30 Years After the Berlin Wall Came Down, East and West Germany Are Still Divided

Yves here. This picture of Germany is disheartening but familiar. Look at the gap between the Deep South and the rest of the US, and more recently, “flyover” and coastal cities.

By Nathan Stoltzfus, Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies, Florida State University. Originally published at The Conversation

Thirty years ago, on November 9, with a sense of momentous events palpable in Berlin’s famous air, East Germans began streaming through the Berlin Wall, two-stroke East German cars putt-putted past major symbols of capitalism like the KaDeWe department store, and it appeared that the Germans were the happiest people in the world.

I was there to interview eyewitnesses I had found in my dissertation research for a documentary film and gave a lecture on October 25 at East Berlin’s Humboldt University on “socially forced concessions in Nazi Germany.”

Crossing from West to East Berlin for the enormous November 4 demonstration on Alexanderplatz 10 days later, we joked, “Why not drive straight through the Brandenburg Gate without stopping?”

For 28 years, the wall split Germany like an iron curtain, into the capitalist West and the communist East. Estimated hundreds had died trying to cross that wall, and beginning in September 1989, demonstrations demanding reform were swelling quickly week by week.

The day after the Wall fell, former West German Chancellor Willi Brandt foresaw a “challenge to all of us to do a lot more in order to bring together what belongs together.”

But 30 years later, I see the divide growing between the East and West.

It brings to mind a friend and Stasi agent, who in 1988 told me that East Germany could tear down the wall and the East German people would stay. Or the East German dissident who remarked in 1993 that “Yes, West Germany has swallowed us, but soon it will be having indigestion.”

‘The Wall in the Head’

How is it that the disappearance of the wall separating capitalism from socialism, which East German leader Erich Honecker in 1987 likened to “fire and water,” would unite East German officials and those who had just risked their lives to protest against them?

To begin with, the leaders of East Germany’s protest movement agitated for some democratizing reforms for socialism, not a demise of the state in favor of an effort to balance democracy with capitalism in the image of the West. They encouraged the change in the protesters’ initial chants from “we want out” to “we’re staying here.” Reform was the theme in the anti-unification demonstration I witnessed in December 1989.

Many East Germans, drawn west by images from West German TV and the imagination of things the wall was forbidding, soon began to agree. Turned away by the hectic pace and competition of cold individualism in place of socialism’s boring security, many returned.

Novelist Peter Schneider had written of “the wall within the head,” independent of the physical wall, reflecting the different experiences of two generations in divided Germany.

In West Germany, the unification Chancellor Helmut Kohl led a plan to grow the two parts of Germany together through forces of capitalism, promising an Eastern “blooming landscape” of jobs, high living standards and a range of amazing consumer products. The West German system was essentially extended to encompass the East.

But entrepreneurs did not establish production sites in the East, as Kohl predicted. West German entrepreneurs preferred to increase production from Western firms, putting Eastern factories out of business rather than moving capital there to launch industry and jobs.

The West maintained that capitalist democracy would soon make West Germans of the Easterners.

Nostalgia for the East

But the 1990s revealed that Eastern Germans too young to remember socialism nevertheless identified with East Germany rather than the newly expanded Federal Republic. I have heard that East German “nostalgia” carried on as parents transmitted stories over the dinner table of a communitarian, less cutthroat life.

Embellished or not, these stories were backed by widespread perceptions in the East that they were now ruled by the West. They felt that the West had not really wanted them.

Meanwhile, according to a poll by Der Spiegel, a major German newspaper, 63% of West Germans favored accommodating East Germans in the West shortly before the Wall fell. Only 33% voiced the same opinion two months after the wall.

Resentments arose overnight. The West was apprehensive of big tax increases to pay for reunification and feared that East Germans would wreck the Germany they had built and loved. A family resettled in the West was denounced on the street as “East German swine,” in early 1990. “The kids pick up what they hear at home and then babble it about,” a high school principal in Hamburg complained.

There were essential differences in values, too. In the 1990s, Eastern Germans viciously attacked foreign refugees in the Eastern state of Brandenburg, where violent attacks were three times more common than in Western Germany. This stimulated arguments that socialism had not provided the context for East Germans to accept the West’s patterns of pluralism.

In the 1992, in cities across the West, grassroots demonstrations rose up against the image of German intolerance. In Munich, millions marched in candlelight vigils proclaiming solidarity. German politicians and the Federation of Jewish Communities alike hailed these massive grassroots demonstrations as an illustration that Germans now rejected Nazism and moreover knew how to defend democracy.

Rise of the Extreme Right

Over the decades, threats of neo-Nazism and the extreme right from the East have continued to surface. But only since a political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), formed in 2013 have the threats gained power.

Support in the East for the AfD has surged dramatically, especially since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s admission of well over a million refugees fleeing death and turmoil in the Middle East and Asia.

In 2017, the AfD, buoyed by strong support in the East, became the first far-right party to enter the German Parliament since World War II. The party came in second in the October elections in the Eastern state of Thuringen, pushing Merkel’s party, Christian Democratic Union, into third place.

