Battle in Print: Twenty years after the Wall came down: Dissonant German Unity

Sabine Reul, 29 October 2009

Twenty years ago, the revolution of 1989/90, the implosion of Stalinism in Europe and the end of German partition were celebrated as a triumph for democracy and freedom. The iron curtain fell, the East German party dictatorship and shortage economy were vanquished and, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, pluralist party democracy was introduced along with the market. In the GDR, the spectacular uprising of eastern Germans had tipped the scale, put the final nail into the moribund Stalinist order across Eastern Europe, ending the division of the continent and Germany. Enthusiasm about this historical transformation was therefore especially strong in Germany.

But it was short-lived. The mood of renewal in 1989/90 soon gave way to disappointment and new insecurities. This applied not only in Germany, but across Eastern Europe, where market and multi-party systems were established at different speeds in the course of the 1990s. Everywhere, a short period of euphoria was followed by a long and still continuing phase of disillusionment. And everywhere, the transformation was soon marked, at least temporarily, by the growth of right-wing and nationalist trends that cast a shadow on the positive experience of the new freedoms gained. In Germany, that turning point came in 1991 with the pogroms in Hoyerswerda that sent disconcerting images of violence against immigrants around the world. Antiforeigner violence had been an almost daily occurrence in Western Germany throughout the 1980s, and Hoyerswerda was followed by similar events in the Western German cities of Solingen and Mölln. Nonetheless the city in Saxony became a symbol of a new sense of estrangement from, if not disdain for their eastern fellow Germans among westerners and a reference point for therapeutically oriented discussions about the ‘problems’ of German unification that continue to this day.

The big difference between the transformation in eastern Germany and the rest of the former Warsaw Pact countries is that, in Germany the confrontation between the western market and eastern state socialist life worlds was politicised in a form that the other previously undivided countries of Eastern Europe were spared. To put it simply: during the Cold War, Germans were politically divided, but did not feel estranged in human terms; this only happened once the country was reunited. And that sense of difference was promoted and institutionalised by the way western German politicians and opinion-formers soon began to rationalise the economic and social dislocation brought about by the process of market transformation in the east.

The notion that eastern Germans were somehow ‘different’ gained momentum only a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. The western German left played a particularly sorry role in this regard. Otto Schily, later minister of the interior in the Social Democratic (SPD)/Green coalition government under Gerhard Schröder from 1998-2005, quit the Greens to joint the SPD in November 1989. He soon recommended himself to his new party colleagues by a remarkable television performance. When asked, after the last elections to the GDR parliament in March 1990, why so many people in the east had voted for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), he silently held a banana into the camera. And in preparation for the first national elections of the united country in December the same year, Oskar Lafontaine, then SPD candidate for the chancellery, banked on mobilising western fears of the economic consequences of German unity against chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU).

While Schily expressed unabashed contempt for eastern German desires for a modest share in western prosperity, Lafontaine played the other side of the same card, stoking fears that economic transformation in the east and labour migration from there would put a big dent into accustomed western living standards. This was the welcome given to the people who had just overthrown the Honecker regime by the SPD – along with the groupings on the radical left who more or less unanimously misconstrued the fall of the Berlin Wall as an expansionist capitalist conspiracy to conquer the east and disparaged eastern ‘consumerism’. That Helmut Kohl and the CDU/CSU in turn tried to recharge the stuttering batteries of German conservatism with the images of the popular pro-market uprising in the GDR was a comparatively harmless political manoeuvre. Nonetheless: taken together, the effect from the start was to saddle the process of unification with the degenerate political impulses of the decaying western party system.

“Demokratischer Aufbruch“, whilst being the fraction of the popular opposition in the GDR that was its first and strongest proponent of unification, nonetheless quite sensibly wanted to prevent the dissolution of the eastern opposition groupings in the western political parties. Commenting on the left-right divide in the western German parliamentary system, the DA leadership declared in January 1990: “We regard this distinction as a myth, as an ideological illusion.“ (1) By the December 1990 elections, the different strands of the GDR opposition nonetheless dissolved themselves virtually without trace into the western German parties. Inevitable as that was, since none of them presented an alternative strategic vision, it nonetheless meant that the experience of 40 years of GDR history and the popular uprising in which it had just culminated found no place in the political universe of the united Germany. Eastern Germans had to make do with the imported western party machines along with all their symptoms of political exhaustion. It is consequently not surprising that the GDR state party SED, renamed Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and since 2005 called Die Linke, soon made a stunning recovery, nor that opinion surveys show that eastern Germans doggedly express high regard for democracy in the abstract, but not for its currently practiced form.

The political unification of Germany which was consummated on October 3, 1990, therefore entailed a certain institutional imbalance from the start, which encouraged eastern Germans, who had just made the liberating experienced of collective political action, to regard themselves as passive objects of economic and social transformation. To make things worse, the government under chancellor Kohl proved incapable of filling the concept of unification with positive meaning beyond stilted phraseology. Eastern Germans joined a tired republic. The great historical moment that could have sparked a real sense of social renewal consequently remained strangely flat, without lasting power, and soon vanished in the machinery of administrative restructuring and adjustment processes. A first simple truth that is generally ignored in all the debates about the problems of German unification follows: the progress of German unity could only be as good as the society – and the political order – which eastern Germans joined twenty years ago was.

