Germany: still divided after all these years

The fall of the Berlin Wall, far from heralding a unified future, ushered in a new period of discord between west and east.

Sabine Reul

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Twenty years ago, the implosion of Stalinism in Europe and the end of German partition were celebrated as a triumph for democracy and freedom. The Iron Curtain fell, the East German party dictatorship and shortage economy were vanquished and, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, pluralist party democracy and market economies prevailed. In what was the German Democratic Republic, the enthusiasm was especially marked. The spectacular uprising of eastern Germans had dealt the final blow to the Stalinist order across Eastern Europe, seemingly ending the division not just of Germany, but of the continent, too.

But this enthusiasm was shortlived. The mood of renewal in 1989/90 soon gave way to disappointment and new insecurities. This applied not only in Germany, but across Eastern Europe, where market and multi-party systems were established at different speeds during the 1990s. Everywhere, a short period of euphoria was followed by long-term disillusionment. And everywhere, the transformation was soon characterised, at least temporarily, by the growth of right-wing and nationalist trends that cast a shadow over the newly won freedoms.

In Germany, the turning point came in 1991 with the pogroms in the former East German city of Hoyerswerda that sent disconcerting images of violence against immigrants around the world. Anti-foreigner violence had been an almost daily occurrence in West Germany throughout the 1980s, and the Hoyerswerda pogroms were followed by similar events in the western German cities of Solingen and Mölln. However, it was Hoyerswerda that acquired special importance. For western Germans they became a symbol of a new sense of estrangement from, if not disdain for, their eastern fellow Germans and a reference point for therapeutically oriented discussions about the ‘problems’ of German unification that continue to this day.

The big difference between the transformation in eastern Germany and the rest of the former Warsaw Pact countries is that, in Germany, the confrontation between the western market and eastern state socialist life worlds was politicised in a form specific to Germany. Put simply, during the Cold War, Germans were politically divided, but did not feel estranged in human terms. That only happened once the country was reunited, ironically. And this sense of difference was promoted and institutionalised by the way western German politicians and opinion-formers soon began to rationalise the economic and social dislocation brought about by the process of market transformation in the east.

The notion that eastern Germans were somehow ‘different’ gained momentum only a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. The western German left played a particularly sorry role in this regard. Otto Schily, later minister of the interior in the Social Democratic (SPD)/Green coalition government under Gerhard Schröder from 1998-2005, quit the Greens to joint the SPD in November 1989. He recommended himself to his new party colleagues by a remarkable television performance. When asked, after the last elections to the GDR parliament in March 1990, why so many people in the east had voted for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), he silently held a banana into the camera. And in preparation for the first national elections of the united country in December the same year, Oskar Lafontaine, then SPD candidate for the chancellery, banked on mobilising western fears of the economic consequences of German unity in his fight against the then-incumbent chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU).

While Schily expressed unabashed contempt for eastern German desires for a modest share in western prosperity, Lafontaine played the other side of the same card, stoking fears that economic transformation in the east and labour migration from there would put a big dent into accustomed western living standards. This was the welcome given to the people who had just overthrown the Honecker regime by the SPD – along with the groupings on the radical left who more or less unanimously misconstrued the fall of the Berlin Wall as an expansionist capitalist conspiracy to conquer the east and disparaged eastern ‘consumerism’. That Helmut Kohl and the CDU/CSU in turn tried to recharge the stuttering batteries of German conservatism with the images of the popular pro-market uprising in the GDR was a comparatively harmless political manoeuvre. Nonetheless, taken together, the effect from the start was to saddle the process of unification with the degenerate political impulses of the decaying western party system.

The Democratic Awakening (Demokratischer Aufbruch) party, east German proponents of unification, quite sensibly wanted to prevent eastern opposition groupings being lost amidst the western political parties. Commenting on the left-right divide in the western German parliamentary system, the DA leadership declared in January 1990: ‘We regard this distinction as a myth, as an ideological illusion.’ (1) But despite such rhetoric, the December 1990 elections saw the different strands of the GDR opposition dissolve themselves virtually without trace into the western German parties. Inevitable as that was, since none of them presented an alternative strategic vision, it nonetheless meant that the experience of 40 years of GDR history and the popular uprising in which it had just culminated found no place in the political universe of the united Germany. Eastern Germans had to make do with the imported western party machines, themselves clearly showing signs of political exhaustion. Given their decrepit state it is perhaps unsurprising that the old GDR state party, renamed first the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), and then, since 2005, Die Linke, soon made a stunning recovery. And it is equally unsurprising that opinion surveys show that eastern Germans doggedly express high regard for democracy in the abstract, but not for its currently practiced form.

The political unification of Germany, consummated on 3 October 1990, entailed a certain institutional imbalance from the start. This encouraged eastern Germans, who had just enjoyed the liberating experience of collective political action, to regard themselves as passive objects of economic and social transformation. To make things worse, Chancellor Kohl’s government proved incapable of giving the concept of unification a positive meaning beyond stilted phrases. Eastern Germans joined a tired republic. As a result, the great historical moment that could have sparked a real sense of social renewal remained strangely flat. Without lasting power, this exceptional moment was soon lost to the machinery of administrative restructuring and adjustment processes. This highlights a truth generally ignored in debates about the problems of German unification: the progress of German unity could only be as politically and culturally dynamic as the society – and the political order – in which the eastern Germans found themselves 20 years ago.

