The cold, driving rain seemed to take nothing away from the ceremony and celebration at Brandenburg Gate on November 9, the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s breach. German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted the world’s powerful to toast the peaceful revolutions of 1989 for felling Soviet communism. Even though hunched under umbrellas, the speakers appeared genuinely moved by the commemoration, arguably of one of Europe’s finest moments.
Yet a stroll down the main streets of one of eastern Germany’s depressed cities, like Wittenberg, of Luther fame, or the former industrial hub of Halle, tells another story, of a revolution that delivered liberty but not prosperity. Storefronts are boarded up; whole blocks of tenement housing have been ripped down, the consequence of unrelenting depopulation. Since 1989 Halle has lost a third of its people. Long laid-off factory workers drive taxis in these places, where just about anybody with marketable skills has picked up and left. Cities like Wittenberg and Halle are the losers of unification. But there are winners, too. The boomtowns like Dresden, Jena and Leipzig in southeastern Saxony have bypassed the poorer cities in the west. Across much of eastern Germany unemployment has tapered off, and–until the recent economic crisis hit–salaries were creeping closer to those in the west.
Two full decades after the breach of the Berlin Wall, German unification remains unfinished business, with no guarantee of a happy ending. For every speck of light on the horizon, there are more depressed backwaters and new setbacks. Even though “Silicon Saxony” features the east’s showcase cities, overall economic conditions in Saxony still lag far behind the west’s worst-off state. This, however, certainly isn’t something you heard from Germany’s newly elected conservative leadership at the Brandenburg Gate. Remarkably, the condition of the eastern states isn’t a prominent topic in the Federal Republic; during the recent election campaign, even Germany’s eastern-born chancellor didn’t bring it up unless she was pressed. (That said, Angela Merkel didn’t address any substantive issue unless pressed; this apparently accounts for her high popularity.) Dwelling on the downsides of unification comes off as unpatriotic or just plain whiny. Jammer-Ossis, or belly-aching easterners, is a tag for this type.
But vast miscalculations made twenty years ago have had sweeping implications for Germany, in ways that the fathers of unification, foremost among them George H.W. Bush and former chancellor Helmut Kohl, never intended. The unification that Bush and Kohl drove forward–a one-sided expansion of the Federal Republic eastward–was conceived to change the postwar, American-allied state as little as possible, save make it bigger. In this they mostly succeeded. But the hubris and insensitivity of the Western leaders set processes in motion that have fractured the country in other ways. As it turns out, one of the east’s lasting contributions to the republic is something Bush and Kohl surely thought impossible after wrapping up the cold war: a full-blown socialist party with electoral support in both parts of the country.
One Country, Two Societies
Although Germans overwhelmingly accept the fact of unification (there is no separatist movement brewing), the way it was implemented has bred deep frustration and resentment on both sides. During the cold war, Social Democrat Willy Brandt spoke of Germany being “one nation, two states.” The Federal Republic today is one country but with two societies. One opinion poll after another reveals a country not only starkly divided, but increasingly so: the surveys conducted by pollsters, media, think tanks and universities show the rifts in the republic widening, despite the fact that some of the economic indicators have taken a turn for the better. Only 31 percent of Germans think eastern and western Germans constitute a single nation. Sixty-four percent of easterners say they feel like second-class citizens, and over three-quarters claim they are disadvantaged compared with their countrymen in the west. Fifty-seven percent of eastern Germans stick up for the former East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), saying it had “more good sides than bad sides.” And economically, the gulf between the east and west remains glaring. Joblessness is still twice as high in the east. This is the case despite the astronomical west-to-east payments (totaling over a trillion dollars) that persist to this day, as do the east-west tensions they generate.
The lion’s share of responsibility for this lies with the former West Germany’s political elite, foremost Chancellor Kohl, who pushed through unification as fast as possible and lied to the easterners about their economic prospects. But it is entirely disingenuous of the easterners today to claim (84 percent according to one poll) that this system was foisted upon them without their say. Every step of the way between November 1989 (fall of the Wall) to October 1990 (unification), the GDR’s citizens had a voice in charting their future–and they threw in their lot with Kohl. Rather than retain the initiative and spirit (“We are the people!”) of the street protests of autumn 1989, as some of the dissident groups urged, the majority meekly handed over power to the West Germans at the first opportunity.
In the first free election ever in East Germany, in March 1990, the Christian Democrats won hands down, while the grassroots citizens groups that led the “peaceful revolution” captured just 3 percent of the vote. This was a cruel slap to the first-hour activists who had risked so much to confront the communist regime. But it accurately illustrated the relationship of the dissidents and independent-minded Protestant pastors to the bulk of the population, which had tolerated – some more, some less grudgingly–the rule of dictatorship until the protests took off in autumn 1989. Most risked nothing by the time they appeared on the streets, and they were unwilling to risk anything when it came to the future, either.