The trouble was that the intellectual exhaustion in both the left and right spectrum of western party politics at the same time encouraged the politicisation of differences in life experience between eastern and western Germans. Hostility to materialism among the western left, which had long exchanged its former affinity with working class politics for ‘post-conventional values’, inevitably had to strike the eastern “workerly society”, as which the sociologist Wolfgang Engler has described the GDR, as exceedingly odd. In a society that, as Engler wrote, “attributed exceptional importance to work, whether loved or unloved, for people’s personal lives”, people had been accustomed to “clothe their critique of social conditions in the silent demonstration of workerly virtues.“ (2) The productively employed Werktätige were the sole moral authority of GDR society. That the western left now met their aspiration for modest prosperity and functioning factories with at best incomprehension and at worst derision was barely suited to build bridges of understanding between east and west.

The same applied to the other side of the political spectrum. For the best part of the past 20 years, the Christian Democratic CDU/CSU made up for the lack of a political vision for the present by a more or less incessant rant against the loathsome features of the long defunct GDR –  partly in an ill conceived attempt to continue to draw dividends from Cold War anticommunism, and partly as a reaction to discontent with ‘really existing’ eastern German capitalism, which proved rather less dynamic and prosperous than originally expected once the short-lived unification boom was over. Here too, a defensive political reflex generated dissonance. The simplistic formula of anti-socialist rhetoric, according to which life in the GDR had consisted of nothing but the oppression of “victims” by “perpetrators” simply did not square with the real life experience of eastern Germans before 1989. That experience naturally also included other things like a sense of shared destiny, shared partly desperate and partly ironical distance from the regime, and certain opportunities for self-assertion that a western-style market economy does not always provide workers with. As the Bulgarian sociologist Ivan Krastev notes in a recent article, even members of the state elite in eastern European countries had to befriend their greengrocer, because he decided who got what. The greengrocer was powerless, but still had a certain informal power (3). At exactly the same time as the market destroyed such social networks that provided people with at least a certain sense of orientation and self-esteem, eastern Germans increasingly faced the charge of mental contamination by their totalitarian past. That, too, could only promote anger and a sense of estrangement. And it is therefore not surprising to learn that eastern Germans now often say things had not really been ‘quite that bad’.

The hand-wringing with which experts in academia and social research often respond to utterances of this kind betrays a certain lack of understanding of the forces at play. The mechanisms generated by the effort to compensate the ideological vacuum at the heart of western politics at the turn of the century are responsible for the fact that simple differences in life experience in east and west have taken on the form of politicised misunderstanding. In the process, the debate about German unity has taken the form of a rather degraded obsession with the eastern German ‘mentality’. The focus on eastern ‘difference’ has given birth to an entire research industry that has probed the souls of the new German citizens down to their finest crevices. It occasionally brought forth the most hilariously pseudo-Freudian insights such as the famous “potty thesis” of the criminologist Christian Pfeiffer, according to which anti-foreigner sentiment among eastern German youth was a late consequence of socialist kindergarten education.

During the past 15 years, innumerable studies have diagnosed a high level of dissatisfaction with economic and political development as well as an increased tendency to a more benign view of certain features of the GDR past among eastern Germans. Given the situation described, these findings are not at all surprising. But, what is perhaps even more worthy of note is that more recent studies have shown that the difference between east and west as regards the level of dissatisfaction with social and political trends has narrowed considerably – without this having so far had any noticeable impact on the firmly established notion that eastern Germans are somehow ‘different’. As the sociologist Claus Leggewie recently noted, survey data present “a rather undramatic picture of the situation between east and west which, in view of current discourse, is the real sensation“ (4). Nonetheless, the media continue propagating the image of the easterner as the ‘other’ with derogatory neologisms like Ostalgie (eastalgia) and Jammerossi (moan-easterner), thereby attributing to the eastern psyche responsibility for all real and imagined ills in the united Germany. A kind of ethnisation has taken hold of the German political imagination – with the doubly unfortunate effect that reality becomes progressively even less comprehensible than it already appears and that understanding between eastern and western Germans is undermined.

However, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this period of construed difference may hopefully draw to a close. The new generation of young Germans who now start out on their training or working life have no living memory of the divided Germany. The high level of cross-migration between both parts of the country ensures that personal contact mitigates the impact of prejudice and politicised misunderstanding. And, last but not least, the now shared experience of economic crisis and political stagnation can become the source of a new sense of common identity and purpose. But this is likely to happen only to the extent that the distancing view of a contrived sociology of otherness gives way to a focus on real life experience.


Sabine is the Society and Politics editor of the German magazine NovoArgumente and writes regularly on German and European politics as well as contemporary social theory in this and other publications.


1 Erhart Neubert, Unsere Revolution. Die Geschichte der Jahre 1989/90, Piper München 2009
2 Wolfgang Engler, Die Ostdeutschen als Avantgarde, Aufbau Verlag Berlin 2002.
3 Ivan Krastev, The Greengrocer’s Revenge, Prospect, Oktober 2009
4 Claus Leggewie, Veröstlichung oder: Vom Zäsur- zum Differenzbewusstsei, in: Eckart Jesse/Eberhard Sandschneider, Neues Deutschland. Eine Bilanz der deutschen Wiedervereinigung, Nomos Freiburg 2008.

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