The Christian Democratic Union is now debating whether to break a longstanding taboo by forming an alliance with the AfD. A poll early this year showed that 42% of Eastern Germans, compared with 77% of those in the West, think their German democracy is the best type of government.

Like other parties and leaders across the globe who are challenging democratic systems this century, the AfD is taking to the halls of power through popular elections.

The rise of AfD fits into a global pattern of anger at democracy. The East Germans feel alienated and powerless. Almost one-half of Easterners see themselves as second-class citizens, while 63% think the differences between them and the West are greater than what they have in common.

Critically, growing economic equality has not generated growing support for Western democracy. In 2018, the average unemployment rate was 6.9% in the former East, compared with 4.8% in the West. Former East Germans earned just 86% percent of what their West German counterparts made in 2017.

Reflecting the early preferences of Western entrepreneurs, many Eastern firms belong to West German or foreign corporations. No major companies are headquartered in the East, and not a single Eastern company is on Germany’s leading stock exchange index.

In 1991, I interviewed East Germany’s last leader Egon Krenz, relating my experience, as a graduate student, among East Berliners crowding near the wall to overhear a concert nearby in West Berlin, and shouting “The wall has to go” and “Gorby, Gorby,” referring to Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. The East German government should have paid more attention to the East German people, he allowed.

Is the same true for the architects of German unification? Unification is a massive undertaking and could not have happened quickly.

The 30th anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on how challenging it is for humans to really make day-to-day sacrifices for those outside their group, and what more the German government might have done to really make the East bloom like the West.

This story has been updated to correct the results of the October elections.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. vlade

    Here’s a similar story from Guardian I wanted to send to the links: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/10/in-place-of-erlins-wall-now-stands-a-barrier-of-sullen-resentment

    The problem as I see it is that the WG attempted to impose it’s values fully on Eastern Germany, assuming there was nothing to learn from them. Even if it was true (which I don’t believe so, aspects of childcare and healthcare come to mind), it doesn’t make for good relations where you clearly treat the other party as a dumb country cousin. Your family, sure, but not by choice.

    TBH, this is a microcosm of the problems post the fall of the Soviet block (including USSR), and one of the reason we are where we are. I remember that when a sister of a friend came back from the US in 1990, post the fall of the hard-borders, one of her US stories was the Americans expressing a massive surprise that people had things like colour tv, fridge, washing machines etc. It wasn’t that they were crap (they were), but that people in the block had them at all. TBH, I run into it even now and then in the west, where some people seem to think that say all Romanian live like what you see now and then on National Geographic, and when I tell them that say Slovak region of Bratislava is, in the EU statistics, richer than nearby Vienna, they don’t believe me.


      Nice how the guardian describes that: ” Sullen resentment”… because ” it is all in the head” right.
      I just copy here what I wrote already as answer to an later comment:

      None of you guys seem ever to wonder, if the majority of East Germans, including the opposition wanted the reunification and capitalism. And… surprise, they did not… they got manipulated into it. And the reunification was not a reunification but an annexion.
      There is a really interesting article in the Le Monde Diplomatic called “The economic Anschluss of the GDR”
      I am from East Germany and I was twenty in 1989 and lived in East Berlin.
      Here is a link to my Blog and what I wrote about it, if interested : https://www.wellwhynot.ca/new-blog/2019/11/9/not-my-fairy-tale

      1. Jaime Garfield

        Thank you Julia. I appreciate your story. Your intimate real life perspective is helpful in understanding the larger, broader elements at work. You illuminate how judgments are sometimes made carelessly, and can be harmful. This is a perspective we are not normally exposed to. Please continue to link to your blog when the conversation is relevant!

      2. deplorado

        >> “not a reunification but an annexation”
        Annexation – this happened with the entire former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe.

        Thank you Julia.

      3. GM

        I’m from another country in Eastern Europe.

        What people complained about at the time was access to consumer goods, not the socialist system itself.

        And not even consumer goods in general, because in fact they had everything they needed (you may have had to wait 5 years for a car, but the truth was that you did not need a car — cities were densely and rationally built, and public transportation was excellent), but the shiny kind of consumer goods people had in the West. There was a widespread fetishization of everything “Western” without any objective assessment of its real quality — if it was not local or Soviet, it had to be the best thing ever, performance and practicality were irrelevant. The allure of the forbidden and inaccessible…

        And it was far from the case that all communist consumer goods were inferior — many were, and there was a general lag behind in their development (not so much because of inherent inability to develop cutting edge technology, the military was doing quite well in matching up with the US, but the technological transfer between it and the civilian sphere just did not happen the way it does in the West), but many others were very durable and practical in ways their western equivalent were not, as practices likes planned obsolescence were just not a thing (for example, the first fridge that my grandparents bought in the late 1950s still works perfectly fine to this day and it has never even been repaired once in those 60+ years).

        So people had this unrealistic expectation that now they will retain all the social benefits of socialism — free healthcare, high-quality free-to-all education, free housing, guaranteed employment, etc. — but now they will also be able to go Hawaii on vacation whenever they want to.

