Germany, 30 Years After Reunification

Three decades after reunification, a large number of east Germans still consider themselves second-class citizens.
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Berlin, Germany © pixelklex / Shutterstock

November 09, 2019 11:24 EDT

Thirty years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and with it the communist regime that had held the East German “workers’ and farmers’ state” in its iron grip since the beginning of the Cold War. A year later, the two German states were reunited. The mood was exuberant, with Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl famously promising that the East German regions would turn into “blühende Landschaften” — flourishing landscapes.

Three decades later, the mood in Germany is far less joyful and hardly excited. Reality has sunk in, and that reality is sobering. Things have not gone all that well in the east of the country. With the dramatic gains of the far right in virtually all east German regions — most recently in Thuringia — there is little to celebrate. Rather, even a cursory glance at the coverage of this year’s 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall reveals a fundamental shift in perspective, somber and disillusioned, paving the way for a new narrative with regard to reunification.

Brothers and Sisters

In the old narrative, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the liberation of the East German population from a criminal “communist” regime which had held its population captive behind walls, fences and hundreds of kilometers of no-man’s land, heavily guarded and virtually impenetrable. Reunification was the result of a voluntary “accession” of the territory of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), which welcomed its “brothers and sisters” with open arms and a great deal of generosity.

Today, this idyllic account is no longer tenable. On the contrary. Earlier this year, a cultural institute in Dresden organized a conference with the provocative title, Kolonie Ost? (Colony East). The conference was intended to explore the various economic, cultural and sociological “aspects” of colonization in the eastern part of Germany after reunification. For those familiar with American 19th-century history, a different association suggests itself, that of the Reconstruction era following the end of the Civil War, which lasted until 1877.

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As the eminent Columbia University historian Eric Foner has reiterated on numerous occasions, Reconstruction was an honest attempt on the part of the victorious North to integrate the South into the folds of the union while, at the same time, seeking to bring about a “second foundation” of the republic by transforming government from one “for white men” to one for all humankind. The experiment largely failed. What was left was considerable resentment on the part of the Southern whites — a resentment that found its negative poster child in the figure of the “carpetbagger” — a Northerner coming to the South to teach white Southerners the principles of enlightened political culture while, in reality, or so the Southern narrative went, seeking material gains.

The point I am trying to make here is not to compare the horrific “peculiar institution” of Southern slavery to the petty, coercive surveillance state on the other side of the “intra-German border,” the survival of which crucially depended on Soviet support and West German credits. Rather, it is that haughtiness provokes resentment, particularly if haughtiness is combined with unabashed greed. A slew of recent articles in prominent German newspapers acknowledge that this is what happened in the aftermath of reunification, with a large number of West German “carpetbaggers” effectively taking over virtually all important positions in the former GDR. The result has been less than optimal, to put it mildly.

The GDR was a country of “ordinary people” — ein Land der kleinen Leute — with an ordinary-people mentality. This was, to a large degree, the result of the brain drain that afflicted the eastern part of Germany and which, to a large extent, led East German authorities, headed by Walter Ulbricht, to order the construction of the wall. Erich Honecker, East Germany’s long-time helmsman, was the perfect epitome of this habitus and mentality: a petty bourgeois with a ridiculously high-pitch voice, lacking even the most basic level of charisma, wearing badly-fitting suits. Once his regime collapsed, his subjects — and this is what the “citizens” of the GDR were — were on their own. And, as such, they were relatively helpless in the face of the onslaught coming from the west.

Within a short period of time, westerners had taken over most important positions in economics, politics and academia, leaving easterners out in the cold. The eastern response bordered on stupor, reflected in the helpless cri de cœur: “So haben wird uns das nicht vorgestellt” — this is not how we imagined it. The result has been simmering resentment which continues to inform the emotional state of a considerable part of the East German population, including the younger generation.

End of Division?

The end of the division of Germany was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era, particularly for East Germans who, for geopolitical reasons, had been forced to bear the full brunt of Germany’s crimes against humanity. Yet once again, history has not been particularly kind to them. Even after 30 years, the eastern part of the county continues to lag behind the west. In recent years, GNP per capita in the east was stagnating, at roughly 75% percent of the west. Reasons for the east’s sluggish performance are, among other things, a decline in innovative capacities as well as the absence of large companies.

Arguably most important, however, has been a third factor: eastern Germany’s idiosyncratic demographics. Over the past three decades, eastern Germany has witnessed a continuous exodus of younger, better educated individuals, particularly young women. In fact, eastern Germany is a paradigmatic case of what MIT economist David Autor and his collaborators have, tongue in cheek, characterized as the “falling marriage market value of young men.” The result has been a shrinking and aging population, together with a relative shortage of skilled workers — hardly a fertile ground for new investments.

