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East Germany, twenty years on

Twenty years after reunification, democracy in eastern Germany is still far from solid
Dennis Nottebaum
18 November 2009

While politicians are busy participating in the numerous celebrations, exhibitions and extravaganzas in and around Berlin this year, they carefully avoid a question that has to be asked after two decades of a unified Germany, and that is the question of where we are. Unifying a country after decades of separation with entirely different development patterns on both sides is not a question of formal legal adoption of a common constitution, but a process of growing together. And it is time to take stock of this process.

Reunification was a guiding rationale of the Federal Republic from its beginning. Its constitution, the Grundgesetz, contained a specific provision that in case of a reunification a new constitution should be developed by a constitutional assembly consisting of representatives from both parts of Germany. However, once the GDR actually collapsed in 89/90, this clause was not enacted: former GDR states merely joined the existing Federal Republic by adopting its constitution. The wave of optimism that swept across the East soon gave way to disillusionment with whole industries closing due productivity lacks and unemployment rising to levels previously unknown. During communism full employment had been created artificially. These jobs did not last long after the state collapsed.

To many in the east this felt more like a takeover, not a reunification. The economy in the east never caught up with the rest of Germany despite billions of marks that were channeled into the new states. Most of the larger cities – Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, and others – are thriving business towns today, but rural areas face serious troubles. While the 1990s saw a slow, but steady conversion of the economies, this process came to a halt after the turn of the century. A report by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) found that since 2008 they have actually begun to drift further apart again. This is due to a demographic slump in the east. Data shows a devastating brain drain from the east to the west and from rural to urban areas within the east. Young people, especially women, leave their hometowns for lack of jobs, and ultimately life purpose. About 1.7 million, or 12 percent of the total population, have left the east. While the best and brightest leave, the foundation of solid economic development is destroyed, with devastating effects for the economic outlook. A way out of this vicious circle has not yet been found. The ones who stay behind are left coping with unemployment, poverty, and often alcoholism; an explosive mixture for areas where democratic culture never had the chance to take root.

Democratic governance came overnight to eastern Germany. Democratic culture, however, has to evolve gradually over time and cannot simply be imposed as many west Germans like to believe. The process of structural and industrial adaptation in the east has left a bitter taste in their mouths. The way in which liberalism, democracy and capitalism were associated with unemployment, loss of social status and an ever-present disdain on part of the west Germans towards their new fellow citizens was poor soil for democracy to grow in. The result after two decades is alarming. The democratic structure in the east remains much weaker than in the west where parties, societal organizations and interest groups are still strong.

The political class has largely neglected the east after the collapse of communism. While smart businessmen were quick to realize their chances in the east, democratic politicians struggled to embrace their new constituents. The fact that the provision for a new common constitution was not enacted in the course of the reunification process goes a long way towards exemplifying the shortcomings of the political class. An intensive dialogue over a new common Germany was avoided. The first major chance for the creation of a republic that enjoyed widespread support in both parts was simply squandered. Former GDR-citizens continue to feel inferior in Germany and show a high rate of dissatisfaction with the way their interests are neglected. (Only about 10 percent voiced their satisfaction with democracy in a recent poll, compared to 60 percent in the West.)

Two decades later, parties on the extreme right find fertile grounds for their populist agendas in this climate of economic decline and political neglect. They are far more present in eastern state parliaments than in western. Polls show that up to 50% hold xenophobic views. Neonazi groups are on the rise in many parts of the rural east. After several attacks on immigrants and left-wingers over this period the problem has finally been acknowledged, stirring up considerable debate. However, this debate has been preoccupied with battling consequences and not so much the causes of these developments.

Over recent years a strange phenomenon of longing for the former communist times has become visible in both east and west. Ostalgia swept through the republic, and all of a sudden the GDR was in fashion. It is not so much the fact that youngsters nowadays wear copies of GDR uniforms, but the alarming tendency towards justifying the political regime itself that now extends to broad swathes of the public. A recent study found that this apologetic attitude towards the dictatorial regime dominates the east: 57 percent stated that the GDR had more good than bad sides. Spiegel online even reports one person claiming that "from today's perspective, I believe that we were driven out of paradise when the Wall came down." German reunification has been celebrated all over the world as an outstanding act of peaceful civil disobedience, but large numbers of its protagonists and their daughters and sons are questioning the positive impact that 11/9 has had on their lives. It is time for the political class to acknowledge the seriousness of this problem. In the run-up to the elections in September the topic was nowhere on the agenda.

In today’s Germany, physical traces of the former division are hardly visible. It takes a guided tour to discover fragments of the wall in Berlin today. Twenty years after the wall fell the east looks newly renovated with hardly any reminder of former Soviet times. But beyond this façade the process of reunification is far from complete. As long as the celebrations of the fall of the wall overshadow any sober attempt to address the shortcomings, the number of people who reject basic aspects of the constitution will continue to rise. The dangers inherent in this situation are looming ever larger. The Grundgesetz may have been a source of stability and institutional strength for 60 years, but this is no guarantee that it will last for good. What many people seem to forget is that democracy is not a permanent fixture, but a value system that needs continuous championing.

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