        And actually it was worse than that — they had an implicit, not an explicit such expectation because they could not actually formulate the benefits that they had, as they had grown up with them and took them for granted. Which is why the people who were most unhappy about the transition were the generations born in the 1910s and 1920s who got to live their last years after 1989 — because they did remember how it was prior to 1944-45.

        The greatest shortcoming of the Eastern Bloc relative to the West wasn’t that Trabants and Wartburgs were not good cars, it was that the West decisively won the propaganda war, because the East was absolutely horrible at it. Which is how it got to the point where whatever the regime told the people, the people would believe the opposite. So when the regime was telling them that there are millions of homeless and tens of millions of dirt poor food-insecure people in the USA, they did not believe it.

        And, of course, nobody ever had any idea what living without free health care means.

        Which is why I was forced to watch in horror how, for example, the public health care system was dismantled and transitioned towards something that is nominally still single-payer but is in practice a system of directly paying for services, and nobody protested. Because nobody had the reference points against which to evaluate what was happening.

        A lot of “reforms” were pushed through that way. And the regret only came much much later when the effects became apparent.This the bitter disappointment so many years later.

        The other big problem with the whole situation is that the vast majority of people has been kept silent throughout all this time.

        Under communism, 95% of people were better off, often much much better off than they were prior to it, and most of them ended up much worse off once it ended. That proportion probably varies between countries, i.e. it was certainly lower in Czechoslovakia, which was already an advanced industrialized society with a real middle class in the 1930s than in Bulgaria, Romania, or the USSR itself, but you get the idea.

        It was 5% of the population, typically the urban elite, that was worse off under communism.

        But it is those 5% that all the “intellectuals”, “dissidents”, activists, politicians, etc. came from, and whose voices we have been hearing. The opinion of the 95% nobody asked for or gave a public platform to.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          It’s a minor point, but I have a friend who grew up in Romania and lived in Paris before coming to the US. She still speaks fondly of her Trabant. All of the things that made it not a very good car, like having to bring the engine indoors on cold nights, or having to have passengers get out when going up steep hills on the way to skiing (the car couldn’t handle passengers, ski gear, and too much of an incline) seemed endearing, as if the car was more a quirky but useful toy than a machine.

        2. vlade

          I’m quite sick of this crap that “It was 5% of the population, typically the urban elite, that was worse off under communism”.

          How could it be urban elite, if it was worse off?

          My cousin, second removed, could not go to any uni, because he was from a “kulak family”. Because his grandfather, once upon a time, owned two horses and a cow, plus IIRC about two hectares of land, and refused to give it in in the forced collectivisaton?

          My grandfather, who barely escaped Gestapo in WW2, was a sergean in the pre-war army. Post war he had a very small butcher’s shop that barely fed his family (it was in a village of about 500 people, where most of the people did their own butchering). That got taken from him in 1950s, without any compensation.

          How does any of that make you urban or elite pray?

          In my experience, the people who claim that are those who just put their head down, and hoped they will not get noticed either way, and if someone in their circle got chopped, they just said “he should have kept his head down”.

          The life was different. It was slower, it was way more local. You were guaranteed some quality of life (if you call waiting in queues for things like toilet paper when it finally showed up quality of life) – as long as you did not go against the regime. Oh, and it was full of black markets, stealing from the state and state companies (“he who does not steal steals from his own family”), the right (or wrong) profiles etc. etc.

          And your “free healthcare” wasn’t as free as you make it. It was “here, Mr. Doctor, can you take this bottle of whatever to make sure the surgery goes right”. Bribery and corruption was rampant. The question I remember from my youth re any surgeries was “how much did you have to give?”

          People remember the good things, and forget the bad ones.

          There were good things (well, the one I can mainly remember was that I was young, and worst I had to worry about was parents finding about bad marks, and that going for a day trip was an adventure because going anywhere was an adventure), but it was not a paradise you try to paint.

    2. Titus

      I can’t think of any country of any size that doesn’t have these sectorial differences. The causes may be different but their actual existence is not in any doubt. As in the States, Germany has strong north/south and north/south/west vs. east prejudices. Working at Siemens (a Southern outfit), trying to figure out with to do with Nixdorf – a northern company, and Sietech an Eastern Company, I found myself constantly in the middle of intense bickering. And my german’s is ausgezeichnet. For better or worse the southerners think the northerns are stuck up and you can hear it in the german they speak. The northerners think the southerners ‘Hicks’, but the southerners have all the money so they don’t care what anyone thinks. And both the southerners and northerners couldn’t/can’t stand the easterners. You’d have to be German to understand, but being ‘lazy’ to a german is a horrible character attribute. A good three years before the fall there was among the ‘capitalists’ I was dealing with (bankers in north, manufacturers in the south) an extreme desire to have nothing to do with the lazy ‘east’. Nothing has changed. To me there was a certain degree of amusement in it, just as there is where ever, I find this sort of thing. And in the U.K., where I have a home (my wife is Scottish), and the US we have the same thing. So, how’s is all of this going? Not well I think, getting way to heated.

