Instead of being proud of what they've achieved in 15 years of unification, Germany's mood is dominated by discontent. But after 40 years of separation, how could the differences have been leveled out any more quickly?
The unification ethos says life in East and West should be similar
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised "flourishing landscapes" 15 years ago, when German unification was implemented. But such high-flying expectations evaporated long ago; the outcome is sobering. It can be seen in the emigration statistics that show that, every year, more people leave Germany's east for the country's west than vice versa. Since German unification, on Oct. 3, 1990, nearly 1 million people have turned their backs on eastern Germany.
That can't be merely glossed over. It brings to light a problem linked to unification that's been suppressed: above all, eastern Germany is losing young people because they see few prospects on the job market. The cities and towns are becoming ever emptier; the education level is falling; tax income in eastern German states and municipalities is dropping and qualified personnel is lacking all over. Nowhere in Germany are fewer babies born than in the "new" eastern states. Demographers have raised the alarm.
Sacrifices on both sides
Instead of a "flourishing landscape," eastern Germany is still an immense construction site on which work is being done in a more or less hapless fashion. The current situation certainly wasn't caused by a deficit in solidarity. Every year around 90 billion euros ($108 billion) are transferred from western to eastern Germany, generous developmental aid that's intended to continue until 2020. Numerous economic experts see the transfers as a main cause for Germany's weak economy and high unemployment. And these problems will continue to exist as long as eastern Germany doesn't stand on its own two feet economically.
There's no doubt that money for developing the East is needed. The crucial issue, however, is how effectively the money is being used. Economists have long been demanding that politicians correct their approach and increasingly put the money in investments instead of financing unproductive consumption. Instead of continuing on the same route, we need a more open and unsparing analysis of what development is realistically possible. Concretely, how far should Germany pursue the original aim of bringing living conditions in East and West into alignment? Many politicians have avoided such a discussion so far -- it could cost votes.
BMW in Leipzig
Of course, the outcome of the past 15 years has by no means been purely negative. A lot has happened in Germany's east. The infrastructure has been completely modernized; city centers have to a large extent been restored; in places such as Leipzig, competitive industrial centers have been established. For eastern Germans modern cars, color TVs, refrigerators and vacations have become as much a matter of course as they have long been for western Germans. Above all, the freedom they gained when the Berlin Wall fell is worth any sacrifice.
But 15 years are hardly enough to seamlessly meld together a nation divided for 40 years. That which divided them pales, but much more slowly than many people are willing to admit. More than half of western Germans see the eastern Germans as unification's profiteers and consider them unappreciative of the many sacrifices the westerners made.
Demonstrators in Jena, eastern Germany, against welfare reform. The sign reads, "We are the poeple," which was East Germans' rallying cry when the Berlin Wall fell.
On the other hand, more than a third of the people in the East think that those in the West have the upper hand when it comes to unification. Many of them feel patronized, that the West German model was simply imposed on them and even East Germany's positive aspects -- the compatibility of family and work, for example -- were abolished.
But Germans don't really like to talk about these sentiments in public because they fear it will fan the flames of envy between East and West, and that they will be labelled opponents of unification.
But a bit more sangfroid would do the discussion good. Firstly, despite all the talk about unified Germany's situation, the overwhelming majority of Germans, from East and West, view reunification positively. Secondly, it's an illusion to think that 40 years of differing developments take place without leaving a trace on a country and its people. Why is it so difficult to accept that differences -- in the way people think and feel as well as in people's living conditions -- exist? Perhaps it's because Germany hasn't yet prepared itself for such a possibility. It's about time we got used to the idea.