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30 Year Anniversary of German Reunification: Are East and West Finally United?

After studying German and French relations in Regensburg, Bavaria, and being a volunteer for three years in the French-German Organisation for Youth as a Youth Ambassador, Emeline Ogereau’s interests at the College of Europe in Natolin link to political memory. In this article she explores German regional identity and the question of its conformity with geopolitical borders from the past. She uncovers the extent to which standards expected in the process of German reunification have been met.

Through a joint effort, we will soon be able to transform Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia back into blooming landscapes. (....) Nobody will be worse off than before, but many will be better.
Volha Zaitsava, Construction Works, Dresden, 2016.

On the 1st July 1990, that was the promise Helmut Kohl made for the years following German reunification. Every year since 1997 the Federal government publishes reports on the state of German Unity.

The report of the 30-year anniversary presents Germany as close to completing economic unity. In East Germany, in 2018, household disposable income was close to 89% of federal average and productivity was nearly 100%.

According to the Delegate of the Federal government for the new Länder, Marco Wanderwitz, further steps have to be taken to achieve 100% economic equality - but we should remember that in 1990, East Germany had 37% of the productivity of West Germany, and households had half the income. Discourse on the outcomes of the German reunification are still crucial in the present day. The perception of German Unity could be considered in terms of a well-known metaphor: should we see the glass half empty or half full?

Are the borders still visible?

As the historian Emmanuel Droit exposes, eastern Germany is still catching up. If we take into account infrastructure such as roads and hospitals, this difference is not as visible as before. Nevertheless, some differences are still apparent. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP), rates of income and rates of unemployment between the East and West are quite significantly different.

Eastern Germany is still catching up

Elisa Goudin-Steinmann, lecturer in German studies, emphasises that the eastern economy is based on agriculture and raw material extraction, which has less added value. Numbers and maps are often used in media to describe this difference, although differences between North and South Germany could also prove particularly relevant.[1] This overexposure of the public to eastern and western divisions, whilst diminishing regional differences between North and South, has perhaps been conducive to entrenching narratives of division and disenchantment in both regions.

West and East: different perceptions?

Following the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), western liberal democracy was introduced in eastern Germany. Western people did not feel any change in their daily life, yet for those in the East, this change was seismic. In the GDR, everything was supervised by the State; whether it be industry, culture, or even holidays. From one day to the next, eastern German people had to fit in with western standards. Businesses failed as a result of various difficulties such as the loss of numerous inhabitants as people migrated westwards.[2] This brutal societal change incited feelings of insecurity, fear and frustration, which are exploited by political parties such as the Alternative Für Deutschland (AFD).[3]

Western people did not feel any change in their daily life, yet for those in the East, this change was seismic.

Eastern identity?

Although this societal transformation relates to the manifestation of various reaction movements, as Professor Goudin-Steinmann says, the current generation has a critical perception of the GDR government. Various disparities still remain, such as economic aspects and the lack of representation of eastern people in Germany’s elites. [4] “If you are not treated equally, you can not feel equal,” as an eastern German woman explained. [5] Eastern Germans do not want to identify with a specific discourse which is in fact constructed by media and political spheres that are alien in some respects. For example, some see their roots in the historical and cultural recognition of GDR experiences and aspects of life, such as the work of musicians or writers. Some simply want more opportunities in order for all young eastern people to be able to study and find a job.

“If you are not treated equally, you can not feel equal”

The project “Wir sind der Osten” (“We are the East”), which was set up by journalist and psychologist Melanie Stein, is a digital initiative which presents the diversity of Eastern people’s stories. It is an example of a mechanism through which we can understand the various experiences and memories of the GDR: it speaks volumes about the necessity to maintain the ongoing process of German unity.

[1] Emmanuel Droit, Elisa Goudin-Steinmann “Allemagne”.

[2] A significant effect of the reunification was the migration of numerous people to the West. 1.5 million young people left their hometown. Emmanuel Droit, Elisa Goudin-Steinmann, “Allemagne”.

[3] Emmanuel Droit, Elisa Goudin-Steinmann, “Allemagne”.

[4] Indeed, they only represent 2% of the German elite.