  2. Ignacio

    That is, growing inequality. Money herds in hot spots whereas many regions remain forgotten. This occurs everywhere, Germany is just another example. Ignore rural suburbs at your own risk. Yesterday in Spain the extreme right party became 3rd in results and won precisely on those forgotten regions/municipalities. Mostly rural and not far from neuralgic centers. They feel the inequality much more than remote regions.

    Once upon a time the EU was worried about the regions but it has somehow faded. Yes, there are compensation funds at country level and at EU level but the EU-Rural Development Programme falls short on what is needed and country-level compensatory transfers must have also shrunk in austerity driven EU. Moreover the transfers come from the least redistributive of all tax instruments: VAT.

    1. Ignacio

      I wish I could post here an image to show yesterday electoral results by municipalities in the region around Madrid. It is a telling graphic (the map is here). Madrid is surrounded by a “red suburban belt” and this is in turn surrounded by a “green belt” (green is the color of the extreme right party) mostly rural with migrants that may live in the red belt and are picked in a day by day basis to work in the green belt, picking melons, watermelons and other agricultural products.

    2. vlade

      The problem with the EU money at the regional levels in my experience is that the central governments tend to fight it (often indirectly via dragging their feet etc), because they see it as a direct threat to their power. The worst think for a central governmnet that was saying for years somethign is impossible is for the locals + EU money to make it possible.

      The places where they don’t fight it is often unfortunately where they figured out how to diver a lot of the money into their own pockets (i.e. the grant goes to a corrupt local, who pays part of it to the corrupt central govt).

      1. Ignacio

        To my knowledge, at least in Spain EU funds are managed at regional level and the state has no responsibility in the amounts asked and their uses. This is IMO, quite an important issue (territorial development) in which the EU makes many mistakes that result on not accomplishing any of the objectives of the program: Promote sustainability, competitivity and reduce inter-regional disparities. If I have time I will write on this later.

        1. vlade

          My experience is that the regionals ask (and get) the funds.

          But there is still a whole lot of things that they need the central government for around that, and that’s usually where the central government throws various spanners into the works (i.e. various non-local permits, audits etc.. ). Especially the audits can be weaponised against regional bodies, because even if it doesn’t find anything, it takes a lot of effort and can disrupt normal workings. Repeated audits also sap the morale of all involved.

          For example, the location where I live had some run ins with the PM, and as a result was audited five times in the last year alone, more than in the last decade before.

          1. Ignacio

            Thank you vlade. Where I live we don’t ask for such funds so I cannot tell. You describe silent corrupt practices. I wonder how widely are those spread.

            1. vlade

              Often it is corruption, but somteimes it’s also the central government parties fearing a potential effective opposition that sucessfull regional projects could create. Often then try to co-opt first though, and with what I’ve seen they mostly suceed at this step.

  3. ambrit

    This encapsulates, to me, the basic problem with any Globalist socio-political enterprise. Humans have demonstrated a continuing penchant for tribalism. As examples of paternalism, the unification of Terrestrial Human cousin groups highlights what the ‘Star Trek’ meme characterized, literally, as ‘The Borg.’ “Prepare to be assimilated.” That process demonstrates the essential fault of any resort to Conformism: Reductionism.
    Discrete human sub-groups have an understandable antipathy towards Conformism. That process is based upon the destruction of non-conforming cultures. Power sharing looks to be the optimal solution to this problem. To get to that state of affairs, we must first debunk the myth of the improving nature of conformism. It is positively dangerous to remove social buffers before embarking upon any grand crusade designed to improve anything. Humans display this eternal compunction to change anything not in compliance with ‘in-group’ norms and standards. Like tomcats killing the kittens of other tomcats whenever encountered, human societies display selfish and destructive tendencies in their inter-relations.
    Nothing in human life is simple. To assume so is the height of arrogance. The ancient Greeks, ahead of us all those thousands of years ago, recognized this fact and embodied it in their cautionary tales of Hubris and Nemesis.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I have never thought about it but Yves’s description of East Germany being like “flyover” regions in the US is apt. One guy nailed what happened for East Germany when he said: “When you ask people in the west what changed for them after reunification, they answer: nothing. When you ask people in the east, they say: everything.” I will say now that I like the Germans having visited there many times but I think that they did not understand what happened to the East in the past 30 years.
    The place was pillaged by western interest instead of being brought up to West German standards in spite of all the billions spent. They have become second-class citizens in their own country – that is what one third actually say. Wages for a start are lower by a significant degree and an agency that Helmut Kohl set up – Treuhandanstalt (nicknamed the “Handover Agency”) – set up a fire sale of eastern firms with mass sackings to boot. In fact, the east was set up as a low-wage territory and a testing ground for neoliberal policies like having collective bargaining agreements trashed. East Germany was de-industrialized whereas it was one of the most industrialized in Europe.
    A 2017 study found that eastern Germans held less than 2 per cent of top jobs in politics, the federal courts, the military and business, even though the east accounted for 17 per cent of the population. One reason was that a bunch of “carpet-baggers” went east after re-unification to not train up the locals in West German laws & regulations but to push them aside and take over. Schools, hospitals and train lines were shut down and “rationalized”.
    It did not help when Christian Hirte, commissioner for eastern Germany, said : “We have to stop using this negative tone [about reunification]. We have every reason to look back on our achievements with pride.” So when Merkel brought in over a million refugees and promised them everything to integrate, the East Germans were bitter in that they had never been integrated. As none of the major parties bothered listening to people’s needs (sound familiar?), then threw their support to those that did which happened to be parties on the far left and the far right.
    West Germany had a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring in their fellow Germans in from the cold and they screwed it up out of sheer greed. And now they are reaping the whirlwind. Here is another article from the Conversation that goes into this in more detail-


