Even 28 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and unification, eastern Germany remains quite clearly discernible. Lingering differences in disposable income, unemployment or home and land ownership in the east and west show the scars of the political and economic upheaval that shook the former German Democratic Republic.
As an eastern German from the state of Thuringia, I witnessed how the collapse of the GDR was followed by a swift collapse of the economy with millions of people losing their jobs in an extremely short period of time. Big factories that were the economic anchors of entire regions were shut down virtually overnight. Once they had gone, the people left, too. In the space of just a few years in the early 1990s, more than one million eastern Germans moved away in search of jobs and a future. The birth rate plunged to a lamentable level. Schools, theaters, cinemas, village groceries and pubs closed down.
Billions of euros have been pumped into the east in the past decades, in roads, cities and companies. But the five states that make up former East Germany still lag behind their western neighbors, not just in terms of wages and pensions but also in economic output. The east does not have a single company listed in the leading DAX stock index of 30 blue-chip firms, and there’s virtually no captain of industry from the region. The federal government, meanwhile, has been undermining its pledge to prioritize the east as a location for future federal and research institutions. Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg have been given a bigger cut in recent years.
The East German reality
While the figures are known, the personal stories behind them are less familiar. These stories are what really set the east apart: They are stories of new beginnings and hope but also of uncertainty and bitter disappointment. Many people responded to the uncertainty as best they could, learning new professions, or setting up their own businesses. All this while forging a new democratic society.
Others failed, often through no fault of their own, and felt robbed of their future. Many were traumatized by the factory closures enforced by the Treuhandanstalt, a GDR privatization agency tasked with transitioning East German state-owned enterprises into the West's free-market model. In Bischofferode in the summer of 1993, the potash miners went on a hunger strike in a vain attempt to stop the closure of their mine. In those days many people felt that — unlike during the peaceful revolution — they were no longer masters of their fate; that their lives were in the hands of the Treuhandanstalt or western investors armed with a surfeit of good advice.
To be sure, unemployment and a fear of the future are also present in the west. But if a whole generation is given the impression that their life’s work, their experiences and their biographies are of no value, deep scars are formed — even among future generations. Looking for guidance, young people often found their parents at a loss.
When I return to my home region I often come across people who are exhausted, disheartened and disappointed with democracy and the state. I can understand that. They are worried about what is going on in this country, and about their own future. Some of them are also angry at being lumped together with the irate mob in Chemnitz, with the anti-Muslim Pegida movement and the hatred that has erupted in front of many refugee homes. These are people who want to be listened to and for their experiences to be valued. And rightly so. The people in former East Germany do not need belittling after what they have gone through. They need a place where they belong, where they aren’t scoffed at by people who think that is just the way the east is.
When all is said and done, most eastern Germans are people who work hard and want to make the most of their lives. The post-communist civil society is developing slowly and could even be more self-confident, standing up for its own values. We eastern Germans often have different opinions about issues currently being debated. One example: inheritance tax. One might think it’s a major issue in the equality debate. In many discussions, among the Greens party as well, the focus was placed on family-owned companies, on the advantages for heirs, about the revenues that could be spent on education.
But in the east, most people shrug their shoulders: You don’t tend to inherit much there. Certainly not a huge fortune. That has consequences. For example, it is harder to take a risk and set up a company, and it means that those who do deserve all the more respect.
Is there something the west can learn from the East Germans? We have gone through epochal upheaval and we know that big social transformations don’t happen by pressing a button — they come with setbacks. We should talk to one another, not just about each other; we should respect one another and be ready to abandon our own viewpoints, both that of the victim and of savior. If we can better understand each other and judge each other less, we will finally be on track towards true unity. Let’s face the facts: The east is different, and it will remain different for quite a while.
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