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Germany unity: A work in progress

October 3, 2018

States in the former GDR lag economically 28 years after reunification. And there are many other reasons why people in eastern states feel like they are treated as second-class citizens, DW's Marcel Fürstenau writes.

German Unity preparations in Berlin
Image: DW/M. Strauß

One could rightfully call Angela Merkel the biggest winner of German reunification. Born in Hamburg, in the former West, but raised in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the leader of the Christian Democrats has held the reins of the nation for 13 years — though, for a while now, with decreasing dexterity. Many in Germany's eastern states are no longer proud of the chancellor who was raised among them. This makes the distance between the government and the governed, growing nationally, even more palpable in the former East than in the West. Merkel's childhood compatriots see her as the most prominent representative of a politics not their own, though she shares in their history and their experience of dictatorship. But, simultaneous with her rise since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fortunes of millions of Germans in the former GDR have been in sharp decline. In the foreground, the depressing experience of persistent joblessness in the region has left deep scars.

Deutsche Welle: Marcel Fürstenau
DW's Marcel FürstenauImage: DW

When Germany reunified, any personal achievements in the culturally and economically controlling GDR were erased overnight. To bear this, Germans in the former East have required (and still do require) a degree of flexibility, mobility and emotional stability that has never been demanded of their counterparts in the west to any comparable degree. Structural changes to the economy and political shifts never transformed the former West from one day to the next.

The East Germans experienced the quick and total erosion of a societal order that — though widely unloved — had shaped them. But the praise they earned for their peaceful revolution from 1989 to 1990 couldn't put food on the table in the new, unified Germany. The majority have gotten past this precarious position, but they still have a considerably lower level of status than has become the norm in the former West.

Contributions rarely rewarded

Twenty-eight years after reunification, real wages in the former GDR are 82 percent of those in western states, according to the latest Annual Report of the Federal Government on the Status of German Unity. Lower pay for the same work means less recognition and respect.

Injustice, economic and otherwise, has lifelong effects. For people aged 50 and older, the two-tiered society is already set in stone. That is a scandal and remains a scandal.

More depressing than the cemented material disadvantage is the undeniable dominance of elites from western states in almost every corner of society. Merkel's 16-member Cabinet has just two places for former East Germans. One is her own; the other belongs to Family Minister Franziska Giffey, who was born in 1979 in the GDR. One could see it as simple happenstance. But one could also call it what it is: a symptom of the current state of our German unity.

A generation has been born since reunification, and even so it remains the Germans from western states who set the national agenda. The former East is extremely underrepresented in businesses, universities and media. DW is regrettably no exception. Contrasting the former East and West can only stop once Germany has made reasonable headway in dealing with this. Only when German Unity Day is no longer the annual occasion for opinion pieces such as this will reunification be truly complete.

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