Cover Story: 20 Years of German Unity

Love Letters to Germany

By Gil Pimentel

The American television journalist Gil Pimentel came to Germany as an Humboldtian one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He describes his impressions of that time and the beginning of his love affair with his host country in these fictitious letters to his sponsor Alexander von Humboldt.

15 July 1990

Dear Alexander von Humboldt,
I respectfully submit my application for the Chancellor’s Fellowship for prospective American leaders. Thank you for your consideration.
A friend of mine, Amy Schwartz, knew that I really wanted to do something else after five backbreaking years at Nightline, the American version of “Tagesthemen”. She told me about a fellowship she had been awarded called the German Chancellor Fellowship for prospective American leaders, and it pays for a year-long research trip to Germany. Should I apply for it? I don’t know the first thing about Germany and don’t speak German. What is it that the Nazis say in the World War II movies? “Halt! Achtung!” or “Blitzkrieg!” Whatever. I want to do something new, and whether it’s in Germany, Libya or Fiji … it’s all the same to me.

12 August 1990

Dear Baron von Humboldt,
Saddam Hussein has overrun Kuwait and taken Western hostages. They want out, but we (the Nightline crew) want in, so we can interview him. Yesterday I got the news that I got the German Chancellor Fellowship. Thanks very much! But we’re gonna have to talk about that later. Now, on the flight to Baghdad, the only thing I’ve got on my mind is that I don’t want to be taken hostage.

29 September 1990

Dear Alexander Baron von Humboldt,
I’ve been in Bonn for the past four weeks, and I have a confession to make. I’m terrified. Weird, huh? I’ve often been in danger of being shot at, arrested or kidnapped, and now my biggest fear is of failure. My German is awful. I can hardly say or understand anything. I have to start working soon, and I’m headed towards disaster.

2 October 1990

Dear Alexander von Humboldt,
I’m now in Berlin. East Berlin is gray and sooty, and every time I go there I feel as though I’ve been transported back to the Cold War era. Buildings everywhere are covered in bullet holes, as though the Second World War had just ended yesterday. Tomorrow we’re going to the unification ceremony at the Berliner Philharmonie. It’s a real privilege to witness something which even three years ago I would have never dreamed possible. Two years ago I was in Israel and Palestine for Nightline, where we arranged the first public discussions between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The participants in this discussion are now in Madrid, negotiating a peace agreement. Last year I was in Tiananmen Square, witnessing the democracy movement in action. Freedom for Eastern Europe, democracy developing in China, and peace in the Middle East? What amazing times we live in!

3 October 1990

Dear Alexander von Humboldt,
During the unification ceremony, something remarkable happened: a man came onstage and began talking ... apparently, nonsensically. As he spoke, the audience started applauding, and the applause was so loud and long-lasting he couldn’t be heard. Suddenly, security guards leapt up and led him off, but there was barely a mention of it in the German media. I found this quite odd and asked a German journalist why there was so little coverage of the incident. “Because the crazy man is unimportant,” the journalist said. “The important thing that happened was reunification.” Therein lies a major difference between German and American journalists. Germans report about what is important, Americans report about what is out of the ordinary. And they are not always the same thing.

1 November 1990

Dear Alexander von Humboldt,
Mind if we drop the formalities? Know what? Today, for the first time, I spoke fluent German! I was standing in front of the Memorial Church and a young East Berliner who didn’t know his way around West Berlin asked me for directions. I showed him where to go, then we chatted for a couple of hours. Not bad, huh.

5 November 1990

Dear Alexander,
Today I started working for DFF, the East German television network. As I walked towards the front entrance, a sign indicated the route to the Gauck Commission, located in the former headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi. The Commission is allowing ordinary citizens to see their own Stasi files. The news that has emerged from the files is shocking ... every third adult in East Germany was a Stasi informer. Tales of betrayal by trusted spouses, family and friends are in the papers all the time. I was directed to the large dark office of Herr Makosch, a DFF executive. Bald, sturdy, and extremely polite. As we exchanged pleasantries, certain questions hung heavily in the air: What was the relationship between DFF and the Stasi? Would there be Stasi agents among my new colleagues? I felt as though I had just walked into a John Le Carré novel, playing the part of the innocent bystander.

