By Stefan Munk
An unsuspecting visitor to the German parliamentary complex might be surprised to find segments of the Berlin Wall in the basement of one edifice – lining up precisely along the former border that cut through the plot of land of the current structure. Memorials such as this one remind the observer that separation is not some long forgotten history, as it may seem particularly to young Germans, but a stark reality from only a little more than 30 years ago.
On October 3, Germans celebrate (perhaps virtually) the 30th anniversary of reunification. This colorful term refers to the integration of the former East German states into the Western Federal Republic, which was agree to a little less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But past divisions persist, not just in the form of memorials but in the everyday lives of modern day Germans. The single nation legally created through the reunification process has yet to establish itself completely in practice and in the minds of citizens.
A large majority in the East had high expectations when joining the West. These were partially fulfilled. Most importantly, people were at last free to choose their leaders in free elections. However, a great number also experienced disruption and uncertainty. Especially the economic shockwaves were enormous. Most of the inefficient industry in East Germany that employed large parts of the population was sold cheaply, with many sites permanently shutting down. It has been estimated that as much as 80(!) percent of East Germans lost their job at one point during the five years following reunification – talk about a depression.
Until today, income and wealth in the former East, while having increased substantially, lack significantly behind the West. East Germans are underrepresented in leading positions, be it in governmental agencies or the private sector. All that leads to less buy-in in the system and makes people more prone to populist forces. The right-wing populist party in Germany has therefore celebrated virtually all its landmark successes in the Eastern parts of the country. This causes a pernicious cycle of alienation. Due to such political outcomes, West Germans increasingly perceive the East (in some cases justifiably) to be more illiberal and xenophobic. This in turn reinforces the feeling of Easterners to be unwelcome in the broader society.
For some American readers, this may sound somewhat akin to the growing division between deindustrialized areas in the heartland of the US and booming states along the coasts. And indeed, there are a lot of commonalities, in particular regarding the economic hardship. There is, however, an important difference between the situations. Workers in the American Rust Belt can, with some legitimacy, claim that their plight has befallen them without their consent. Of the two causes for deindustrialization most commonly cited in the public debate, one – automation – is foremost a business rather than a political decision, and around the second – trade liberalization – there was always some considerable debate.
This is very different in the case of Germany. There were of course differing opinions on specificities, but in general the course reunification took corresponded to the preferences of East Germans. The party that pushed for a swift reunification, the CDU now under Merkel’s leadership, won the first election in a unified country by large margins, in particular in the East. At the same time, measures that contributed to the deindustrialization of the newly admitted states, like the quick adoption of the strong West German currency and the rapid alignment of wages, enjoyed widespread support.
Whether this important difference makes the current divide easier to bridge than in other countries, like the United States, is hard to predict. In any case, a clearsighted perspective on history is key to enable a better communication between the sides. Remembering the dislocations caused by reunification can help explain the high degree of cautiousness towards wide-ranging societal changes, including large-scale immigration, in the East. Simultaneously, when disenchantment among East Germans with the established political system runs too high, they would do well to recall that they demonstrated and voted in droves to join precisely that system merely 30 years ago.
Stefan Munk is a German graduate student at Columbia University