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33 years later: German unity 'completed, but not perfect'

Published September 29, 2023last updated October 3, 2023

The commissioner for eastern Germany, Carsten Schneider, has praised the economic upswing in the former East in a DW interview. But a new report on reunification has highlighted divisions that still remain.

A visitor to the 2022 Reunification Day celebrations in Erfurt wearing a knitted hat in the colors of the German flag
The German government says reunification has taken great strides in the past 33 years, but there is still work to be doneImage: Sebastian Willnow/dpa/picture alliance

Over three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany is politically unified, but dividing lines remain, the Minister of State for East Germany told DW.

"Reunification is completed, even if it is not perfect," said Carsten Schneider, adding that reunification needed to be fully realized in people's minds.

The government's commissioner for eastern Germany spoke to DW on the release day of the annual report on the state of German unity, just before the country celebrates its 33rd Reunification Day on October 3.

Is there a wealth gap between western and eastern Germany?

Schneider highlighted that pension levels were adjusted to be equal across Germany in 2023 as one of the main successes of the last year.

Pension inequalities had been a long-standing grievance for many people in the former communist German Democratic Republic (GDR).

While increasing the federal minimum wage also benefited employees in the German states that used to make up East Germany, "there are still differences in wages and wealth," Schneider admitted.

In 2022, the average annual salary in western Germany was more than €12,000 ($12,670) higher than in eastern Germany. Net savings figures reveal an even starker inequality — in 2021, median savings in western states were nearly three times as high (€127,900 ) as in eastern ones, according to the German Federal Bank.

Germany's State Minister for East Germany, Carsten Schneider, presents the new report on the state of German unity
The report on the state of German unity aims to assess how people in eastern and western Germany perceive their living conditionsImage: Michael Kappeler/picture alliance/dpa

The economic transition of the former East

Schneider said he expected significant economic growth across eastern Germany, which he sees as a hub for investments in the semiconductor industry.

US technology company Intel is planning a €30 billion chip factory in Magdeburg, the capital of Saxony-Anhalt. It's one of the biggest foreign direct investments in the history of Germany.

"Eastern Germany is a region that is catching up, in terms of industry, in terms of jobs over the next decades," Schneider said, adding: "The energy transition can only work with eastern Germany because we are the main production site for renewable energies."

However, the number of people of working age in East Germany is expected to decrease signicantly in decades to come, according to figures published by the Federal Statistical Office, Destatis.

At the end of 2022, the agency said there were some 51.4 million people between the ages of 18 and 64 across Germany, of whom 7.2 million lived in eastern German states, not including Berlin.

The next two decades would see the number in the eastern part of Germany in that age group fall by between 560,000 and 1.2 million, while it would drop by as much as 2.1 million by the year 2070. The number was also expected to fall in western German states although, because of higher immigration there, the fall was expected to be less significant.

Diversity and far-right populism in the former East

Asked by DW about the increasing support for the far-right Alternative for Germany(AfD) among people in eastern Germany, Schneider was quick to stress: "In eastern Germany, there are always majorities for democratic parties in all elections."

While he admitted to the problem, he said it was important not to reduce people in eastern Germany to their support of the AfD.

A recent study conducted by the University of Leipzig showed that around a third of people in eastern Germany think there is a need for a "strong leader" to rule the country, and about 60% think the number of foreigners in the country is too high.

Schneider was keen to stress that inclusion and diversity in eastern Germany had increased. He pointed to the fact the proportion of foreign-born nationals living in his home city of Erfurt had grown from 2% of the population 10 years ago to 18% now.

"If you get to know someone from a different culture ... and increase your cultural awareness, then prejudices vanish very quickly," he said. 

So how unified are east and west?

In the state that made up East Germany, the AfD is particularly strong in rural regions, which more often struggle with shrinking populations and lower levels of public services, according to the report.

Schneider said the differences between urban and rural areas across Germany were often more stark than the differences between eastern and western regions.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that people on opposite geographic sides of the country had different perceptions of the situation the country was in. A recent survey showed 57% of Germans think the former East and West had not "grown together."

But Schneider told DW that political measures alone could not solve all disparities.

"That has to come out of society itself, the interest in it and also dealing with each other, and I think that many eastern Germans often feel a bit deceived  and treated with condescension, and there is no reason for that," Schneider said. "I would like to see more exchange, more interest for each other."

Edited by: Rob Turner 

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