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Protests against social welfare cuts have been strongest in the eastImage: AP

Eastern Attitudes Toward the State

Kyle James
September 4, 2004

Recent protests against welfare reforms in Germany have been largest in the east. Some analysts say that due to eastern Germans' history under socialism, they tend to look to the state to solve their problems.

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Uwe Lummitsch, who works in the administration of a sprawling apartment complex in the former East Germany, is often frustrated that his efforts to convince residents there to take the initiative in looking for work often come to nothing.

"The attitude is often, 'you, the state, have to do something for me,' not that 'I want to do something for myself,'" he told DW-WORLD.

He said 40 years of socialism in the German Democratic Republic conditioned many people to keep their heads down, adopt a passive attitude, and wait for the state to lay out the path their lives should take.

"Just as before, the state is seen as being responsible for taking action," he said. "But that's not the case anymore."

As Germany begins the process of instituting the biggest reform to its welfare system in decades, some of those in the east used to lives supported by generous monthly payments from the government will likely be forced to reexamine old attitudes.

The reforms, due to take effect at the beginning of next year, will reduce long-term unemployment benefits to the level of social welfare payments, meaning a large cut in income for many families. The east will be particularly affected, since the unemployment rate there stands at around 18 percent, more than twice the rate in the west.

Socialized by socialism

Proteste gegen Schröder in Brandenburg
A demonstration against reforms in BrandenburgImage: AP

The wave of demonstrations that swept through Germany in August protesting upcoming welfare reforms were biggest in the eastern part of the country, the former East Germany. Protestors have claimed the reforms will drive many into poverty. They blame the government for failing to create jobs in the east.

That has some people saying easterners expect too much from the government, waiting for action to be taken from leaders and authorities instead of seizing the initiative and shaping their futures themselves.

Diskussion um Stasi-Akten und Gauck-Behörde 1992
Joachim Gauck, right, with former Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters amid East German secret police filesImage: dpa

"They expect too much from those above them," Joachim Gauck, former head of the office investigation files of the former East German secret police, told the Braunschweiger Zeitung newspaper. He said easterners had not worked out what it meant to be citizens instead of subjects.

According to Gauck and other commentators, the years under socialism have made it difficult for people to accept not only the benefits that come from living in a free, democratic society, but its responsibilities as well. In the GDR, the state took care of one's needs, from the state-run day care for children to an education, job, apartment and even vacations provided by the government.

Values such as self-reliance and self-initiative had little chance of developing under the GDR's repressive system. Most people placed a great deal of importance on navigating the system successfully without being noticed or coming within the sights of the government and secret police.

Easterners tend to fault the policies of the government for their joblessness, according to Gerd Pickel, a professor of comparative sociology at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt/Oder. That has led to the very angry response to the government's plans to reduce welfare payments for the unemployed.

According to Uwe Lummitsch, it is also one of the causes for the resignation and unwillingness to aggressively hunt for work that he sees everyday in his work at the Wolfen North housing complex.

"People have to understand that they have to take action themselves now," he told DW-WORLD. "What we find unfortunate is the widespread attitude that people have a right to work. No, they have a right to apply for work and fight for it."

Danger of stereotyping

But Hartmut Blank, a professor of social psychology at the University of Leipzig, said the image of the easterner who looks to Papa State for everything was widespread, but not necessarily accurate.

Umweltverschmutzung in Bitterfeld
Bitterfeld's once-booming chemical factoryImage: AP

"One can't talk about the 'average' easterner," he told DW-WORLD. After reunification, many in the east watched as industries in their regions collapsed. Many were forced to move to the west to find work. "Some easterners showed more flexibility when it came to their jobs than westerners ever did."

He warned against associating the high turnout rates for the protests in eastern cities with a feeling among easterners that the government should take care of everything. He said the anger is primarily due to the dire economic situation there.

Professor Gerd Pickel of Viadrina agreed on that point, saying that western and eastern Germany are still far apart in attitudes and beliefs largely because of the economic disparities between them. According to his analysis, as long as those differences remain acute, there will be no internal or cultural unity, or common attitudes toward Germany's system of government.

"If the situation in the east remains negative over the long-term, doubts there could arise about democracy itself," he said.

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