It’s easy to forget that there were an array of options for the two Germanys on the table at the time, including third-way concepts for the economy, a federation of the two German states, a new all-German constitution and participation in a pan-European security network. There were calls to incorporate some of the redeemable aspects of the GDR into the new unified Germany, like its more liberal abortion laws, the network of childcare facilities that enabled young mothers to work and its egalitarian educational system. At the very least, an all-German constitutional congress would have given the easterners some stake in the state they were joining. But these ideas were quickly swept aside by the juggernaut of unification, powered by the votes and new mood (“We are one people!” “Helmut, Helmut!”) of the easterners. When the Federal Republic incorporated the territory of the GDR within its legal framework on October 3, 1990, there wasn’t a murmur of dissent from those who now claim they were unfairly colonized.
Deutschmark über alles
Much the same is true for the economic shock therapy, the legacy of which is on display in the eastern states today. Rather than a gradual transition to the free market, the summer 1990 currency reform introduced the deutschmark overnight, putting eastern firms on a competitive footing with those in the west from one day to the next. The one-to-one exchange rate (demanded by the eastern Germans) caused labor costs to skyrocket. The lion’s share of eastern businesses couldn’t compete and folded, causing unemployment to soar and creating a heyday for western businesses as they stepped in to satisfy demand. By 1997 the industrial production of the “five new federal states” was just 9 percent of Germany’s total; joblessness in the east stood at 20 percent.
In his recently published diaries from 1989-90, Germany’s Nobel Prize- winning novelist Günter Grass noted the easterners’ willingness to sacrifice their own autonomy for the promise of prosperity and security, the seamless transfer of their allegiance from one provider to another. Grass observes the eastern Germans’ obsession with products from the west, as if a carton of milk with advertising on it was better than milk from a state-run cooperative in unadorned packaging. “The money, the money’s got to come,” a Leipzig taxi driver tells him: “It doesn’t matter how, the main thing is the money…”
One source of “the money” was supposed to be the Treuhandanstalt, the state-run holding company responsible for selling off the GDR’s assets. Instead of an above-board privatization of state enterprises, they were sold off for next to nothing; most never resumed operation. The buyers’ origins told the story: 85 percent were western Germans, 10 percent were foreigners and only 5 percent were easterners. On top of this, the easterners were blamed for the fiasco, for being too dull-witted to pick up the tricks of the free market. The real cost of unification–a trillion euro bill that the west would pay–was only beginning to come into focus.
Just to get an idea of how badly eastern Germany’s economic transition was managed, one need only to compare it to the postwar Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) in the west, which turned a supine, war-ravaged country with 15 million refugees into a leading industrial power with full employment in just twelve years. Today’s Germany has no material incentive to offer eastern Germans the equivalent of West Germany’s economic surge in the 1950s, which helped win post-Nazi western Germans over to democracy and the Western alliance. Even when measured against the transitions of the Central Europeans, none of whom had access to anything like western Germany’s checkbook, the Germans come off looking badly: whereas the east’s GDP plummeted by over 30 percent in 1990, in Hungary and Czechoslovakia it fell by only 1.2 and 3.5 percent respectively, and 11.6 percent in Poland. While the eastern Germans suffered an average unemployment rate of 15 percent throughout the 1990s, in the Czech Republic it ranged between 4 and 8 percent and in Hungary between 6 and 9 percent. Today these countries are self-confident democracies with growing middle classes, a far cry from the eastern Germans’ limbo.
The eastern Germans’ infatuation with the free market proved a flash in the pan, disappearing when Kohl’s “blooming vistas” failed to materialize in the early 1990s. One upshot of this sour experience has been a dramatic shift in attitudes that, at first glance, make the east today look ripe for a progressive alternative to capitalism-as- usual. After all, half doubt that Germany’s Sozialstaat (social welfare state) adequately provides for the have-nots, while 40 percent say they’d give socialism another chance. A full 84 percent say they’d wish back the GDR’s health and education systems. Surveys show that easterners place significantly more emphasis on social justice and top-to-bottom redistribution of wealth than western Germans (who also take their Sozialstaat seriously). The majority even identifies itself as “working class.” Moreover, the eastern Germans are considerably more critical of German missions abroad (as in Afghanistan), military spending and NATO membership.
Party for the Left
In the autumn of 1989 no one would have imagined that the disgraced East German communist party would be around–in any form–two decades down the road. But the debacle of unification’s implementation–as well as a few enormous gaffes by the Social Democrats (SPD) in the west–gave it new life. In the immediate aftermath of the Wall’s fall, prevailing opinion was that the socially minded easterners would flock to the party of Willy Brandt en masse, rejuvenating the 140-year-old project of social democracy and locking the Social Democrats into power for the foreseeable future. But much of the SPD, then led by Oskar Lafontaine, initially balked at the prospect of unification and then came around to it with tempered enthusiasm, in stark contrast to Kohl. Moreover, the SPD, fearful of being overwhelmed by the unpredictable, recently liberated subjects of a rigid dictatorship, banned former communist party members from holding posts in the party. In the March 1990 vote it paid the price: the SPD was trounced, one of the many surprises of that year.
