank barriers, search lights and armed guards patrolling with their dogs.
"If you look at Checkpoint Charlie today, Berlin's famous Allied border crossing, it is really nothing more than a commercialized Disneyland of the Cold War," said Fabian Rueger, a historian and tour guide in Berlin.
The actors in old military uniforms at Checkpoint Charlie and the street vendors selling fake pieces of the wall are surreal images for those who actually grew up during in Cold War times.
Today, it is mainly my generation and that of my parents, who have vivid and very emotional memories of what it was like to live through the Cold War and the "peaceful revolution" that swept across Eastern Europe and ultimately brought down the internal German border in 1989.
It's created a quandary: How do the different generations reconcile the vast and extreme changes that have altered the country in such a short period of time?
Two decades of change
"The last 20 years were dominated by change. Change which came much faster than I expected. We had to learn a lot of new things in a very short time," said Doris Schwanzara-Bennoit, 55, who has lived and worked in Hoyerswerda, a small eastern German town, for most of her life.
After the euphoria faded, East Germans saw their old political system collapse and they were suddenly confronted with the reality of life in a Western market economy. For them, it was a time in which goals and values had to be redefined.
Still, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that former East Germans overwhelmingly approve of German reunification. However, according to same study, the percentage of East Germans with a "very positive" view of reunification dropped from 45 percent in 1991 to 31 percent in 2009. And today, many of those living in East Germany believe that unification happened too quickly. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1396/european-opinion-two-decades-after-berlin-wall-fall-communism
"The early 90s were trembling and shaking times for us, as old structures fell apart. My parents lost their jobs and there was a whole period of insecurity," said Katja Tannert, a 31-year-old East German artist, who now lives in Berlin.
Tannert, who was 11 years old when the wall came down, remembers what life under communist rule was like, but she has very positive memories of her childhood and says she did not feel locked in at the time. "We traveled to Bulgaria and other East Bloc countries twice a year, where I met Dutch people and western Germans. I felt free in those days," she said.
Tannert believes that the fall of the wall came at just the right time in her life. "When, in my teenage years, I started to become interested in the world, in new languages, in new cultures, I was already free to travel and I am very grateful for the opportunities I had," she said.
Search for identity
Still, after travelling the world and living in Berlin's multi-cultural society, Tannert said she lacks the feeling of a real home.
"My hometown near the Polish border is not the place I feel connected to anymore, despite my parents still living there," she said. "Streets were renamed, my old school was torn down and most of my old friends have left."
Approximately 12 percent of the population, an estimated 1.7 million people, moved from the former East Germany since the fall of the wall, mostly as a result of job shortages and a lack of opportunities.
"Both of my children have left Hoyerswerda. My daughter is in Munich and my son in Paris. They have been gone for many years and have no intention [of] returning," said Schwanzara-Bennoit.
The socio-economic decline, combined with the shrinking population as a result of falling birth rates and an aging population, has adversely affected many eastern German cities, like Hoyerswerda which used to be the centers of large East German industries.
Under communist rule, Hoyerswerda had been turned from a small, sleepy town with 6,000 inhabitants into a mining center with a population of 70,000. But since the fall of the wall, which triggered the collapse of the nearby old coal mining industry, Hoyerswerda has lost nearly 40 percent of its population and residents.
"The mood is more depressed than in the old days," said Schwanzara-Bennoit.
"But even though I miss some things, like the close community structures, the solidarity among neighbors and friends, or the job security in former East Germany, I still do not want the old system back," she said.