Why do some Pomeranians have short hair
Katarina Witt on the turnaround: "You keep silent about the pain"
The figure skater was a world star who lived in the GDR. She enjoyed freedoms that many envied. But 1989 was a turning point for them too.
The former ice princess Katarina Witt looks back on the turning point Photo: Stefanie Loos
taz am weekend: Ms. Witt, we have photos here from your time in Karl-Marx-Stadt.
Katarina Witt: Oh, look at it. Ms. Müller and I in the training hall in Chemnitz! Oh god, how great, I should have been about thirteen by then.
Who do you see in these pictures, who were you then?
This is a different girl than the one I remember. Short hair, very boyish, more like a boy. And I'm looking pretty seriously, Ms. Müller is apparently just telling me what's going on. I listen and I'm a little scared.
She was your trainer from 1977 and had an almost soldier-like charisma. How strict was this Ms. Müller actually?
Frau Müller was even stricter than one would like to imagine. (laughs) She wanted the best of us, that's the coaching job. Sometimes it had to be extreme, without taking it personally and calling the lawyer immediately, as is the case today. After all, sport was serious business for me too. If it didn't work out, it was taken very seriously. Basically, an athlete has to be able to go beyond his pain threshold every day, also patiently repeat boring things.
Jutta Müller is a strong woman in your life.
is a former German figure skater, born in 1965. She started in a single run for the GDR, and after the reunification also for the FRG. She won two Olympic victories (1984, 1988) and several world titles.
Absolutely. She shaped me, I spent a lot more time with her than with my mother. When we went abroad, she once smeared me a sandwich or warmed a sausage under the tap. We took black bread and salami with us abroad because we had hardly any western money to buy anything.
Katarina Witt with her trainer Jutta Müller in the Karl-Marx-Städter training hall Photo: Ute Mahler / Ostkreuz
Are there young women today who you encourage and challenge?
Well, above all I challenge my environment. (laughs) But of course, I often meet women for whom I was a role model, for whom I conveyed a different image of the GDR: not always as dreary as they wanted to portray us. Some also tell me that they were named after me.
“For me, heroes are the people who took to the streets in 1989. They showed courage, backbone "
Are you a heroine?
Not at all. Heroes are different. I was a competitive athlete and my wife stood there, even under immense pressure. We performed well, but we weren't heroes, we didn't stand up against something. For me, heroes are the people who took to the streets in 1989. They showed courage, backbone. In sport, on the other hand, I had what I wanted to do.
How is it that today there are so few heroines and heroes from the East in the all-German narrative?
I notice that there is still a breakup. For example, when I shared an older photo of the two of us on Instagram after the death of Sigmund Jähn, the first German in space from the GDR, these reactions came from the east: one of us, one of our heroes, one of us . I get these reactions to myself too. My life also took place before 89 and after 89. Of course we have heard Nena and Modern Talking - but I say “with us” when it has to do with my former country. Even if I don't want this back. Now there are other heroes, for many this will be Greta Thunberg.
When Sigmund Jähn died, a debate developed as to whether someone who had been a major general in the GDR was fit for a hero. How do you see it
I think it is right that these discussions should take place. But that's like telling the athletes from the GDR: You couldn't have been heroes, because you represented a dictatorship. Sigmund Jähn and I grew up in the GDR and went to school. Jähn was enabled there to be the first German to fly into space. What do you want to reproach him for?
This text comes from the taz on the weekend. Always from Saturday at the kiosk, in the eKiosk or with a practical weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter. The dossier on "30 years of peaceful revolution" from the issue of 2/3. November is available online here.
What are you being accused of in 2019? For a long time you were seen as profiting from the SED.
Actually nothing. (laughs) Sure, there was a time when I was very polarized. Ultimately, everyone, East or West, says that I have maintained my opinion, my attitude in a good way. I owe everything to my country and the sports system, my trainer and my parents. Still, I didn't go through the world with my eyes closed, I saw that sport was the area in which people like me could make their dreams come true. That was not possible in other areas, and of course that was bad for those affected. Others were told what to study and what to study.
The older ones will remember you as the gold Kati from the East, the younger ones will see you more as a TV celebrity. Who would you like to be remembered as?
I don't want to be seen as a TV celebrity. So what is that? Nüscht. I find this celebrity very questionable. I come from sport, and there I delivered a lifetime achievement and helped shape the world's best there for almost a decade. This is what to remember.