Throughout the 1990s the renamed communist party, the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), established itself across the eastern states by capitalizing on the disappointment, resentment and social fallout. Key to the party’s regional success was 41-year-old lawyer Gregor Gysi, scion of one of East Germany’s most famous communist families. Like no one else, the silver-tongued talk-show star made the case that socialism, even GDR socialism, was at bottom a good idea, if bungled a bit by the Eastern bloc’s nomenclature. With a heavy dose of populism and some historical eyewash, Gysi marched the party to one success after another, putting the PDS on a competitive footing with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. But try as he did, the darling of the east’s Old Left couldn’t make inroads into the west. Most observers figured the democratic socialists would fade away as their senior voters, the bulk of their support, passed on.
And this might well have happened, were it not for Oskar Lafontaine. The life-long Social Democrat from westernmost Saarland was the voice of his party’s left wing, a creative-minded socialist who managed to combine nuclear-free environmentalism with the macho rhetoric of trade unionists. With the onset of the new century, Lafontaine, considered too-left-to-win at the national level, was pushed aside by party rival Gerhard Schröder, who styled himself as a New Labour moderate, along the lines of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. When a Social Democrat-Green coalition finally ousted Kohl from power in 1998, Schröder and Lafontaine were supposed to rule in tandem, with Schröder as chancellor and Lafontaine in charge of the powerful finance ministry. But tension between the two hobbled the government from day one. It was Lafontaine who finally threw in the towel after less than a year, opening the way for Schröder to introduce free-market reforms to Germany’s celebrated social welfare state, the likes of which even his conservative predecessor hadn’t dared.
For his SPD colleagues, Lafontaine’s quitting the party was one thing, but teaming up with Gysi to make the PDS palatable in the west was quite another – something for which the Social Democrats will never forgive him. In just a short couple of years, Lafontaine rallied a hodgepodge of disaffected Social Democrats, ex-New Leftists and trade union stalwarts to the Left Party, the east-west heir of the PDS. In one western federal state after another, to everyone’s astonishment, the Left Party, with its one-two punch of Gysi and Lafontaine, entered the legislatures, capturing between 5 and 10 percent of the vote. This never could have happened without Lafontaine, and its gains came at the direct expense of the Social Democrats, who posted their worst results in the postwar era. While the general election this September brought a center-right government to power, it also afforded Germans a clear view of its reconfigured, albeit divided, left, the country’s new opposition: Social Democrats (23 percent), the Left Party (12 percent) and the Greens (11 percent). These are the building blocks for Germany’s next left-of-center coalition, the so-called “red-red-green” option.
The Left Party is the wild card in this equation. For all its talk of democratic socialism, the party’s eastern constituents are much too quick to forgive and forget the crimes of the dictatorship that ruled with such a heavy hand. Former secret police informers (including Gysi, charge ex-dissidents) speckle its ranks, where they are safe from vetting as well as condemnation. Whereas the likes of the Greens have turned their high-flying ideals into concrete policy options, the Left Party’s planks read like a left-wing wish list: 30-hour work week, tuition-free universities, full employment, ramped-up welfare benefits, Germany’s complete withdrawal from all foreign trouble spots. Moreover, there is such a huge gap between the party’s eastern and western factions (pragmatists in the east, fundamentalists in the west) that the party was unable to agree even on a common platform before the election.
Despite the Left Party’s lip service to all of the right progressive causes–gay rights, ecology, multiculturalism, etc.–one doesn’t have to scratch very deeply to unearth conservative as well as illiberal, authoritarian currents that, for obvious reasons, bear more in common with the thinking of former East German communist party leader Erich Honecker than that of western social democrats or Greens like Willy Brandt, Joschka Fischer or Petra Kelly. The eastern Germans never experienced anything like the 1960s student upheaval or the mass social movements of the 1970s and ’80s. The same surveys that underscore the easterners’ egalitarian leanings also reveal a skeptical attitude toward democracy and republicanism. One survey found that only half of young people in eastern Germany describe the former GDR as a dictatorship, while a study of adults showed only 27 percent of the opinion that the GDR was a dictatorship with “significant deficits.” Despite the fact that there are only a fraction of the number of “people with migration backgrounds” in the east as in the west, the levels of racism and intolerance are much higher. Almost twice as many easterners as westerners feel that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to immigrate to Germany.
Germany’s new government of Christian Democrats and Liberals doesn’t pretend to have policies to address the malaise in the eastern states. The brain drain and the lowest birth rate in Europe have created a new set of problems and undermine the chances for economic recovery in the best of circumstances. The estrangement of the easterners from the republic and liberal values is particularly worrisome. Although the east has a more active far right than the west, it has been held in check so far, largely due to the success of the PDS/Left Party, which has gleaned the protest voters. As problematic as the Left Party is, it serves as a spokesperson for the easterners, who otherwise would not be heard. For this, the western German political elite–all of it, including the left–bear much of the blame.