    1. Bill Smith

      “The place was pillaged by western interest”

      “East Germany was de-industrialized whereas it was one of the most industrialized” aka -> polluted”

      I agree with your point on the refugees. To many too soon for most people who already lived there.

    2. Peter

      The place was pillaged by western interest instead of being brought up to West German standards in spite of all the billions spent.

      As I pointed out: the catastrophe in the true sense was the Treuhand, hopefully a name in Germany today (for those in the West who remember it) that should receive equal treatment as the Versailles treaty which tried de – industrialized Germany after WW1 or the Morgenthau plan who tried to do the same after WW2.
      I also have the feeling – knowing a little about Mr. Kohl who I had encountered “live” as a member of the student parliament at the Uni Mainz – this policy was intentional to eliminate asap any reference to the former status of the east as part of the USSR and eliminate any traces of what was working in this particular form of socialism. The attempt to eliminate history as complete as possible is behind many actions of the west German conservatives ruling at the time.

    3. Carolinian

      Thanks for the informative comment. You really do make it sound like the US South where cultural resentment played a role in the region’s conservatism. Perhaps the strength of West Germany’s unions are blocking the follow on phenomenon–the move of industries to the downtrodden region for the cheap labor.

      1. Seamus Padraig

        Germany’s part of the EU. With open borders, there’s no real need to move the factories anywhere.

    4. Tomonthebeach

      REV KEV, I think you accurately nailed it. I was one of the 1st persons from the West to visit Chemnitz in the early 90s. I was welcomed like a rich uncle. Strangers wanted to take selfies with me (using film cameras of course). The people in Chemnitz clearly expected the West to rescue them from poverty. But, the West never did.

      I disagree that current problems in East Germany are due to festering ideology. Economic factors really mattered in 1990, and DE blew it. 10 years after the wall came down, I was part of an international conference that met with top East German leaders in Saxony (Dresden). After a Chinese colleague challenged the East Germans’ slick master plan for economic growth, they confessed that they were winging it, and we spent the rest of the day offering ideas for a more workable strategy.

      West Germans freely disparage Easterners as lazy, welfare leeches who seem loathe to embrace the norms of neoliberal capitalism. Several decades of disappointment and justifiable anger have, in my experience, led to rejecting Western systems and values. The roots of the problem seem to be lodged more in economic stagnation than Nazi ideology.

  5. Anke

    In my view, the biggest problem when transitioning from a system like socialism, with a stable and “boring” lifestyle, to one like capitalism, where fierce competition among individuals takes place constantly, is – how do you change the mentality of the people, so that they can adapt and thrive in a new system? And most importantly, is it at all possible within 1-2 generations?
    It is very difficult to change the habits of people and I am not at all surprised that the older generations, who lived under socialism, are longing for the long lost times. What surprises me, is that leaders never took the right measures to equip the younger generations with the skill set required to get by in a more open, competitive society.
    You might be able to keep the older, “lost” generation afloat in their last years with whatever remains of the current social system, but the young generations should have been “re-set” for a new competitive field a long time ago. And this competition is not enforced by malign Western elites, but simply by the economic rise of China, Russia, and many others countries, which will fit hard for a place at the table.


      None of you guys seem ever to wonder, if the majority of East Germans, including the opposition wanted the reunification and capitalism. And… surprise, they did not… they got manipulated into it. And the reunification was not a reunification but an annexion.
      There is a really interesting article in the Le Monde Diplomatic called “The economic Anschluss of the GDR”
      I am from East Germany and I was twenty in 1989 and lived in East Berlin.
      Here is a link to my Blog and what I wrote about it, if interested : https://www.wellwhynot.ca/new-blog/2019/11/9/not-my-fairy-tale

    2. Massinissa

      Sounds like victim blaming to me. “If only the young eastern germans had more skills/degrees/credentials they would be able to compete in the cutthroat competitive capitalism they now find themselves in, in the rush to the bottom caused by the global wage depression caused by the existence of non-western countries!”

  6. sporble

    I’ve been living here in Berlin since 1996.

    What the article & vlade’s astute comment point out is sadly true: I remember during my initial years here that some from the West seemed to have adopted a “winner” mentality, and some in the East wound up with a “loser” mentality. It always seemed a shame to me – it should’ve been a win-win, esp. given the bloodless experiences from 30 years ago. The “takeover” of the East wasn’t fair, to say the least, and, as the author pointed out, repercussions can still be felt today.