They are known to be very good at protecting your privacy. But recently you told a very personal story. For the portrait book “Eastern Women Change the Republic” you described how your parents felt after the fall of the Wall.
Stop it, I'll start crying right away.
At that time, your father became unemployed and you supported your parents for years. A very East German experience. How do you deal with it as a child?
I was 23 years old at the time. So my parents, who are over eighty today, were just as old then as I am now. They always tried to keep problems away from us children. This upheaval at the beginning of the nineties, the pain that went with it, the injuries, is only just beginning to break out. Our parents are only now starting to speak openly, and this is new to us, their children.
What was it like in the Witt family back then?
When the wall came down, my parents had already had a long working life, the war children generation started their working life much earlier. They had grown children and the justified expectation that they would now gain some personal freedom to reap the fruits of their labor. In other words, recognition for your work, more personal freedom, passing on experience. In fact, however, they were told: We really don't have any more space for you. It wasn't just about financial matters, but also about hurt pride, about this message: You are superfluous. Then they were told: Be happy, you now have freedom, democracy. But what do you do with it when the whole house of cards in your life is collapsing and nobody takes you by the hand?
What should have happened then?
Nobody came and took the East Germans by the hand. Our skills were no longer in demand. Very few were entrepreneurs, we were more like doers, that's how we learned it. We came from a country where - excuse the expression - dung was made into candy. Things have been resolved.
But in 1990 this principle came to an end.
Yes, that's how it was. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, this generation had to fight for everything, everything: their pension, recognition of their degrees and study periods, women's rights, their houses and apartments. That is the problem today: these people feel treated in a second class way. I even experienced this with my wife Müller at the time.
For one, being left was linked to the anti-fascist state of the GDR. For the other, Che Guevara felt closer in Argentina than the formerly socialist East Germany. A personal conversation about memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the uncertainty after the fall of the Wall and left identity as Ossi or Wessi. A special broadcast of the taz podcast Lokalrunde - the talk of the town from Hamburg and Berlin.
This world-class trainer has really been sidelined. The rivalries between the East German and West German ice skating associations broke out in full. We were the more successful in the past few years, we had the world champions, the Olympic champions. You already had this feeling: You lost, and now we'll tell you where you're going. So even here, in this manageable area, it was not possible to combine the best experiences from both systems. There was a lot of arrogance, such a condescending winning mentality.
Did you personally feel that too?
No. Fortunately, I belong to this generation for whom the doors have opened wide again. With our schooling, our way of making the best of things, we have made it through these thirty years well. My generation had so many options. I was able to really get started again as a professional, I certainly wouldn't have had the opportunity in the GDR. It was only in the last few years that I really understood what happened back then. We from the east had to bite our way through, for many with moderate results. To date there are far too few East Germans in management positions. Why actually?
You yourself say that people talk differently about the time of the turning point today. Did you look back with your parents again?
Not much at home. Some things are kept silent, the pain is kept silent. It's about things that can no longer be changed in retrospect. If you tell this generation that you lived in the wrong country, in the wrong system; you are telling them yes, you have lived the wrong life for forty years. What right should one say that? It is clear that these people came to terms with each other back then and glossed over some of the system's errors. There was nothing else they could do.
Do you prefer to keep quiet about the past?
I think the whole debate is extremely important to society. But in private it is difficult, I feel a great sadness and bitterness there. You know my parents are fine. I was able to absorb them economically. Still, it was a difficult time, especially for men. In fact, fathers should care for their children, not children for their parents. This is more natural today than it was 20 years ago. As younger people, we should be a little generous and generous.
There is the thesis that certain experiences of migrants and East Germans are similar: the loss of home, the alienation. You know half the world - can you compare it that way?
No, you can't. One can rather compare the current situation of immigrants from war zones with the time after the Second World War. My mother came from Western Pomerania, my father from Bessarabia, the area of today's Moldova, sometimes with a carriage and only one suitcase. To end up somewhere that wasn't home. One cannot equate the Easter experience with this form of uprooting. And: East and West Germans speak at least the same language, even if we don't understand each other here and there.
Then let's come to your home town of Chemnitz ...
... I don't even know what my homeland is actually like. I always write about my "old home" on Instagram.
Then what is the new home?
Brandenburg and Berlin, this is where I live.
