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Still divided

Wolfgang Dick / asbOctober 3, 2013

Twenty-three years after German reunification, eastern Germany has largely been modernized. But many Germans in both the east and the west still retain prejudices, and they don’t yet feel like one nation.

Berliners sing and dance atop the wall to celebrate the opening of East-West German borders November 10, 1989
Image: AP

Citizens of eastern Germany were literally walled in from 1961 until 1989, trapped in the area of the former Soviet occupation zone established after World War II. Escape from the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR) was nearly impossible. But by the end of the 1980s, the GDR's experiment with socialism had officially failed, and in 1989 the wall came down.

With the border between the two parts of Germany removed, millions of eastern Germans migrated west. Upon reunification in 1990, many Germans experienced new freedoms, including the chance to travel and purchase items that had not been available in the GDR.

Gone was the clothing that had come to define the GDR: light-grey shoes, plastic jackets, or jogging suits made of parachute silk. Hairstyles changed too - from the old air-dried perm to a more "modern" haircut.

Soon the "Ossis," as East Germans were called back then, didn't look any different from the "Wessis," the West Germans. But deep down, some of the differences remained - and prejudices persisted.

East vs. West

"Eastern Germans often say that western Germans are arrogant, materialistic, more bureaucratic and superficial," Thomas Petersen of the Allensbach Istitute, an opinion research center, told DW.

The center's survey from 2012 shows that eastern Germans also hold many more prejudices against western Germans than the other way around. And the Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis found that eastern and western Germans still don't feel like they belong to one nation.

A long row of East German Trabant cars passing through Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin is greeted by enthusiastic West Berliners, 10th November 1989.
People flocked to western Germany after fall of the Berlin Wall, here at Checkpoint Charlie on November 10, 1989Image: AFP/Getty Images

Some eastern Germans even feel like "second class citizens," according to sociologist Andreas Zick from the University of Bielefeld. His research shows that many eastern Germans perceive that they continue to live under discriminatory conditions.

Even though by now almost all streets and houses of the former GDR are modernized and the infrastructure is largely up to date, wages in eastern Germany are still currently 20 percent lower than those in western Germany; pensions are also 10 percent lower. However, living in the east is also cheaper than living in the west.

According to economic researchers, the reasons for this gap can be traced back to the types of companies that are based in eastern Germany - very few company headquarters are located in there. Instead, the east mainly hosts supply companies for western Germany's industrial production - and government subsidies worth hundreds of billions of euros have not able to change this. "There are great disappointments," Zick told DW.

West vs. East

But Eastern Germans aren't the only ones still holding prejudices - western Germans have their own clichés about Germans from the former GDR. According to surveys conducted by leading opinion research centers, western Germans think Eastern Germans are sour, mistrustful and anxious. On the other hand, only 43 percent of western Germans considered eastern Germans "motivated" and "flexible."

Most western Germans would also like to get rid of the solidarity tax, a special fee introduced after reunification to finance German development of the former GDR. However, eastern Germans also pay this tax - the misconception of many western Germans that they are the only ones paying it shows that Germany's unity is not yet complete in the heads of its citizens.

Understanding the past, looking forward

There are a few reasons for why, after 23 years, these prejudices persist - the contact theory holds one explanation. "There are simply not enough friendships between eastern and western Germans, they are lacking relationships and contact," Zick said.

Wrapped in a German flag, two Germans kiss in front of the Brandenburg Gate and celebrate the reunification of Germany in 1990
Germans continue to celebrate reunificationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But according to Petersen, this cannot be judged as mutual disinterest. "Former West Germany was four times as large as former East Germany," he said. And so distance continues to be an important factor as to why people from the east and west don't meet more regularly in order to get to know each other better. And this will ultimately be resolved over time, Petersen said.

"The second and third generations after the unification are much more optimistic, and see more equality between east and west," Zick said. "The proportion of those who think there are more differences than similarities between eastern and western Germans has continuously decreased over the past years," Petersen added.

By now there are young adults who have never experienced the Berlin Wall and Germany's separation. In comparison to surveys conducted 10 or 15 years ago, the aggressive undertones of yesterday's expressions opinions have largely evaporated.

Opinion researchers don't want to predict whether or when these perceived differences will completely disappear. But they say there is one thing that eastern and western Germans already agree upon: The majority of all Germans think unification of Germany based on a free and democratic constitution is a joyful occasion.