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Germany is facing old problems 30 years after reunification

  • October 02, 2020

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. On this point there is no longer any difference between west and east.

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, for example, to people’s leisure pursuits. “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.

Take economic strength, where 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

Marco Wanderwitz is hoping for the euphoria to return

Commissioner Wanderwitz is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).  Still, he finds common ground with Dagmar Enkelmann, of the Left party, on the other side of the political spectrum — also 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. And she too highlights the economic differences that remain between today’s east and west, which she tells DW “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 the old communist-era legislature, the Volkskammer, and Germany’s present-day parliament, the Bundestag.

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

Dagmar Enkelmann had her doubts about reunification

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’

She 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 goosebumps 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.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    The Brandenburg Gate

    Built in 1791, the Brandenburg Gate is arguably Berlin’s most famous landmark. It marked the border between East and West while the city was divided. Located in the eastern sector, it was inaccessible to the Western public. But everything changed when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the barriers no longer held. Now millions come from around Germany and abroad to see the symbolic structure.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    Hohenschönhausen prison

    Until 1989, Hohenschönhausen was the main prison of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Political prisoners were locked up and subjected to psychological and physical torture there. The location of the building was top secret and not listed on any city map. It was closed after reunification and opened a few years later as a memorial where visitors can learn about the Stasi’s dark past.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    The Berlin Wall

    For 28 years, the Berlin Wall divided the city into East and West. Many people died trying to escape the 155 kilometer-long (96-mile), highly guarded fortifications — the exact number of casualties is unknown. The East Side Gallery, the longest remaining piece of the Wall, was painted by artists from Germany and abroad the year the country was reunified.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    Lenin in Berlin-Friedrichshain

    From 1970 to 1991, a 19-meter-high (62 foot) colossus of red granite stood in the Friedrichshain neighborhood of East Berlin. It was the crown jewel of a square dedicated to the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the regime had run its course and the statue was dismantled. Today, Lenin Square as it was once called, is now United Nations Square.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    From Palace of the Republic to Berlin Palace

    In former East Germany, The Palace of the Republic was a showroom of power. After opening its doors in 1976, it was the seat of the People’s Chamber and hosted a variety of political conferences. In 2006 it was demolished as an asbestos-contaminated edifice ready for the bulldozer. The Berlin Palace is currently under construction at the same location.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    The Intershops of the GDR

    “Intershop” was a prominent GDR retail chain, a store where it was not possible to pay with GDR money, but only with foreign currency. As a result, the goods were largely out of reach for many people living in the East. The first Intershop was located at the Friedrichstrasse station in East Berlin (picture). Today that square is a busy retail hub with cafes and clothing stores.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall


    Nothing represents a carefree childhood more than a playground. These climbable metal structures (left) could be found on nearly every playground in the former East. Today, they are typically made of rope — so it doesn’t hurt as much when young (and old) run into them into them while playing. More pictures of Berlin then and now can be found on Facebook: #GermanyThenNow and #BerlinThenNow.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    Interhotel Metropol

    The 13-storey Interhotel Metropol in Friedrichstrasse opened in 1977. It was a luxury hotel, popular with business people, diplomats and celebrities. Yet, for GDR citizens without foreign currency to spend, it could only be admired from the outside. Today, a Maritim chain hotel stands on this site and accessible to all visitors – for a price, of course.

  • Berlin before and after the fall of the Wall

    KaDeWe department store

    The Kaufhaus des Westens, KaDeWe for short, is the best-known department store in Germany. It’s second largest in Europe after Harrods in London. The luxury store opened in 1907, survived destruction during the Second World War and stayed standing in West Berlin during the years when the capital was divided. Today it’s popular with tourists and locals alike.

    Author: Rayna Breuer

Eastern Germany in recent years has seen the rise of right-wing extremist parties and a relatively greater number of right-wing extremist crime.

This “needs to be fixed,” says Wanderwitz. 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 new states, which 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 populist right-wing and, according to Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, to some extent right-wing extremist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) have been remarkable. The AfD has entered all of the five eastern states’ parliaments with over 20% of the vote.

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 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.

Historian 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 15% in the wealthy neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg.

Read more: Love found during German reunification lasts until today

East-West bonds: DW’s Bettina Stehkämper is from West Germany, her husband from the East — their children can’t remember who’s from where

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 east, and attractive university cities like Leipzig, Dresden or Potsdam, the appeal of the west looks set to remain stronger than the draw of the east 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 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.

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