    That said, the AfD is now present in all 16 German state parliaments – as well as in the national parliament (Bundestag). The author asserts multiple times that the AfD has support from the East. Yes, the party is strongest there, but I would attribute much more of the party’s success to nationwide dissatisfaction with the current government, esp. with regard to its (mis-)handling of the refugee crisis.

    I don’t agree with the claim “The rise of AfD fits into a global pattern of anger at democracy.” I don’t know of any Germans who are “angry” at democracy – they are angry at the politicians who are doing a lousy job. Had those politicians done a better job, and not been incredibly lazy & arrogant, they might’ve engaged in debates with members of the AfD before the 2017 national election instead of ignoring them completely. Had they engaged with the AfD, they might’ve been able to convince voters that their own ideas & solutions were the better choice. The result of their laziness & arrogance: 1/8 of all Bundestag votes went to the AfD. As they say in German “nun haben wir den Salat” (“now we’re in a right mess”, literal translation: “now we have the salad”).

    1. Skip Intro

      The ‘angry at democracy’ meme is a standard neoliberal attack, completely reversing the underlying truth that people are angry at the lack of democracy, that makes them utterly powerless in the face of the ruling oligarchy. The rise of the AfD is not 100% organic, as a violent political right-wing was preserved in both Germanys by the ‘Constitution Police’ (Verfassungsschutz) which employed and protected violent anti-immigrant, anti-communist gangs. These gangs were regularly deployed to beat op leftist protesters. This became obvious in the case of Beate Zschäpe and the 2 dead Uwes whose immigrant killing spree was financed and protected by the cops, for whom they were nominally informants. More recently, a right-wing head of Constitution Protection was busted for giving the AfD tips about the informants in their midst, and what not to say to avoid becoming targets of investigation.

      Of course that is dramatically different from the US, where nonviolent left-wing protesters like occupy are treated with the same constitutional deference as armed right wing groups who take over federal facilities. And of course, the LEOs are not aligned with neonazi paramilitaries at all.

  7. Peter

    Unification is a massive undertaking and could not have happened quickly.
    It should read: SHOULD not have happened quickly.

    Sorry- promised to never comment again but this topic as an expat German having left Germany for Canada years before the “Unification” is too close.
    The Problem lies clearly with Mr. Kohl, who wanted a “quick and dirty” joining instead of the more careful approach the SPD had in mind to over years growing together economically and politically. The result was the utter catastrophe of the agency – the Treuhand – that oversaw the sale and transfer of industrial and commercial property from state owned into private hand – the similarities between this and the later “de-communization” of property in the USSR looks familiar. Factories were bought and immediately closed down, the assets transferred to the west leaving the east with empty factory halls and no jobs. That was the real start of the resentment, the partial de-industrialization of the east.

    It is the state of economic being that determines the state of mind…..

    1. Ignacio

      That was my thougth, a dirty fast neolib process. West germans become owners of Berlin and whatever has value, close “non-competitive” east factories and easteners become second-class germans.

      If you watch the Netflix series “criminal” with 3 UK, German, French and Spanish chapters one of the german chapters reflects that.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Peter.

        A German friend and former colleague worked for the Treuhand before coming to London at the turn of the century. He described the Treuhand as having a “buy one, get one free” approach to selling East German factories etc. He met his wife at a trade exhibition in Washington. He manned the Treuhand stand. She manned the Canadian stand next door. He added that investors were more interested in the real estate potential of the factories et al than any manufacturing / anything productive. It was the same with the former military bases.

        1. vlade

          Buying companies only to close them down was not an uncommon pattern across the whole of ex-Soviet Bloc.

          There were exceptions, some of them important – like VW buying Skoda car manufacturer – Skoda is now the most profitable part of VW (on scale), and to be fair to VW they did invest a lot into the factory, which is not just a “put parts together”, but Skoda also has reasonable development works (some engines, electrical and self-driving stuff) within VW.

          A lof of banks were sold to foreigners (Austrian’s Erste was very active in this), but that was often after they were initialy looted by local management (via dodgy loans to friendly companies) and then recapitalised by the government.

          In Eastern Germany, the only large company I can think of that survived is Carl Zeiss, which actually was probably in a better shape (product wise) than Skoda, but now is smaller (revenue/profit wise, if not employee-wise).

    2. David

      Yes, it’s often forgotten that Kohl wanted rapid unification because there was an election coming, which at that point he looked likely to lose. The pace was therefore artificially forced, and, given the rush there was no chance really to think anything through. For example, the political parties in the West expanded rapidly into the East, opening branches everywhere, and smothering attempts to create parties in the East. Thus, the election (which Kohl won) was on western terms between western parties. This, perhaps, was the beginning of the post-89 disillusion .
      It was certainly exacerbated by the Treuhand. I remember being in Dresden in, I think, 1991, and being given a presentation about its work there, with some other visitors. The Treuhand people claimed everything was going fine, with one minor exception which puzzled them. When they sold off factories in the region to western companies, those companies, instead of investing the East, promptly closed the factories down. This seemed strange: were they trying to prevent competition? As I recall, we had a hard time keeping a straight face. Similar things happened in the major cities: moving the capital to Berlin was the right decision politically, but it led to a huge influx of well-paid westerners looking for accommodation, and so the working-class inhabitants of the East were unceremoniously kicked out, and their apartments sold off.
      The DDR system did have some advantages for the people. For example, much of industry was organised in the Kombinat system, with groups of entreprises working together and providing social services such as nursery care to their employees. As the factories were sold off, even those that survived were generally too small to offer the same facilities, so large numbers of women were forced out of the workforce, adding to unemployment and poverty.
      And so on. No wonder that, when Korean unification genuinely looked a possibility towards the end of the decade, the South Koreans set up a special team to learn from the German mistakes.

