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Former East Germans are not an ethnic group, court rules

A court in the southwestern city of Stuttgart has ruled that people from the former East Germany are not an ethnic group, after a woman born in East Berlin sued a company on the grounds of ethnic discrimination.

A piece of the Berlin wall

Many believe Germans are still divided by a psychological wall

A Stuttgart labor court ruled on Thursday that people from the former East Germany are not a separate ethnic group. The verdict comes after a German woman born in East Berlin complained that a Stuttgart-based company rejected her job application on the basis of her ethnicity, and took the firm to court.

The company had sent her CV back to her, with the word Ossi - a slang word for someone from the former East Germany - and a minus sign written next to it.

Gabriela S. has lived near Stuttgart for 22 years, but she was born in the former East Berlin, a fact that, she claims, caused the company to reject her application.

"The worst thing for me was the minus sign, I really took that personally," she told ARD German public television.

"I refuse to get upset about being called an Ossi. I am an Ossi and we normally have no problems acknowledging that we are. We won't be judged," she said.

Company denies discrimination

The Stuttgart-based company that turned down Gabriela S.'s application, firmly denies that it rejected her because she comes from East Berlin.

Statue of a woman holding up the scales of justice

There is no clear legal definition of an ethnic group

"We would have snapped her up, we don't care if she's from the former East or Bavaria or anywhere else," Rainer Ehmeneck, chief executive of the company said on Thursday.

"We just don't care. What counts is whether she's qualified or not. If you make six mistakes in the cover letter alone and you're getting names wrong, no-one will hire you," he said.

But Ehmeneck admits the CV was not meant to be sent out with the 'Ossi' remark written on it.

Ethnic groups are hard to define

According to German and European law, discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity is illegal, but what constitutes an ethnic group is not yet clearly defined, despite Thursday's verdict.

"We do have the problem that the field of anti-discrimination law is quite new to German legislation and the courts and lawyers as well," Heiko Habbe, a lawyer who specializes in migration and anti-discrimination law, told Deutsche Welle.

"So there's still a lot of discussing and defining like what is a behavior that should be sanctioned and what isn't," he explained.

The Labor Equality Bill (AGG) was introduced in Germany in August 2006.

Young East Germans march during celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the GDR

The GDR only just managed to celebrate its 40th anniversary

Wolfgang Nau, the lawyer who represents Gabriela S. disagrees - he had argued that East Germans can be classed as a distinct ethnic group.

"Citizens from the former East Germany have a common history, a certain common cultural tradition that was different from ours," he told ARD television.

"They have, for example, the public initiation ceremony for young people, something that didn't exist in West Germany. And I think that East Germans would perceive themselves to be an independent group."

The court stated that an ethnic group could be defined by a common tradition, language, religion, and even a common cuisine. But it argued that the former East Germany, or German Democratic Republic, as it was formally known, did not exist long enough to develop an identity sufficiently different from West Germany's.

Habbe also doubts that former East Germans, who make up for one third of the current German population, would define themselves as a coherent group.

"The question whether the so-called Ossi can be defined as an ethnic group raises some doubts, because the term Ossi is a stereotype. In my perception, it's not a definition that the East Germans would give to themselves as a common standard," Habbe told Deutsche Welle.

Call for a new approach

Germany's top anti-discrimination officer, Christine Lueders, has called for new standards on CVs. In Germany, resumes often state the applicant's date of birth and a picture is also usually attached.

Lueders told SWR public radio that she "completely understands" why Gabriela S. went to court. She says, to avoid lawsuits in future, companies should accept anonymous CVs that do not mention a date of birth, the person's name, address or marital status. It should also not have a picture attached, Lueders suggested.

Author: Nicole Goebel
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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