10 November 1990

Dear Alexander,
In the evening I often go to Café Hegel, whose owner is a wonderful red-headed Russian, who treats her clients as though they were in her living room. She starts introducing people, and before you know it you’re having a great debate about art, the Wall, literature, or foreign policy. I remarked recently that I had “große Zwiebel” about American foreign policy. I meant to say “big doubts”, but I actually said “big onions”. Oh well. That’s how you learn.

21 November 1990

Dear Alex,
The team at DFF is very worried about the future. Can a reformed DFF continue to exist? And if so, who will be allowed to remain? Variations of those questions are writ large throughout East Germany. Does unification mean cherry-picking the best bits of both East and West Germany or will the East simply be bulldozed by the West.

21 February 1991

Dear Alex,
Unfortunately, foreigner-hate is not limited to neo-nazis … left wingers practice it too, and Americans are the targets. I was on the subway with Kristie, another of the BUKA Fellows, and we were speaking English to one another, when suddenly this crazy guy jumps up to us and says, in German, “No blood for oil!” Then he proceeds to yell a whole bunch of obscene comments about Americans, most of which I didn’t understand in any case. But then, he grabs hold of Kristie’s arm and she screams, “Don’t touch me!” and I lost all my German, so my contribution to the discussion was “Get your hands off her, motherfucker!” He got off at the next station, and silence fell upon the train car like a bomb. Then a young woman came to us and whispered “not all Germans think that way.” Now I better understand young Germans who identify themselves as European rather than German. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the sins of their forefathers, just as I should not be held responsible for the policies of the American government.

9 March 1991

Dear Uncle Alex,
So now you’re Uncle Alex for the fellows in my group. Four of us live in Berlin, and we see lots of each other. Berlin is wonderful. After the Wall fell, a bunch of artists, musicians, and filmmakers moved over here … and they all went to the East. There’s a neighborhood there called Prenzlauer Berg in which they can get squats or almost free housing in broken down, unrenovated buildings ... and there’s a lot of them to choose from. They’re also taking old, abandoned stores and turning them into theaters, dance clubs and galleries. Saturday, Caspar and Irene took me to “Tacheles”, a cultural center improvised within the ruins of a huge old department store. On the first floor they have bars and dance floors. On the second floor, a stage and film theater. On the third and fourth floors, galleries and workshops. But what is unique about this space is that it has no rear wall ... so that from behind, you can look into all the floors as though it were a gigantic doll house. Crazy.

30 April 1991

Hello Uncle Alex,
The hope for real unity is growing ever smaller, and the disappointment is growing ever larger. The Easterners hoped that they would quickly arrive at Western standards of living. The reality was not what they bargained for. Yes, they got freedom, but they also got high unemployment, high prices, and a new bureaucracy they don’t know how to handle. The Westerners had hoped for freedom for their neighbors “over there”, but they weren’t prepared to foot the bill for it. Now, they are losing their subsidies, putting up with traffic jams and paying a special tax for the rebuilding of the East. To the Easterners, the Westerners are arrogant. To the Westerners, the Easterners are ignorant. In West Berlin people have T-shirts that say “I want my wall back!”

13 May 1991

Hi Uncle Alex,
I’m doing an internship at RIAS television, a West Berlin television station, in order to compare West and East German television. What surprises me is that RIAS is a lot more similar to DFF than either one is to American television. Both RIAS and DFF use very long soundbites, and very long individual shots. The reports are paced much more slowly than in American TV news. We always have to be mindful of keeping the viewer’s attention, so our reports are cut faster and have a livelier pace. But here in Germany, the viewer’s attention is taken for granted. The relationship between the broadcaster and the viewer is more or less teacher-student, whereby in the US it’s more like friend-friend, or service provider-client. There’s a small new network here called RTL that takes a more Americanstyle approach, but nobody watches it.

