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Three decades on, East Germans still waiting for western-style prosperity

“Life in the GDR was sometimes almost comfortable in a certain way,” said German chancellor Angela Merkel in a recent interview marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Because you couldn’t influence some things at all,” she explained. What she meant, of course, was that as there was little prospect of changing things, expectations were low.

Expectations, however, exploded with the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, more so when east and west were reunified in 1990. Three decades on, perhaps it’s inevitable that some people in the east of Germany feel let down.

A common refrain is reunification was little more than a western take-over of the GDR, the former East Germany. Critics cite the millions of “jobs for life” lost as state-owned enterprises were sold off or simply shut down. They point to the low grade and precarious nature of much of the new employment; and to the brain drain, which has seen millions of young people swap eastern Germany for the likes of Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg, enticed to western cities by better education, jobs, pay – simply better prospects.

Disenchantment

At best, three decades after the fall of the wall and many people in the east are equivocal: on the one hand, yes, there is freedom and democracy; people can train for whatever career they want, holiday wherever they want, and as members of the EU, work and live across much of the continent. On the other hand, 93 per cent of Germany’s 500 biggest companies are based in the west; the largest east German firms are around 20 per cent less productive than those in the west; wages are lower; and the east’s unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent is higher than the west’s 4.7.

The east’s disenchantment with reunification is reflected in the rise of the AfD, Alternative for Germany. This racist, radical right-wing party is represented in many state legislatures across east and west, but its stronghold remains where it was founded, in the east. Its narrative is now familiar, from its anti-minority and anti-migrant rhetoric to ferociously attacking anyone in the press who criticises it. Prominent members have even sought to downplay the country’s Nazi history, including the Holocaust. In the 2017 Bundestag elections, its 12.6 per cent of the vote made it the third largest party in the German national parliament.

More expected

After reunification in 1989, successive German governments aimed to create an economy and society in the east that was comparable with that in the west. Including under current Angela Merkel, it has never quite happened. Rightly or wrongly, the upshot is that significant numbers of people from the former GDR states feel like second-class citizens in a reunified Germany.

In contrast to Merkel’s “almost comfortable” GDR, after 1989 most people expected so much more.

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