  8. Seamus Padraig

    The rise of AfD fits into a global pattern of anger at democracy. The East Germans feel alienated and powerless.

    Doesn’t our guest author realize that those two statements actually contradict each other? In a truly democratic system, the people aren’t alienated and powerless; no, they are in charge.

    Critically, growing economic equality has not generated growing support for Western democracy.

    Having lived in West Germany for some years now, I suspect this factoid has at least something to do with steadily eroding standards of living in the West as well rising standards of living in the East. The only real winners in the present economic situation are the big banks and the multinational corporations. The ordinary people everywhere are feeling the pinch, though admittedly it’s still nowhere near as bad as it is in southern Europe … at least not yet.

  9. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves. This is splendid.

    As I work for a German TBTF and often come across German firms in unwelcome headlines, not just my employer, I wonder if Germany is at an inflection point. Merkel is on her way out, which may be a “Brexit good bye”, and German TBTFs and car manufacturers have their difficulties. Is what made the Federal Republic, its original western half, perhaps the most successful German state in history no longer possible?

  10. notabanktoadie

    Turned away by the hectic pace and competition of cold individualism in place of socialism’s boring security, many returned. Nathan Stoltzfus, Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels

    Not ”cold individualism” but welfare for the banks and the rich which engenders the ”rat race”.

    As for security, many more had that before family farms, businesses, and the commons were legally stolen – in the name of ”efficiency”, one supposes. And that security wasn’t boring, you can be sure, but allowed life to be lived as fully as it may be lived.

  11. Danb

    Let me chime in and reinforce most of the comments here. During 1990-92 I did ethnographic research on how the intellectual class of the GDR was being treated by the West Germans and how this class was reacting to this treatment, as well as their explanations and interpretations about why socialism seemed to have failed and the GDR in fact did fail as a viable nation state.

    Collectively, the intellectual class of the GDR -members of the Academy of Sciences, universities, journalists, artists, writers, playwrights- felt “Abgewickelt werden” by the West Germans. This means they experienced an unwinding or liquidation of the GDR and all the institutional power they had drawn upon while the GDR existed. They all had stories of ritualistic or casual stigmatization they had encountered among many –not all- West Germans. The GDR Academy of Sciences was closed and 2/3 of its workers dismissed at the end of 1991; a similar process unfolded in GDR universities, where un- or underemployed West German academics took the now open faculty positions in the East. All GDR media was brought to an end.

    Back then, 1991, no publishers wanted my book about GDR intellectuals, who were defined as the flotsam of a failed state and ideology. The end of Ideology thinking ruled. In 2014, however, as the 25th anniversary of the Wall opening approached, 7 publishers were interested in the book (published by Palgrave/McMillan in 2017). Subsequently, I returned to Germany in 2014 and re-interviewed 1/3 of the 106 intellectuals I had met in 1990-92. None of them were nostalgic for the GDR, but they did miss the “Solidarity” and sense of community they felt the GDR people had developed. One of them told me, “I admired capitalism and the West while I was a citizen of the GDR, but after living under capitalism for 25 years I no longer approve of it.”

    1. The Historian

      I know you didn’t come here to promote your book, but it does sound like something I’d very much be interested in reading. Could you give me its title so that I can search for it?

      Never mind, I think I found it: “East German Intellectuals and the Unification of Germany”?

  12. eyebear

    The former GDR was the country with 10% of their population spying on the rest – called IMs by the Stasi. What do you believe, if you don’t trust your neighbours? Because you can’t?

    The ‘Treuhand’ wasn’t the culprit, some people are arguing about: most enterprises were just rubbish. In the city of Dresden they frantically tried to manage some sort of ‘management buyout’ – at least they were able to get 144 enterprises to be bought & managed by it’s old management. Only one enterprise survived until today. It’s a furniture factory, which was bought by the son of the former entrepreneur, who was expropriated 20 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    You need entrepreneurs for the capitalism, and they are not grown on trees.

    1. ambrit

      Of course you need entrepreneurs for the Capitalism. The real question is whether or not the Capitalism serves the people or the other way around. If the latter, then I have grave doubts concerning the desirability of the Capitalism that has emerged in the former East. If we take the Western smear of the old Soviet system at face value, it can be argued that the people of the ‘expropriated’ East have just changed masters.


      The people who started the Treuhand, the true opposition in east germany and many citizen did not wanted capitalism, but a better socialism.

