When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, generalized nicknames arose to distinguish people who lived on either side of the border. Those in the west were informally referred to as Wessis (“from the West”) and those in the east were called Ossis (in German, Ost means “east”).
Depending on the context in which they were used, these nicknames were occasionally perceived to be offensive. On some occasions, however, they were used simply to distinguish between the Easterners and the Westerners, without any harm intended. But often, their use was based on common stereotypes assigned to Germans from either side of the wall.
“Did you see what that Wessi is wearing?!” one might, for example, have heard on the street during a divided Germany – or shortly after its reunification.
Wessis were often stereotyped as capitalistic, arrogant and rich, while Ossis were often stereotyped as paranoid, poor and socialistic. Even after German reunification, stereotypes continued to live on for many years – and to some extent still exist today, even if there is little truth behind them. Ossi Wessi jokes were common in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and can occasionally still be heard among those who grew up in Cold War Germany.
But regardless of the negative characteristics often assigned to Ossis and Wessis, the nicknames became deeply integrated into German culture before, during and after reunification. Additionally, nicknames such as Besserwessi (“better-knowing-Wessi” or, in other words, “know-it-all”) and Jammer-Ossi (“whining easterner”) also sprung up from these terms.
The distinguishing nicknames demonstrate how deeply Germany was divided not just geographically, but also culturally, and how Germans perceived each other at the time.
The year 2019 marks the 30th anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which means Germany has been one nation for three decades. While there are still some who label themselves – or others – as Ossis and Wessis, it is an increasingly rarer distinction as Germans gather in celebration of the achievements they have made as one nation.
But as you read about the fall of the wall and Germany’s reunification, it’s likely you’ll come across the words Ossi and Wessi. Just make sure not to label anyone with them!
By Nicole Glass, German Embassy