In any case, your old home, Chemnitz, is currently applying to be the cultural capital of 2025. You made a positive statement about this six months ago.
I think it would be good if Chemnitz could do that, yes.
The motto of the application is "Chemnitzer Aufbruch". It's about conflict and violence that the city has to deal with. What is meant are the right-wing extremist riots last year. In an interview you said you were shocked by this. What exactly scared you?
I was shocked that the scene could get so big at all. And that these demonstrators then stood in front of our Karl-Marx-Nischel. Then I see the Nischel, the street of the nations, I see us demonstrate in tracksuits on May 1st, and everything was so colorful. Okay, then the next ones will say that we demonstrated for a dictatorship. In any case, last year I saw these same pictures, in which everything is just dark, black and dark brown, people with aggression. Such images frighten me. And that's why I'm all the more grateful and reassured because there are enough people who go out with the children and the prams, colorful flags and rainbows and say: We are a colorful and open society.
Why don't you speak specifically of right-wing extremist violence, of Nazis who marched in Chemnitz? Do you consciously try to be careful with certain terms?
Yes, I'm actually trying to do that. Maybe it's a mistake. Yes, you have to address it. When people raise their arms in a Hitler salute or wear swastikas at a demonstration, that is right-wing extremism. You have to oppose this. Many have become followers. I don't want to apologize for that. But I think they are not necessarily right. They are desperate because they don't feel they belong anywhere anymore.
Do you think talking could help?
Yes, if you are ready for dialogue. But that is by no means all. The state is challenged, especially when it comes to right-wing extremism. Much more rigorous action must be taken. They let the reins slide a bit. Also at Pegida in Dresden: If there are posters with Ms. Merkel on the gallows, then there must be immediate access and the people should be led away. Freedom of expression or not. There are rules and there are limits, even in a democracy.
Freedom was fought for in autumn 1989. The most obvious question of all: Where were you on November 9, 1989?
I was in Seville in Spain. I made the "Carmen on Ice" film. So I was on the ice - where else? We were shooting at night when our producer came on set. A former Dresden refugee from the republic. He came and said in Saxon: Di Maur is fallen. I like: How? That was completely absurd. Then we finished shooting, around 6 a.m. I drive back to the hotel, turn on the TV and see these pictures. I sat on the bed, stared intently at the television and couldn't even place what was actually going on.
In 1989 you were still a GDR citizen, but actually already gone. They had already reached freedom.
It's always so exaggerated. I still lived in the GDR and was still at home there. I didn't have infinite freedom. I always had to fight for this for the respective project, in this case for "Carmen on Ice".
Then we forget the limitless freedom ...
... but of course I lived in my own bubble where everything was a bit more generous. But it wasn't as if I had a passport and could go wherever I wanted. I had to register that.
We actually wanted to look at your horizon of experience.
I was accused of that. Relatively fast, maybe on November 10th a TV station was on my set in Seville and asked me what I would think about the opening of the Wall. And then I said that was great. And that I allow my compatriots to finally be able to travel. I also said: I've seen the world and not all that glitters is gold - so give people time. And for that I was insulted as “SED goat” and “red sock”.
"The term 'Ostfrau' has meanwhile become a seal of approval for me"
Are “Ossi” and “Wessi” swear words for you?
"Ossi" and "Wessi" is more of a teasing. Basically, however, “Ossi” has a positive connotation for me than “Wessi”. (everybody is laughing) For me, the term "Ostfrau" has meanwhile become a seal of quality.
That's right, at some point you have to stop being ashamed of yourself.
I was never ashamed. We grew up differently in sport. In sport there was extreme equality between girls and boys. We trained together and measured ourselves against each other on an equal footing. Funnily enough, we girls were figure skating in the only sport in which even in the nineties women earned more than men. We never had these discussions from football or tennis.
What is the difference between East and West women?
We grew up on an equal footing with men much more naturally, as our parents' generation had already set an example.My parents both worked. They shared the household and went to the mangle with the laundry over their arms.
But your parents were very progressive in this regard. In the GDR women actually worked twice as full: full-time at work and then at home again for the same length of time….
I also know my dad scrubbing the apartment. He also always cooked. In general, I only know it that the men stand in the kitchen, not the woman. My brother, my uncle, my dad - with us the men were at the stove.
And did that lead to later conflicts in relationships with men?
(laughs) Not at all.
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