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United Germany? The East lags behind

October 3, 2020

Three decades on from reunification, Germany is still a divided country in many ways. And the differences between the former East and West Germany are not just about the economy.

German unification celebrations in Berlin in 1990
Image: Jörg Schmitt/dpa/picture-alliance

In Germany, if you are thirty today, you are still comparatively young. After all, the average age in the country is just under forty-five.

Statistics show that mothers across Germany as a whole tend to have their first child at around thirty. Before reunification was sealed on October 3, 1990, such things were different. In the former West Germany, women first became mothers at around twenty-seven on average. In the former East Germany, it was at age twenty-four. So, one can say family planning is one area where things seem to have evened out.

Germany's commissioner for the new federal states, Marco Wanderwitz, insists that: "Since 1990, the two Germanies have in many ways become much more similar." He points to people's leisure pursuits as an example. "There are more things we share," he concludes, "than things that divide us."

But is that really so? The Annual Report on the Status of German Unity, published in September, seems to tell a different story.

One area of difference is relative economic strength; the economic output of the former East is almost a third lower than that of Germany as a whole. Incomes in the East are 10% lower, and the unemployment rate is higher.

Wanderwitz freely admits that these deficits exist. But he hopes that the East can turn things around by attracting next-generation technologies like electric cars, with Tesla's new plant on the outskirts of Berlin providing a model. Other areas that the commissioner identifies as promising include mobility, hydrogen technologies and artificial intelligence (AI).

From the Volkskammer to the Bundestag

Deutschland Bundestags-Unionsfraktion zur Stasi-Unterlagenbehörde - Ausschnitt Marco Wanderwitz
Marco Wanderwitz is hoping for the euphoria to returnImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Commissioner Wanderwitz is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).  Still, he finds common ground with Dagmar Enkelmann, of the socialist Left party, on the other side of the political spectrum — in part because they both hail from the former East.

Enkelmann is the chair of a Left-affiliated political foundation named after the famous revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. She, too, highlights the economic differences that remain between today's East and West. She tells DW the differences "mean that the East needs to speed up."

She feels a lot of work has to be done "to reverse the trends in areas like regional development and promoting economic structures." She has been a member of both East Germany's old communist-era legislature, the Volkskammer, and Germany's present-day parliament, the Bundestag.

Initially not a fan of German reunification, Enkelmann has since had a change of heart: "The world has become more colorful and the air is cleaner."

Dagmar Enkelmann
Dagmar Enkelmann had her doubts about reunificationImage: Imago/J. Heinrich

And she enjoys the freedom to see things for herself and draw her own conclusions: Citizens of the former East Germany, she explains, really only knew the West from what they got to see on their television screens.

Since 1990, they have been able to travel the world. "In that time, I've seen so much," she says.

Bring back 'elation of reunification'

Enkelmann is critical of the injustices that she believes still exist, but overall she has a positive view of the overall impact of reunification: "It was the right path for most people in Germany." Enkelmann gets goose bumps when she looks at photos from October 3, 1990. The euphoria "is, somehow, still there," she believes.

This euphoria, or as Wanderwitz puts it, "the elation of Reunification," is something he hopes can be revived. This would require support from the broader population and policymakers.

But one thing that worries both Wanderwitz and Enkelmann is the lack of appreciation for democracy in eastern Germany: Only 78% consider it the best system, compared to 91% in the western states.

In recent years Eastern Germany has seen the rise of right-wing extremist parties and a relatively large number of right-wing extremist crimes.

Wanderwitz believes this must be fixed. It is a topic that "politicians and society should care about," not least for economic reasons. If the eastern states want to maintain economic strength and keep services in the region, "They'll only be able to do that with migration."

Many young people still head West because that's where almost all of the big automotive and chemical industries are located. Still, Wanderwitz hopes that the eastern states that have been part of Germany for 30 years now, will see more people move there in future.

Being 'open-minded and welcoming' is key

But because this could stay a pipe dream, Wanderwitz has been thinking more and more about workers from other countries, especially from Europe, because of cultural similarities. He could imagine seeing more immigrants from Poland coming to eastern Germany since Brexit has put an end to their moving to the UK.

What is for sure, he adds, is that we must reach out to the world. And that means being "open-minded and welcoming."

That has been a sticking point, more so in the East than in the West. The political successes of the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), a populist right-wing and, according to Germany's domestic intelligence agency, to some extent right-wing extremist party, have been remarkable. The AfD has entered all of the five eastern states' parliaments with over 20% of the vote.

Map of Germany before reunification
The old divisions live on in reunited Germany

"The East definitely votes differently than the West," says historian Frank Bösch from the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam. However, he means voting is generally different, not just where the AfD is concerned.

"That also applies to the Left party, which was the main party in the East for a long time and still is in various ways," Bösch emphasizes.

He also points to the fact that "the established parties," like Merkel's conservatives, as well as the Social Democrats (SPD), the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Green party, lack clout. But he adds that the AfD "isn't a purely East German phenomenon."

A quick look at the political map of Germany confirms that the AfD has a nationwide presence. Indeed, it has been the largest opposition party in the Bundestag since 2017.

Bösch says that the notion that there might be more to the party's success in "the prosperous south" than economic weakness or xenophobia.

In Bavaria, the AfD, which has called for less migration, clinched 10% of the vote for the state parliament, and took 15% in the wealthy neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg.

Read more: Love found during German reunification lasts until today

Bettina Stehkämper and her husban
East-West bonds: DW's Bettina Stehkämper is from West Germany, her husband from the East — their children can't remember who's from whereImage: Privat

The former West Germany more cosmopolitan

At over 12%, Germany's two most financially successful states, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, have higher than average populations of foreigners. But basing the AfD's success on that alone would be too simplistic. If that were the case, the AfD would be a niche party in the East, where only 5% of the population is non-German.

What is clear, says Wanderwitz is that with the exception of the capital Berlin, which is located in the former East, and attractive university cities like Leipzig, Dresden or Potsdam, the appeal of the western states looks set to remain stronger than the draw of the eastern states for a long time.

Recently at the release of the annual report on German unity, he told an anecdote about his high school class' 25th reunion. The number of those who had stayed in Saxony, a state that was part of former East Germany, could be counted on one hand.

"The rest of them lived in the former West, Switzerland, and Austria," he said.

Wanderwitz firmly believes that the trend for people to move away is slowing down: "It's no longer everybody in a whole school year that is leaving. In fact, hardly anybody is going."

And if anybody does leave, it is to go away and study, "and ideally most of them will come back," Wanderwitz adds. Of course, it all depends on narrowing the gap in living conditions. And if that does not happen, whole school classes might once again leave the East and go West — to stay.

Germany: National park on former death strip

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.
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