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Culture

The Kids are Alright

A new study shows that young eastern Germans are far more hard-working and independent-minded than their peers in the West.

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Stefan Kretzschmar and Franziska van Almsick are top eastern athletes

The recent rise in right-wing extremism in eastern Germany is often blamed on its disillusioned younger generation. But researchers at the renowned Allensbach Opinion Research Institute have published a study which reaches very different conclusions.

To Rita Barwitzki, a 26-year-old from Leipzig, the fall of the Berlin wall almost 15 years ago couldn't have come at a better time.

"I had to shed part of my identity," she explained, "but I couldn't wait to discover new things."

"I didn't want to get stuck in the old ways -- after all a new system had arrived that gave me more freedom and independence."

Rita believes she benefited from having lived both behind the Iron Curtain and in reunited Germany. She has childhood memories of life under Honecker, but it was the West that shaped her life as a teenager.

Her self-confidence is typical of the under-30s in eastern Germany, who are more enterprising than the older generation, and many of their contemporaries in the West.

Empty prejudice

When the IfD-Allensbach questioned a sample of 2000 eastern Germans, it was the young people who made the best impression.

"We'd always heard that the younger east Germans felt they had no future, that they were lacking in motivation," explained project manager Thomas Petersen. "There were no opportunities, and the more capable ones left for the West -- those are some of the clichés."

They proved to be empty prejudices. "There's a new generation emerging in our statistics that's quite different," observed Petersen. "They don't just sit around feeling sorry for themselves, they take the initiative and they're brimming with optimism."

Shaping their own destiny

52 percent of young eastern Germans say they are in control of their lives, while only a third of older eastern Germans can match their self-belief. In western Germany, 45 percent believe that destiny is something you shape yourself, regardless of external circumstances.

How do the researchers explain this? With the East German dictatorship an increasingly distant memory, a new generation has grown up that does not share the values of its parents. A similar phenomenon was observed in post-war West Germany and in the early 1990s in Spain, 15 years after the death of Franco.

X. Weltfestspiele der Jugend in Ost-Berlin, 1973

In 1973, East Berlin hosted the 10th World Youth Games.

"This younger generation hardly knew East Germany, pointed out Thomas Petersen. "They grew up in freedom and have been exposed to a world quite different to that in which their parents lived."

"There were differences in language, how one behaves in public and in private, what one can say, what one can't say, even how one keeps an eye on the neighbours. These things were very different in a dictatorship."

The advantages of adversity

Thomas Petersen also points out that eastern Germans growing up in cities and towns with a 20 percent unemployment rate have experienced hardship from an early age.

Almost everybody in eastern Germany knows someone who has lost their job and who's suffering from financial or psychological problems.

It's a different story in western Germany. But in the long-term, Petersen believes, the energy and optimism of young eastern Germans could start to spill over into the West.

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