Oschmann on the West’s colonial view of the East
Mr. Oschmann, you were born in Gotha, have in Jena studied and are now a professor in Leipzig. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t be called an “East German”. Why?
I am a German from the east, like others are from the north, from the south or from the west. But the term “East German” is so corrupted that it corrupts everyone who is called that. It is associated with so many stereotypes and deprecations that it should no longer be used.
You demand that one no longer says “East German” in the same way that one no longer says “Negro”?
This isn’t about N or O words. Passau is further east than Gotha. So is there a Southeast Representative?
What do you think has been done to the Germans from the East that justifies such sensitivity?
After 1990, the East approached the West full of joy and full of expectations, but was essentially brushed aside. I think that’s the basic experience. The writer Ingo Schulze speaks of the “rejected bride”. The West has perceived the East as something that is lacking, something that has been left behind, as something that needs to be educated. That has never changed.
Since you spoke of expectations: many East Germans have idealized the West, but their expectations could only be disappointed.
Of course there was. People believed promises that the West itself had never made. Many underestimated the social hardships.
What were you looking forward to at the time of reunification?
To freedom. I immediately took my hundred mark welcome money to the nearest bookshop in West Berlin. I can still list the books I bought there.
Which ones were they?
Among others from Ernest Bloch “Inheritance of this time”, Uwe Johnson’s “Conjectures about Jacob”, then stories by Thomas Bernhard, “Illuminations” by Walter Benjamin – all books that were not available in the East. I was happy. I felt lucky to have all the opportunities. And in fact, everything I dreamed of has come true.
You have done research in the USA and England and are now a professor of literature. What distinguishes you from other people from the East who have not succeeded in climbing?
Age played a very important role. I was young enough at the time to take advantage of every opportunity. On the other hand, people who were only a year or two older and finished their studies had a lot fewer chances. They had a GDR diploma while I was still studying and then already got a regular state exam. I was then able to apply for scholarships. I was able to introduce myself to the new professors who had come and was given the opportunity to do a doctorate. It was much more difficult for the older ones. Many have lost their jobs. My mother, for example, who was a clerk in a company, became unemployed and had to reinvent herself from scratch. She did it, but it was very, very hard.
In your book you describe West Germany’s ignorance of these challenges.
Yes, it’s a book about the West, kind of like a western, but not from the cowboys’ point of view.