Germany, the half post-communist country whose legacy we forget
The shadows of that 41-year divide continue to loom over many Germans today. For those in the west of the country, the east might feel like a burden. High levels of spending and investments from the west, despite being the leading cause of a successful reunification, have not brought the east perfectly in line with the rest of Germany.
October 3rd marked a major holiday throughout Germany: der Tag der deutschen Einheit, or German Reunification Day. This year celebrated 28 years since the official reunification of Germany in 1990, a country once literally split in half by opposing poles and ideologies. Indeed, the grand symbol of the collapse of communism took place within Germany in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. While it was once where East and West met, the entire country is now largely considered to be in Western Europe. However, the area of former East Germany still lags dramatically behind in growth, productivity and wages. Hardly any of Germany’s most successful corporations come from the eastern half. And now, the region is associated with the parliamentary successes of the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) and a rise in extreme right mobilisation. Germany’s eastern frontier is arguably facing many issues that originated from the collapse of its previous system – so why do we neglect it when looking at the post-communist region?
The 28 years of German reunification were celebrated this year in Berlin in the form of a three-day festival taking place at various locations all throughout the city. This year’s celebration, like in previous years, was multi-faceted; exhibitions of every German state allowed visitors to take trips throughout the country, discussions and workshops sparked conversations of the past, and musical performances by major German artists such as Nena and Samy Deluxe kept the party going well into the night. To promote the festivities a motto was used in the press and on social media: Nur mit euch, or “only with you”. However, such a seemingly innocent motto calling to celebrate the unity of Germany comes across as peculiar in 2018. On the one hand it could have been calling on the “you”, the collective German people, to celebrate unity. On the other it could be highlighted as a clear divide in German society, that easterners are still a “you” for many in the country’s western states and vice versa.
If one digs long enough through media, interviews and scholarly journals, one can discover that every possible explanation can be given for the east’s split from the west. Economic disparities, intolerance of foreigners, unbalanced demographics, popularity of far-right groups and simply diverging mentalities commonly appear as examples of the continuing east-west schism. Arguably, one of the world’s most peaceful transformations is still far from over. The absorption of East Germany into the West, while a much smoother transition than the case of many of Germany’s neighbours, still has resulted in a slew of problems for the country to this day. Two aspects in particular seem to constantly circulate in German media.
The Nazi problem
Depending on who you talk to, the topic of Neo-Nazism in Germany either comes as a complete shock or is completely obvious. Reactions are usually one or the other, often along the lines of “What? Nazis in Germany? I thought they learnt their lesson!” or “Of course there are still Nazis in Germany, haven’t you been to the east?”
Neo-Nazis find themselves in pockets around Germany in both the east and west. However, the prevalence of Neo-Nazis in the east coincides with high numbers of hate crimes and their ability to organise in the east has concerned many across the country. The most recent example were the protests in Chemnitz this past August, sparked by the killing of a German-Cuban man with four migrants named as suspects by the police. Numbers in the Chemnitz protests hit their apex at around 6,000 participants, shortly after the murder, likely due to quick and efficient communication systems by hooligan and Neo-Nazi groups. What really caused concerns with those observing the Chemnitz protests, however, was the fact that average citizens stood side-by-side with those in infamous Neo-Nazi groups, such as Der Dritte Weg. Support for the protests by the far-right AfD party, who similarly finds its largest base in that very state of Saxony, only seemed to increase these groups’ visibility.
The events that unfolded in Chemnitz should not come as a great surprise. Neo-Nazi and far-right groups have been organising in Germany for years now, usually finding a common, apolitical medium to rally around. The German states of Thuringia and Saxony have hosted many such events, often revolving around Rechtsrock or far-right rock concerts. Rechtsrock concerts, such as that held in 2017 in the Thuringian city of Themar, have attracted upwards of 7,000 concert-goers, more than doubling the actual population of the village.
One explanation for the fact that this phenomenon is greater in the east is due to the fact that the communist authorities did not undertake de-nazification initiatives like the western-controlled sectors. As citizens of the former East Germany were by default communists, it was seen as impossible for any citizen to be fascist as they were inherently anti-fascist. Therefore, when the Berlin Wall fell and the communist regime was integrated into the free-speaking west, eastern Neo-Nazis could be more open about their ideology. Others argue that an internally inclusive outlook towards citizenship carried over from the past and is a reason for welcoming an anti-migrant far-right. The former east never witnessed a high level of foreigners during its existence and those who did immigrate were mostly from Eastern Bloc countries. Integrating with its western half brought a liberalised immigration system with it – something that the east had never experienced before.
