20 Years After Germany Reunified: The Ruins of a Soviet-Seized Family Home

>Twenty years ago this week, Germany was officially reunified. Every October 3rd since then has been celebrated as German Unity Day, a holiday evoking images of arm-linked kindergarteners singing "It's a Small World." Yet beneath this kitschy national moniker, behind the veneer of a robust GDP and a dazzlingly multicultural World Cup team, is a nation divided. Chancellor Angela Merkel, an East German herself, recently cautioned that the reunification is far from complete, and a look at the data shows she is right.


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Whereas former West Germany's population has expanded by 6.5% since reunification, the old East's has hemorrhaged 11.7 %, including much of its creative young workforce. Unemployment in the east (12.6% compared with a national average of 7.7%) has doubled since 1990, not in a sudden recessional spike but in a steady, inexorable rise. So grim are conditions that in a phenomenon known as Ostalgia, former East Germans are looking back--with more nostalgia than irony--on those halcyon days when the Stasi monitored their every move. Nothing symbolizes these hard times, or encapsulates the sweep of feudalism and fascism and communism that brought them about, quite like the once-grand, now-dilapidated Junker estates found throughout the countryside.

If you can imagine an antebellum plantation turned into a communist co-op, then converted to slum tenements, and finally abandoned to the cat ladies of Grey Gardens, you have a good idea of what has happened to these once-prosperous estates in the years after World War II. When Zhukov and the Red Army invaded Germany in 1945, they initiated a large scale land reform that dispossessed owners of any estate larger than 250 acres. Unlike France and Russia, Germany had never undergone a middle class revolution, and the premise of the reforms was that by putting landed Junker aristocracy's land in workers' hands, the Soviets were enabling a seismic workers' uprising, and forever clipping the wings of the fascist eagle. 

One of these estates belonged to my great-grandfather, and it was an awkward realization sometime around my 12th birthday that the house had not been seized by the Nazis, as I had thought, but rather from people who, however tangentially, have been deemed their collaborators. Grosspapa, my grandfather, a newly minted industrialist with a robust leather factory, had neither party ties to National Socialism nor any particular similarities with the Prussian military aristocracy. He did, however, run the 15th-century manor house and its accompanying village, school, and church with a feudal approach shocking for the 20th century yet typical among estate owners. 

In return for harvesting crops, villagers received room, board, and education for their children. And in a Gosford Park dynamic, there were always three tables set at the manor: one for the family; one of the teacher, the estate manager, and the padre; and one for the servants. Too old for military service, Grosspapa hunted stag and boar while his wife held salons. Life, for them, was good. 

Days before the Russians arrived, he received a tip-off and fled, losing his house but saving his life, his family, some silver, an oriental rug, and a painting of the manor, which survives in our living room. The expropriations were carried out with a brutality--barns razed, livestock slaughtered, two million women raped, estate owners shot on their doorstep, others led on a death march to the isle of Rügen in the Baltic Sea--that evoked, even if it did not equal, Hitler's invasion of Russia. 

Estates were divvied into 15-acre plots and parceled among peasants in a process that, according to Norman Naimark's study of the Soviet occupation of Germany, constituted the largest-scale expropriations since the French Revolution. These land reforms were conceived of in political terms, not economic ones, and consequently they brought about a Marxist state with paltry agricultural yields. Some estates remained empty, their fields fallow; others were crammed with new farmers, many of whom had to sleep in stables. 

Predictably, there wasn't enough seed or livestock to go around, and within four years, fourteen years of agricultural growth in the east had been undone. In Mecklenburg, 20% of the new farmers had left by 1949, and by 1952 fully half in all of East Germany had abandoned their plots. The ensuing near-famine prompted Henry Kissinger to observe that nothing contributed so much to discontent in the Soviet zone of occupation as a failure to provide adequate food, which was strictly rationed throughout East Germany until the wall fell. 

Twenty years after the end of communism, going back to see the house is an uncanny expedition. The pond out back has dried up. Shingles are missing from the roof. The Gothic church where two of my great aunts were married sits in unholy neglect. With a portentousness that evokes Miss Havisham's Satis House, the clock below the cupola has stopped. As we drive up, a gruff man in blue jeans and a greasy T-shirt glowers from the portico, a German shepherd at his side. Such hostility is understandable among home-owners in the former East, where one in three properties has a claim on it from a previous owner.

We aren't going to get the house back--Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev decided that in 1990--nor would we know what to do with it if we did. Besides, it's absurd to bemoan your lost castle when millions of Jews still haven't been properly remunerated for their lost property, and can never be remotely compensated for the Holocaust. All in all, despite the wanton nature of Soviet land reform, the fate of Gross Gornow was just: feudalism had to go, and with it the anachronistic, paternalistic landowners who, through their complicity or their passivity, enabled the Nazi state. 

None of which lessens the sense of loss that remains among four generations of displaced Germans. As Milan Kundera wrote, "In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine." For me and thousands of others belonging to this Junker diaspora, Gross Gornow and its kind will remain an oil painting in a living room, what Salman Rushdie calls "an imaginary homeland." And for former East Germany, they'll remain garish white elephants, vestiges of a past both lovely and reprehensible, and reminders of a future that will be increasingly divergent from their comrades' in the west. 
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Alex Hoyt is a freelance writer and digital illustrator whose work has appeared in The AtlanticNational Geographic, and Architect.

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