In the cruel world of neoliberal capitalism, a growing number of countries and populations are becoming what Manuel Castells once called “structurally irrelevant.” The reality is that established parties on both the center right and center left have followed suit and “written off” a sizeable portion of the electorate. Under the circumstances, the dramatic gains of the radical right-wing populist Alternative for Germany have caused a rude awakening to the fact that financial transfers, even relatively massive ones, are not enough to win people’s hearts. On the contrary: In eastern Germany, they seem to have added to resentment, perhaps because they are perceived as handouts.

Representative surveys indicate that a large number of east German citizens still consider themselves second-class citizens. There is a strong sense that westerners look down upon them, have little regard for their achievements and failed to recognize the impact the fallout from unification had on their lives and wellbeing. Instead, westerners dismissed them as Jammerossis (yammering easterners), asking them “to get over it” and stop complaining. After all, the west had invested billions of euros to rebuild east Germany’s ailing infrastructure and decaying cities. West German citizens had been forced to pay a “solidarity tax” (aka “Soli”) of 5.5% since 1998, designed to partly cover the costs of reunification.  


Yet easterners failed to show the appreciation and gratitude westerners expected. Instead, they appeared to nourish nostalgic sentiments, known as “Ostalgie” — a distorted, romanticized longing for an idealized past (the GDR), when life was simpler, when most important things in life, such as getting a job and daycare for the children, were being taken care of by the state (as long as one towed the line), and there was a strong sense of community and solidarity. Ostalgie is reflected, among other things, in the return of GDR products, from Spreewaldgurken (gherkins, which play a significant role in the movie “Good Bye, Lenin”) to the famous Rotkäppchen Sekt, a popular GDR sparkling wine.

For West Germans of my generation, Ostalgie is particularly galling. Those of us who had the opportunity to visit West Berlin and the other side of the wall in the decades when the GDR was in full swing, still remember the guard towers with East German soldiers observing every move; the humiliating treatment dished out by East German border guards on the trains traversing the territory of the GDR on the way to West Berlin; and, above all, the dilapidated buildings, even in the center of East Berlin, depressingly grey, which left the visitor with the impression that the war had just ended.

As far as we were concerned, there was nothing redeeming about a country where it was common to have to stand in line for some of the most basic consumer goods. For me, one of the memories of the days following the fall of the Berlin Wall that have stayed with me is the image of that East German citizen who came out of a West Berlin supermarket. Vigorously shaking his head in front of West German TV cameras, he repeated over and over, “Fifteen kinds of salami. Fifteen kinds of salami.” Thirty years after reunification, 15 kinds of salami are being taken for granted. Yesterday’s wonder, however, has turned into resentment, against western arrogance and know-it-all-ism, reflected in the image of the Besserwisser (wise-ass). Many of these notions are nothing but prejudices and stereotypes. Sometimes, however, they do reflect genuine and justified grievances.

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Take for instance the open hostility RB Leipzig, a soccer club that plays in Germany’s top league, has provoked in the west. RB Leipzig is a creation of Red Bull, which invested a great deal of money to catapult the club into the Bundesliga. Since then, RB Leipzig has routinely been denigrated as an artificial creation, a Retortenverein (petri-dish club), which does not belong in the Bundesliga — particularly given the fact that a growing number of illustrious “clubs with a long tradition” (such as TSV 1860 Munich and Kaiserslautern, which both won the championship in the past) from the west are trying to keep their head above water in Germany’s third league. In the east, these attacks against what until recently was the only eastern club in the Bundesliga (with the new season, Leipzig was joined by Union Berlin, a club from the eastern part of Berlin with a long tradition) could only but confirm eastern perceptions of the arrogant west.

Thirty years ago, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s former chancellor and mayor of West Berlin was purported to have coined a phrase, often repeated in the weeks that followed, which would mark the spirit of the time: “Now grows together what belongs together.” Whether or not Willy Brandt ever uttered that phrase is disputed. What is not disputed, however, is the fact that it was far too optimistic. Thirty years after the fall of the wall, eastern Germans have still not completely arrived in the FRG.

A few years ago, Germany opened its borders to over a million refugees. Initially the reception was generally warm and welcoming, only to turn negative. Particularly in the east, there was growing resentment against the government’s efforts to integrate the refugees into German society. As far as eastern Germans were concerned, refugees received preferential treatment, while they were still waiting to be fully integrated. As eastern demonstrators famously put it, “Integriert erst mal uns!” (First, integrate us!). These sentiments suggest that it might take a few more decades for reunification to be completed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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