The trouble was that the intellectual, political exhaustion of western party politics, both left and right, meant that the difference in life experience between eastern and western Germans became politicised. Hostility to materialism among the western left, which had long exchanged its former affinity with working-class politics for ‘post-conventional values’, inevitably struck the eastern ‘workerly society’, as the sociologist Wolfgang Engler described the GDR, as exceedingly odd. In a society that, as Engler wrote, ‘attributed exceptional importance to work, whether loved or unloved, for people’s personal lives’, people had been accustomed to ‘clothe their critique of social conditions in the silent demonstration of workerly virtues’ (2). The productively employed Werktätige were the sole moral authority of GDR society. That some western parties viewed their eastern compatriots’ aspiration for modest prosperity and functioning factories with at best incomprehension, and at worst derision, further undermined understanding between east and west.

The same applied to the other side of the political spectrum. For the best part of the past 20 years, the Christian Democratic CDU/CSU made up for their lack of a future-oriented politics by indulging in a more or less incessant rant against the loathsome features of the long defunct GDR. This was partly an ill-conceived attempt to draw dividends from Cold War anti-communism, and partly a reaction to discontent with ‘really existing’ eastern German capitalism, which proved rather less dynamic and prosperous than originally expected once the shortlived unification boom was over. Here, too, a defensive political reflex generated east-west discord. The simplistic formula of anti-socialist rhetoric, according to which life in the GDR had consisted of nothing but the oppression of ‘victims’ by ‘perpetrators’, simply did not square with the real life experience of eastern Germans before 1989. That experience naturally also included other things like a sense of shared destiny, a partly ironical distance from the GDR regime, and certain opportunities for self-assertion that a western-style market economy does not always provide workers with.

As the Bulgarian sociologist Ivan Krastev notes in a recent article, even members of the state elite in Eastern European countries had to befriend their greengrocer, because he decided who got what. The greengrocer may have been formally powerless, but still had a certain informal power (3). At exactly the same time as the market destroyed social networks that had once provided people with at least a certain sense of orientation and self-esteem, eastern Germans were being accused of being mentally contaminated by their totalitarian past. That, too, could only promote anger and a sense of estrangement. And it is therefore not surprising to learn that eastern Germans now often say things had not really been ‘quite that bad’.

The handwringing with which experts in academia and social research often respond to utterances of this kind betrays a lack of understanding of the forces at play. It was because of the ideological vacuum at the heart of western politics at the turn of the century that simple differences in life experience in east and west acquired the form of politicised misunderstanding. In the process, the debate about German unity has taken the form of a rather degraded obsession with the eastern German ‘mentality’. The focus on eastern ‘difference’ has given rise to an entire research industry that has probed the souls of the new German citizens. It did occasionally bring forth comedic moments of pseudo-Freudian insight such as the famous ‘potty thesis’ of the criminologist Christian Pfeiffer. He argued that anti-foreigner sentiment among eastern German youth was a late consequence of socialist kindergarten education.

During the past 15 years, innumerable studies have diagnosed a high level of dissatisfaction with economic and political development as well as an increased tendency among eastern Germans to view certain features of the GDR favourably. Given the situation described, these findings are not at all surprising. But what is notable is that more recent studies have shown that the difference between east and west as regards the level of dissatisfaction with social and political trends has narrowed considerably – without this having so far had any noticeable impact on the firmly established notion that eastern Germans are somehow ‘different’. As the sociologist Claus Leggewie recently noted, survey data presents ‘a rather undramatic picture of the situation between east and west which, in view of current discourse, is the real sensation’ (4). Nonetheless, the media continue propagating the image of the easterner as the ‘other’ with derogatory neologisms like Ostalgie (eastalgia) and Jammerossi (moan-easterner), thereby attributing to the eastern psyche responsibility for all the real and imagined ills in the united Germany. A kind of ethnisation has taken hold of the German political imagination – with the doubly unfortunate effect that reality becomes progressively even less comprehensible than it already appears, and that understanding between eastern and western Germans is undermined.

However, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this period of construed difference may hopefully be drawing to a close. The new generation of young Germans now starting out on their training or working lives have no living memory of the divided Germany. The high level of cross-migration between both parts of the country ensures that personal contact mitigates the impact of prejudice and politicised misunderstanding. And, last but not least, the now shared experience of economic crisis and political stagnation might become the source of a new sense of common identity and purpose. Yet this is only likely to happen to the extent that a sense of otherness gives way to a focus on real life experience.

Sabine Reul is society and politics editor of spiked’s German sister magazine, NovoArgumente. The above is an edited version of a Battle in Print published in the run-up to this year’s Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume explained why Thatcher wanted the Wall to stay. Matthias Heitmann looked at the stagnation of German politics. Sabine Reul looked at lack of debate in German politics and the rise of anti-modernism among German conservatives. Emily Hill reviewed The Lives of Others, about the omnipresent surveillance in East Germany. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

(1) Unsere Revolution. Die Geschichte der Jahre 1989/90, Erhart Neubert, Piper München 2009

(2) Die Ostdeutschen als Avantgarde, Wolfgang Engler, Aufbau Verlag Berlin 2002

(3) The Greengrocer’s Revenge, Ivan Krastev, Prospect, Oktober 2009

(4) ‘Veröstlichung oder: Vom Zäsur- zum Differenzbewusstsei’, Claus Leggewie, included in Neues Deutschland. Eine Bilanz der deutschen Wiedervereinigung, Eckart Jesse and Eberhard Sandschneider (eds), Nomos Freiburg 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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