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The wall has gone but division remains

It did not take long for the optimism which greeted the fall of the Berlin Wall to be replaced by something gloomier. PAUL KNOTT explains why, to many East Germans, what followed felt like a hostile takeover

No-one who witnessed it – even from a distance on TV – will forget the sheer joy of the Berlin Wall coming down on November 9, 1989. Waves of ecstatic East Germans poured through the holes smashed in the Wall on foot and in fume-belching Trabant cars to meet their equally delighted Western counterparts. There, they discovered a shared taste for stone-washed denim and mullet haircuts.

East Germany proved less durable than even those dubious 1980s fashions. It staggered on for only a few more months and Germany was formally reunited on October 3, 1990, after 40 years of separation. The initial outpouring of enthusiasm for reunification drove that great achievement. But the immense task of fully integrating two societies with very different experiences remains a long-term work in progress.

Only an economically powerful, well-governed state could take on this challenge. According to Germany’s international public broadcaster, Deutsche Welle (DW), the country has spent an estimated two trillion euros on the länder (regions) of former East Germany since reunification. The East’s infrastructure has been massively upgraded, and the environment polluted by communist era industry has been cleaned up. Its historic old towns have been restored and the party slogans have been replaced by the gaudy paraphernalia of a capitalist economy.

This huge effort and transfer of resources has produced many successes. Few ‘Ossis’ (Easterners) would wish to relinquish the personal freedoms they have acquired since the fall of the totalitarian German Democratic Republic (GDR). Parts of cities such as Potsdam and Dresden have caught up with the prosperity of their Western counterparts and even surpassed some of them.

But despite these achievements, the high levels of support for the virulently xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Eastern Germany in the recent general election show many people there remain disaffected. More than 22% of East Germans voted for the AfD. In Saxony, it was the largest party.

At first glance, this phenomenon can easily be lumped together with Trumpism and Brexit as a cry of desperation from the left behind, exploited by far-right populists.

There are indeed some overlaps with this familiar and simplistic narrative. Eastern Germany is on average poorer and older than the rest of the country. Like many American Trump and British Brexit-backing regions, it has fewer immigrants but, paradoxically, more residents who fear and resent them.

Bigotry often prospers in places where people have less experience of mixing with those of other backgrounds. A lack of personal exposure can make them easier targets for extremists peddling racist and anti-foreigner stereotypes. Since reunification, levels of support for far-right groups and the number of racist attacks have been higher in the East than the West.

The different approaches taken by East and West Germany to dealing with the horrors of their Nazi past are relevant to this phenomenon. Whilst it took some time and some heavy duty prompting from the post-war generation in the 1960s, West Germany eventually did a textbook job of accepting responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust and educating subsequent generations about them.

In contrast, the East German regime was quick to tell its people that they were the descendants of the good socialist Germans who were also the victims of Nazism, not the perpetrators.

In their telling, it was the Federal Republic of (West) Germany that contained the true heirs to Hitler. Hence the official name in the East for the Berlin Wall was, in classic German roll-off-the-tongue fashion, the ‘anti-fascist protection rampart’.

The net result of these two different approaches is that some people raised in the East are less allergic than many Western Germans to political parties with a whiff of fascism, like the AfD.

But there is more to the story than the undoubted problem of racism. As Professor Christina Zuber of the University of Konstanz says, ‘we should be careful with the cultural narrative that ethnic nationalism and racism are only East German issues. The AfD’s elite is predominantly from Western Germany, where a certain level of support for far-right politics exists as well.

‘Socio-economic concerns are significant too. The anti-racist, far-left ‘Die Linke’ party also wins lot of votes in economically depressed areas and has expanded beyond its Eastern origins. The East just has a higher proportion of the kind of people most susceptible to radical messages – such as unemployed men or those who feel at serious risk of losing their jobs’.

These poor employment prospects explain why the average age of the population is higher in the East. Particularly during the first decade after reunification, many younger and better-educated East Germans moved West to take advantage of its greater job opportunities. Women, who tended to have more transferable skills, left in greater numbers, leaving many frustrated and disgruntled single men behind.

The lack of jobs means fewer immigrants have been drawn to the East to replace the people who have left. Even those initially accommodated in the East often head West too once their residence papers come through. These various exoduses have caused the population of former East Germany to fall by more than two million since 1990.

The disparity in economic opportunity and labour drain are partly a result of the mistakes made in managing reunification. Not enough of the vast resources transferred to the East have been focused on generating jobs and enterprises. A substantial chunk of the bill has been swallowed by welfare payments, including pensions, rather than proactive and productive initiatives. These costs were inflated by Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s politically understandable but economically calamitous decision in 1990 to convert East German Deutschmarks into West German ones at a rate of one-to-one, rather than their real value of one-to-three.

As well as the immense cost to the national treasury, the financial burden this overnight conversion placed on East German businesses denied them the time they needed to adapt. It instantly made them even more uncompetitive and many went under, thus further increasing the welfare rolls.

As is often the way with such vast outlays of money, some funds have not been particularly well-spent. The fixation on infrastructure ended up with several pristine but lightly-used airports being built in the East. According to Der Spiegel magazine, waterparks and high-spec swimming pools were another type of project that became a mini-mania in the post-reunification years. Meanwhile, wasteful housing policies saw people being moved out to refurbished tower blocks on the outskirts of town, before being pressed later to move back in again to restored city centres, when it was realised public services could be provided more efficiently there.

But perhaps the biggest reason many ‘Ossis’ (Easterners) are disillusioned is that they still feel undervalued and disrespected, 28 years after the fall of the Wall. This is not just a matter of the many derogatory jokes and stereotypes. The perceived arrogance and dominance of the ‘Wessis’ (Westerners) has made reunification feel like a hostile takeover.

This ‘colonisation’ complaint is borne out by the ongoing chronic under-representation of people of East German background in senior roles. Only three of the 22 rectors of the largest colleges and universities in the East are East Germans, as are a mere two of the 23 publishing directors of the largest regional newspapers and a quarter of the heads of the largest 100 companies in the East. Similar statistics can be found in the ranks of the judiciary, military and many other major institutions.

As Professor Zuber explains, ‘for years the story was that everything was terrible in the East, a totalitarian system that just needed to be replaced. In the West, it was a one-way tale about how we have got to help them and pay for them. It took too long to realise that there were also some positive things in the East that the West could learn from. Such as women’s rights being more advanced and better childcare provision’.

Simone Schmollack, the East German-raised editor of newspaper Die Tageszeitung (Taz) goes further. She calls the large vote for the AfD ‘the Ossis belated revenge’, pointing out that 60% of Eastern AfD voters say their choice was a protest vote.

They ‘turned against the established parties because their experience is that they have been forgotten by them. The greatest freedom they dreamed of at the end of the dictatorship – the hope of being heard – has not come true for many people. Perhaps the AfD would not have done so well if East Germans had been taken more seriously and given more respect’.

Whilst much has been achieved since reunification, the failure to engage Eastern Germany’s people sufficiently or solve its economic problems has left space for extremist political parties to exploit. The former East Germany’s historic circumstances may be very specific but perhaps its problems are not so unusual after all.

Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and the author of The Accidental Diplomat; he lives in Switzerland

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