Germany's popular ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt has outraged many eastern Germans by criticizing them for "whining" about the supposed hardships of reunification without due cause.
Helmut Schmidt: Catering to clichés or warranted crticism?
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, supermodel Heidi Klum and German President Johannes Rau have all voiced their irritation over one of Germany's favorite pastimes: complaining. Now former chancellor Helmut Schmidt has joined the bandwagon, but his criticism has targeted only one part of the nation, namely eastern Germans.
"People lament about some things that are not lamentable," Schmidt told Dresden's Sächsische Zeitung newspaper on Saturday. "Take pensions. The big winners of the economic unification (of East and West Germany) are the pensioners in (former East Germany). Some pensions in the east are in real terms higher than in West Germany. Even so some people complain about their pensions. It makes me sick."
Because they tend to have worked for longer, women in the country's former communist east receive higher pensions than those in the west on average, Schmidt said, while eastern German men receive about the same amount as their western counterparts. "There's nothing to complain about there," he said. Schmidt said he could appreciate that eastern Germans are frustrated. "But they have also developed a certain whining tone in their behavior that I understand, but must condemn."
Schmidt said the politicians responsible for German unification in 1990 were economic "dilettantes" who should have recognized that the result of uniting the two countries would be mass unemployment.
His comments have caused a wave of criticism among Germany's leading political figures.
Manfred Stolpe, the German cabinet member who is responsible for overseeing economic developments in former East Germany, contested Schmidt's comments and invited the former chancellor to visit the eastern cities of Potsdam, Rostock and Leipzig. "He will determine that the east Germans are less whiny than other Germans," he said, adding that "Thirteen years of upheaval have toughened them." Despite massive aid from the west, the eastern states still lag significantly behind the rest of the country economically.
Dieter Althaus, premier of the eastern German state Thuringia, said Schmidt's comments were inappropriate and hurtful. "Pensioners in particular are thankful for the developments in the last 13 years," he told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Lothar Bisky, head of the successor party to the East German communist party, also discounted Schmidt's comments. "That's how you cater to prejudices. That's how you stir up envy towards the supposedly higher eastern pensions. That's how you ignore life accomplishments and the readiness to learn. This way inner unity will remain a mirage."
But conservative Bavarian politician Peter Ramsauer was less dismissive of Schmidt's comments. "There's a grain of truth in it,"he said, adding that anyone who visits the Stasi (East German secret police) prison in Berlin would stop complaining immediately.
Helmut Schmidt served as West German chancellor from 1974 to 1982. The Social Democrat has occupied first place in polls ranking the popularity of German chancellors for years. Schmidt, who received a pacemaker in 1981, has cited health reasons for not running for high political office since 1982, when Helmut Kohl replaced him as chancellor. The 85-year-old remains active in German political life and is one of the publishers of the influential Hamburg weekly Die Zeit.