Nearby post-communist Central European countries such as Poland and Hungary have similarly faced an active and mobilised far-right scene as seen in Poland’s recent independence day march in Warsaw. Germany is still led predominantly by a Centre-Right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, however, which still largely shuns appealing to the far-right base. Additionally, the eastern states in Germany have always lagged behind in population and now face a looming demographic crisis. While AfD finds support and voters in the east, this drastic difference in demographics still leads to a Germany politically dominated by the west. If East Germany were a stand-alone country in 2018, the results from last year’s election indicate that the country would show strong support for far-right candidates, leaving us to speculate whether it would also politically fall in line with its post-communist neighbours.
Thus, it seems likely that some elements of the past play a role in the prominence of the east’s far-right activism. Of course, the past cannot be blamed for everything. Plenty of countries in the West, which have no communist legacy, also struggle with the growth of such groups today.
The infamous economic divide
Beyond ideology, Germany still struggles to compensate for the east-west economic divide that has troubled it since reunification. The east tails behind in nearly every aspect of the German economy. Unemployment is still higher in the eastern states with development and productivity lagging behind their western counterparts. In fact the eastern states’ economies are growing at a much a slower rate. Two states, Brandenburg and Saxony, are expected to be the only two that match the rest of the country’s economic growth rate by 2030.
The integration of Eastern and Western Germany has been called everything from a success to a miracle. When the two states reunified in 1990, state-owned businesses were privatised and integrated into the market, unproductive industrial sites not up to western standards were shut down or reorganised and new regulations were enforced. Whereas Poland, another post-communist economic “success,” benefited from IMF and World Bank loans, much of the work and investments in Germany came from the German state itself; the West German economy was reinvigorated and living standards in the East were slightly better than its Central European neighbours. This allowed Germany to distinguish itself from other post-communist states. Additionally, high capital and labour mobility, promoted heavily by the Helmut Kohl administration of the newly reunified state, helped converge the two economies rapidly. This self-sufficient, self-integrating Germany was praised by economists around the globe even though it came at a remarkable cost to the west, which even initiated a controversial solidarity tax that is still collected today. Such actions led to one of the smoothest and most peaceful state reunifications in history. Yet, it still came at a cost to the east.
Once reunification was settled, western businesses and investors swooped into the eastern states. Many companies in the east ceased to exist nearly overnight and only a small handful of them have survived in the reunified country. In some cases, investors bought out factories and completely dismantled them to free up competition and eliminate inefficient production. However, an attempt to overhaul production in the east was never fully realised; while productivity in the east following reunification stood at 70 per cent of the west’s productivity, it had only managed to squeak up to 73 per cent by 2012. Most of Germany’s productivity and economic output remains centred in the west, leaving the eastern states to struggle with catching up to this day.
The disparities between east and west largely are attributed to policy decisions taken in the years following reunification. While investments in the east were incredibly high, they often translated into developing infrastructure through subsidy policies while ignoring the need to promote entrepreneurship.
Pasts remain present
The shadows of that 41-year divide continue to loom over many Germans. For those in the west of the country, the east might feel like a burden. High levels of spending and investments from the west, despite being the leading cause of a successful reunification, have not brought the east perfectly in line with the rest of Germany. Today, with the east commonly being associated with far-right groups and Neo-Nazi movements, western Germans are more reluctant than ever to help develop an east that has never fully come full circle. Meanwhile, easterners are right to remain frustrated at an integration process that never seemed to conclude.
With higher unemployment rates, lower wages, longer work hours, and higher risks of falling into poverty, the east seems far from reaching an equilibrium with its western counterpart. Indeed, a wall from the past still seems to divide Germany economically and socially, and we can (and should) look at the country as part of the post-communist sphere. By ignoring the past and believing that all is well, the east-west divide continues, and potential root causes of problems the country faces today are left unchecked. In the post-communist region, pasts remain present, and Germany is no exception.
Levi Bochantin is a MA student from St. Louis, Missouri and currently in the CEERES international program at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He is a graduate from Missouri State University with a degree in German language and translation.
This article is part of a collaboration between Lossi36 and New Eastern Europe. Lossi 36 is a student-led initiative. It seeks to rally people who are passionate about the post-socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia around a common project. Read the original post in its entirety here.