Beyond the World news headlines
The dark side of German reunification
Germany will mark the 20th anniversary of its reunification on October 3 — but not everyone in Germany will be celebrating two decades together.
German unity has been a shaky marriage. That may seem like a surprise to people outside Germany. But opinion polls inside Germany show widespread discontent, especially in the formerly Communist east. Chancellor Angela Merkel has called it a success and other political leaders will be singing the praises of unification in their lofty speeches and German media interviews this weekend. But for many in the east, like straight-talking Brandenburg state premier Matthias Platzeck, German unification in 1990 was not a merger of equals but instead an “Anschluss” (annexation) with West Germany taking over East Germany.
Many easterners have endured change, hardship, upheaval and various negative developments – including sometimes being evicted from their houses that people who fled during the Cold War returned to reclaim. Free speech and freedom to travel have been great but the price has been high: millions lost their jobs, their homes as well as the fabric of their society and their way of life. Many are still struggling to come to terms with life in reunited Germany – and are understandably nostalgic about life in East Germany, to the great irritation of western Germans who have helped pay 1.6 trillion euros to rebuild the east.
Reasons for their disenchantment can be seen everywhere: The eastern population has shrunk by about 2 million, unemployment soared, young people are moving away in droves and what was one of the Eastern Bloc’s leading industrial nations is now largely devoid of industry. Did it all have to happen like that? Platzeck thinks not. There are no ghost towns in the east yet but some cities with dwindling populations have torn down thousands of flats on their outskirts and let the forests grow back around them.
It should come as little surprise, then, that an opinion poll published in Stern magazine on Wednesday found 67 percent of easterners do not feel like they are part of a united country and only 25 percent said they felt like “ein Volk” (one people) – by contrast 47 percent of the westerners surveyed feel that the two parts of Germany have overcome what divided them in the last 20 years. Another poll found that one in 13 easterners would have preferred if the Berlin Wall were still splitting the two Germanys. Another survey found 25 percent the situation in the east has worsened in the last 20 years. It is also hardly surprising that eastern Germans vote for different political parties than their western brethren.
We had the chance to talk to Platzeck, a leader in the centre-left Social Democrats and probably the most popular leader in eastern Germany, about his “Anschluss” comment – a loaded term that is usually associated with Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. This is what he had to say:
“There was an ‘Anschluss mentality’ at the unification negotiations. There is a lot that went wrong in those talks. We tried to explain (to West German negotiation partners) that when a society takes on a new form with a small group joining a larger group, it’s important to include some elements or symbols from the smaller group for the sake of harmony. That way the smaller group won’t feel like they’ve been overwhelmed and run over. But there was nothing the smaller group (East Germany) left in united Germany. …It was like ‘Look, children. We’ll take you in, we’ll pay for it all, but forget your demands’. That’s the attitude I was talking about.
“It would have been easily achievable to save a few symbols, a few structures – there are some aspects of the way East Germany handled medical care that are coming back now as good ideas 20 years after they were discarded, some aspects of education like the 12-year school system or pre-school care from a very young age. All these things were thrown out of the unification talks because of ideological reasons. Just taking over one of these things would have been enough. But there was nothing. The rule was: what’s from the west is good what’s from the east is bad.
“Today, 20 years later, all the surveys in the east show that 50 percent of the people don’t feel like they’re part of united Germany – in their minds and their hearts. Everyone in the west is baffled by that. They ask: ‘Why don’t you feel like you’re part of one country after all the money we spent for you?’ My answer to them is always: ‘Just imagine you’re from a society that completely disappears and there’s nothing left’. You would also feel to a certain extent homeless. Some people got back on their feet but many never did.”
Platzeck also thinks it’s more than just a shame that there is hardly any industry left in the east. He said eastern leaders urged the Treuhand agency that was tasked with selling off East Germany’s state industries to “be careful about selling some of the more competitive companies to western German rivals. There was a near-complete de-industrialisation of the east in the 1990s. In Oranienburg, there was a steel plant that was competitive. It was sold by the Treuhand to Krupp. They bought the steel plant and shut it down six weeks later. We allowed these mistakes to happen in the 1990s. We could have held on to more of the industrial base in the east.”
Platzeck was on a roll explaining why “Ossies” are so upset at the “Wessies” and did not want to stop: “Keep in mind that 80 percent of the eastern Germans had to learn a new profession after unification, that every second family in the east has been affected by unemployment, and that there were quite a few speculators from the west who came in here and made a killing. That’s caused a lot of discontent.”
And finally he pointed to the village of Kleinmachnow, just outside West Berlin. Many fled the town for West Berlin in the years just before the Wall fell. Their houses were taken over by the East German state, which sold them to East Germans. But after unification, those who reclaimed their property were given priority over those who had acquired it from the East German state: “Take a look at Kleinmachnow,” Platzeck said. “Nearly 80 percent of the people living in houses in Kleinmachnow were uprooted and had to leave their houses. No one can be happy when they’re told they have four weeks to leave their house because someone whose name was in the property deed in 1946 shows up at the door. It may all be totally legal in united Germany. But that kind of thing doesn’t promote harmony. Go talk to someone who had to move out of their house 20 years ago and now lives in a small high-rise apartment somewhere what they think of unification. If you think of people in their situation, you might be able to better understand why there are a lot of people who are not very happy about the way things have turned out.”