September 1991

Hey Alex,
What’s up in Hoyerswerda? Although I have white skin, it’s obvious that I’m not German. Recently I was walking alone down a street in Prague, and a teenaged boy and girl walked up to me and whispered, “skinhead power.” I don’t know exactly where he was from, but he had a German accent. A friend who works in Potsdam says that they have neo-nazis all over the place there. Maybe I should be more careful when I ride the S-Bahn.

15 December 1991

Hi unc,
My fellowship ended two months ago, and now I really have to go home, although I would love to stay. Legal work papers are hard for an American to come by, and although I could work illegally, that’s not really an option. So I’m flying back to the States tomorrow. On the way home from Hegel tonight, I cried a bit. Ok … one door closes and another one opens, right?

January 2002

Hey Alex,
How’s it going? I’m back again! Thanks a lot for the invitation to return to Berlin! Holy cow! Potsdamer Platz! Mitte! Prenzlauer Berg! All unrecognizable! What happened to the anarchists? Thank God Savignyplatz hasn’t changed. Hegel, the Russian owner … still exactly the same. Today our group was taken to meet with Chancellor Schroeder, and he said that he would never say the sentence, “I am proud to be German.” A statement like that in the US would be political suicide. Germany for me is like an older aunt, who in her youth committed a horrible crime and ever since has done penitence with good works. The new generation of Germans have created a country that plays a positive role in the world, and although by no means perfect, it functions better for its citizens than most other countries. It would be healthy if Germans could say, “Yes, we are well conscious of the past, but we can still be proud of today’s Germany.”

April 2003

Hello Uncle Alex,
Today I did an interview with the first President Bush. When the Berlin Wall fell, he was criticized: “Why doesn’t he go over there, dance on the wall, and declare victory for the West? Doesn’t he understand the historical importance of this event?” As it turns out, he understood, far better than his critics. “I can’t dance,” he said, “…and even if I could, I would never have done it. The Soviet military had been humiliated, and I was not about to poke my fingers in their eyes, and risk having Soviet tanks roll back over Eastern Europe.” Bush senior’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by his son’s presidency. Helmut Kohl’s legacy has been tainted by scandal. Perhaps in 10 or 20 years history will be kinder to them. Whether they were great statesmen can be debated, but whether they accomplished something great cannot.

6 August 2006

Hey Dude!
Back in Berlin! I’ve heard that a German friend is a friend for life, and I think that’s true. A couple of months ago I had heart surgery, and my German friends all checked up on me. Now I’m sitting in a taxi from Tegel to Mitte. I’m nervous, because I’m going to be the best man at a wedding on Saturday, and I have to give a speech in German. I’m actually more scared about the speech than I was about the operation, so I asked the cabbie if I could practice it with him. He was an old East Berliner, the kind of guy who if he were from New York would say things like “youse guys” or “dose guys”. During the speech I refer to the operation. After I was done, he said, “That was very good! Know what, I had a heart operation too!” When we got to the next stoplight, we compared our scars. Gotta love dose Berliners

16 September 2010

My beloved Uncle Alex,
I’m in Berlin again, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the German Chancellor Fellowship, and to see a bunch of German friends. I’ve spoken to all of them for hours. It’s been fantastic! Holy cow, Alex … it’s hard to believe how deeply you’ve influenced the course of my life. When I came to Germany, I didn’t speak a word of German and knew next-to-nothing about German culture. Now half of my closest friends are from Germany or Austria. You’ve opened the door for me to a beautiful language, a marvelous country and wonderful people whom I hope will be life-long friends. And for all that, I will be eternally grateful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

A big warm hug,
Love, Gil

published in Humboldt Kosmos 96/2010
Gil Pimentel
Gil Pimentel
Photo: private

Gil Pimentel is a television journalist and the recipient of multiple awards, including five Emmys. Currently Vice President of National Geographic TV, he lives and works in Washington, USA. He was one of the first recipients of the Humboldt Foundation’s German Chancellor Fellowship, which was originally only for prospective American leaders but is now also open to Russian and Chinese applicants.