      The real number of people who worked as informers for the Stasi are maybe one in 90… which is far to many, but it was neither one in three nor 10%. You can check that with the commission who investigates the crimes of the Stasi.
      You are just repeating the same tiresome lines, I heart from the reunification onwards till today, that dies not make them better

    3. deplorado

      I have an anecdote on neighbor spying from behind the Iron Curtain, but not DDR, ca. 1982.

      An aunt of mine, who was many years younger than and close to my mother, had begun an affair with a Middle Eastern entrepreneur with a construction business in Austria, who traveled frequently through our country. On a few occasions she brought him to our house for dinner and they sometimes would stay for a couple nights. He drove a Toyota Celica with diplomatic tags. His complexion and extremely exotic (to us) car, and her blond hairdo, mini-jupe and bursting physique no doubt filled the neighbors with feverish curiosity.

      So, after one of their visits, I learned that my parents had been summoned to the local police station for questioning. I remember feelign kind of alarmed and maybe scared at first, but in the end it turned out to be something like a joke. It turned out, one of our neighbors – the oldest guy on the street, who must have been at that time in his at least early 70ies and knew my father for decades – had been playing a informant to the police for our street block and had reported the visits of the exotic gentleman to our house. The informant was a friendly and simple old man, and I believe this incident caused him a certain level of discomfort for getting my parents questioned and he may have even apologized. My parents were rather wary of speaking up in general, but in this case I remember that they felt rather annoyed and indignant with the spy, for suggesting that they were harboring some illicit activity. They were not, and the businessman was probably well known to the police apparatus, so the whole thing with the local police amounted to nothing and later became a joke, like “do you remember when Grampa N. reported on us”.

      So, yes, clearly there were informants, and maybe 1% of East Germans or Czechs or whatever were that – but there was so little of any level of subversiveness or actual crime, and people lived in such close communities where they knew each other for decades and could hear each other through the kitchen windows, that an informant like Grampa N. was really a caricature of a spy, that couldn’t even scare the most compliant and wary of citizens, such as my parents.

      I’ve heard that the 50ies and 60ies were different – but in the 80ies I dont think anyone cared about spies.

  13. Jaime Garfield

    Thank you Julia. I appreciate your story. Your intimate real life perspective is helpful in understanding the larger, broader elements at work. You illuminate how judgments are sometimes made carelessly, and can be harmful. This is a perspective we are not normally exposed to. Please continue to link to your blog when the conversation is relevant!

  14. Sound of the Suburbs

    Keynesian capitalism won the battle against communism, let’s change everything.
    The Eastern Europeans had looked out enviously at the widespread prosperity of Keynesian capitalism, but they weren’t going to get that. Oh no.
    When Francis Fukuyama talked about the triumph of liberal democracy, I thought he meant something else entirely.
    In the West we are now seeing what the East got, and we don’t care for it that much either.
    All the wealth seems to concentrate with a few; it’s nothing like that Keynesian capitalism we used to have that won the battle against Communism.
    US wealth distribution and ground zero for the wealth concentrating neoliberal ideology:
    http://static5.businessinsider.com/image/557ef766ecad04fe50a257cd-960/screen shot 2015-06-15 at 11.28.56 am.png
    My sympathies East Europeans, you were stitched up.

    The double whammy.
    Free market fundamentalists from the US went in and implemented the “shock doctrine” in the old Soviet Bloc nations, which was a bit of a disaster.
    A BBC documentary covers a young, naive Jeffrey Sachs and other US free market fundamentalists as they headed into Russia to make a right mess of things, create oligarchs and pave the way for Putin.
    Part 3 – We will Force You to be Free (36 – 44 mins)

    It gets worse.
    The East Europeans didn’t have any debt after communism.
    Western bankers descended and loaded them up with their debt products.

  15. Sound of the Suburbs

    You have to scratch the surface, and look at what is going on underneath.

    “Germany is turning to soft nationalism. People on low incomes are voting against authority because the consensus on equality and justice has broken down. It is the same pattern across Europe,” said Ashoka Mody, a former bail-out chief for the International Monetary Fund in Europe.
    Mr Mody said the bottom half of German society has not seen any increase in real incomes in a generation. The Hartz IV reforms in 2003 and 2004 made it easier to fire workers, leading to wage compression as companies threatened to move plants to Eastern Europe.

    The reforms pushed seven million people into part-time ‘mini-jobs’ paying €450 (£399) a month. It lead to corrosive “pauperisation”. This remains the case even though the economy is humming and surging exports have pushed the current account surplus to 8.5pc of GDP.”

    Now we’ve scratched the surface and looked at what is going on underneath, the rise of populism in Germany makes sense.

  16. Mattski

    I don’t see East Germany as an inner, plantation-style economy of Germany as I do the American South, though. The plantation economic model evolved in the Caribbean has considerable application to the southern U.S.

    Have traveled a little in E. Germany, but don’t claim to any expertise. Still, wasn’t the East quite heavily industrialized/”developed”? It’s the “development of U.S. Southern underdevelopment,” as left development theorists say, that is the key to what we live here. (I say this as a fifteen-year Northern transplant in Tallahassee.)

Comments are closed.