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German reunification: What still divides East and West?

Dana Regev
September 30, 2020

The geographical division through the middle of Germany may have vanished from maps — but not so much from minds, as DW's Dana Regev has learned.

A handshake, one arm extended through a hole in a wall
A gesture of unity after the Wall was breachedImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber

One of the first memories I have from my dad is from when I was about to turn four. Back then, in 1989, he decided it was a good idea to buy me a poster of the world's countries and their flags, and teach them to me one by one, including the names of each country's capital.

One of my favorite flags was the German one — not because I was particularly impressed by its colors — but because the capital's name was the easiest for me to pronounce as an Israeli: Bonn.

Little did I know that almost three decades later, in 2014, I would set foot in this very city — no longer the political capital of what is known today simply as "Germany."

In 1989, it was still part of West Germany (officially the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG), a separate country from the German Democratic Republic (the GDR, or East Germany), which claimed East Berlin as its capital.

Many years have passed, but as I have quickly found out upon moving here, the geographical division parting East and West until 1990 may have vanished from world maps — but not so much from people's minds.

Here's what I've learned about it as a foreigner.

A section of the Berlin Wall, collapsed: a crowd on one side, uniformed soldiers on the other
East German guards demolish a section of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 1989Image: Getty Images/AFP/G. Malie

It's the economy, stupid

The area occupied by former East Germany has a much smaller population than the former West (about 16 million people, compared with about 67 million), but its productivity is lower even when adjusted to the population difference, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

People in the former East earn only 86% of the after-tax income of their West German counterparts. The average unemployment rate there in late 2019 was 6.9%, compared to 4.8% in the former West.

Apparently, this is more than just dry figures for some, as I have come to realize during dinner at a close friend's place in Berlin. "Ossies still have their communist mindset," her father said. "They're just as lazy and dysfunctional today as they were 30 years ago," he insisted in disdain.

Two tiny male dolls standing on a stack of coins, one higher than the other, with two signs pointing in the opposite directions saying West and East
People in the former East earn less than those in the former West, but some see more to that than just figuresImage: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/McPHOTO/C. Ohde

But many from the former East — and West — beg to differ. "One stereotype about Easterners is that they're lazy, but that's obviously not true," says Chris, a 33-year-old engineer from Kaiserslautern, who now lives in Berlin. Like the other interviewees he did not want to read his full name in this article. 

To him, the former East could possibly be poorer "due to a vicious circle," in which skilled workers leave in search for better salaries, leading major companies to locate their headquarters in the former West, leading to even more people leaving the former East.

"All colleagues of mine who come from the former East left for the same reason," he explains, and a colleague of his, 29-year-old Andreas, who grew up in Cottbus, agrees: "My mom still lives in my hometown, but there weren't job opportunities for me there, so moving away was inevitable."

Stereotypes in both directions

A few months into living in Germany, a German friend of mine told me about a date she went on, saying that the guy was genuinely nice, but she could "never date someone with a Saxonian accent."

I was new to the country, and could hardly distinguish between different accents and dialects, but living here for six years I can confirm that this is not the first time I've heard such a statement — specifically about people from Saxony, and less so about dialects from other regions.

A girl holds up a stack of dictionaries titled with the names of various German dialects
From Hamburg to Munich, Germans speak various dialectsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel

"The issue Westerners have with our dialect is nonsense," says 36-year-old Peter, a mechanical engineer born and raised in a small village near Dresden.

"Germany is full of different dialects — why is it that the Eastern ones are always ridiculed?" he asks. "It shows just who's more narrow-minded." 

According to him, the East's communist past has actually led people from there to be more critical of the government and "significantly less religious" than those from the former West.

"If anything, many West Germans should take a close look at their own old-fashioned opinions before they judge others," he argues.

Indeed, according to a different Pew Research Center poll, six-in-ten adults in the former West said religion is very or somewhat important in their lives, whereas an identical share of those in the former East said religion is not too or not at all important.

On the right path

The sense of division between former East and West also remains when it comes to politics. Attitudes toward the EU, for example, are different, and although Germans are generally pro-European Union, the share of adults who have a favorable view of the EU is higher in the former West. So is their general sense of optimism about the future. 

View of Dresden from the River Elbe: Ships, steeples and facades
The eastern German city of Dresden. "Significantly less religious" than the former WestImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Michael

Additionally, the relative popularity of the right-wing populist "Alternative für Deutschland" party (AfD) in Eastern Germany is viewed with concern in the West . Twenty-four percent of adults in the East express a favorable view of the party, compared to only 12% in the former West.

"Whilst young people didn't grow up in a divided Germany, I think they still inherited a lot from their parents and grandparents about how they see the world and how open they are to it," says 32-year-old Laura, who grew up in a western neighborhood in Berlin.

"Whereas kids in the West and their parents didn't know anything but an open world, older generations in the East never had to deal with foreigners, and also didn't know how to once these foreigners started to show up after the wall came down," she explains.

A crow of people stands atop the Berlin Wall in front of Brandenburg Gate, three German flags waving in the background
Germans stroll along the Berlin Wall in 1990. The sense of division remains — but gaps are continuously closingImage: imago/F. Berger

"I think that's also where the higher levels of racism in the East come from. There was just a lot of fear," says Laura.  

Those living in the former East today are indeed more likely than their Western counterparts to have an unfavorable view of Muslims (36% vs. 22%) and about twice as likely to have an unfavorable view of Jews (12% vs. 5%).

The good news, however, is that despite noticeable differences in political views and economic growth, Germans from all backgrounds overwhelmingly believe the reunification was a positive development.

"Just like with everything else in life: Better drop the prejudice or you can miss out on some amazing people," Anna, a 32-year-old marketing manager from Cologne says in laughter, explaining that she herself is the daughter of a father from the former West and a mother from the former East.

And if current trends continue, Germany is very likely to close all the gaps between former East and West - sooner rather than later.

9 reasons why Berlin isn't very German at all

You'll find more about Germans and everyday life in Germany on dw.com/MeettheGermans and on YouTube. Make sure to also check out our new Instagram account @dw_meetthegermans.