Germany has been united for 30 years and not everyone sees the unity as a success story. Wrong, says expert Klaus Schroeder. However, mistakes are always made. So also from the Chancellor.
More than 30 years ago the euphoria was almost limitless, then the disappointment came. The two German states had been politically united since October 3, but socially and economically they were far from united. Despite all the problems, the reunification is a success, says political scientist Klaus Schroeder in a Chillreport interview.
At the same time, in the West there is a lack of sensitivity to the mentality of many East Germans, who are more sensitive, especially when it comes to issues of freedom of expression. And according to Schroeder, Chancellor Angela Merkel should have avoided a word a few years ago. In an interview, Schroeder explains when unity will also take place in the “minds” and why the achievements of the East Germans should be much more honored.
Chillreport: Mr Schroeder, Germany was reunited 30 years ago, but there are still walls in the “heads”. In this way the AfD achieved election results in the East that it can only dream of in the West. How united have East and West Germany really become over the decades?
Klaus Schroeder: There are still differences. Take the biggest fears in the country: West Germans feel most threatened by Donald Trump, while East Germans are terrified of foreigners. Or rather before the problems that an influx of these could cause. This became apparent only recently from a survey. So we all live in a common state, but the influences of the people in East and West through a long life experience in opposing systems still have an effect. Interestingly, older generations pass on certain fears and negative attitudes to younger generations, who have not even experienced the GDR themselves.
Like the rejection of foreigners and refugees?
Yes. The rejection of foreigners is much more pronounced in the East than in the West. There are also historical reasons for this: apart from the Soviet soldiers, only about one percent of the total population lived in the GDR. Most of them were indentured servants from Vietnam or African countries. Most of these people lived quite isolated from the GDR citizens. Simply put, for a long time people in the East were simply not used to foreigners living in the country. Different from West Germany.
Are you surprised that it takes so long for East and West Germany to come together? As an expert, you have just made an inventory of this in your new book.
Many years ago I thought it would be faster. Especially since millions of former GDR citizens moved to the West after reunification. And vice versa, much from the west to the east. But despite that, people have remained very strangers to each other. East Germans in the West complain that they are not recognized, West Germans in the East feel rejected.
Klaus Schroeder, Born in 1949, is a professor at the Otto Suhr Institute at the Free University of Berlin and at the same time heads the SED State Research Association. The political scientist is an expert on the history of the GDR and the division of Germany. Schroeder’s New Book “Battle of the Systems. It divided and reunited Germany“.
Recognition is a buzzword: do we in the West underestimate what the people of East Germany have achieved since reunification?
Yes. Let’s take a sober look: for the West Germans, almost nothing changed in 1990, for the East Germans, unity changed everything. Professional, private, but also social. Of course, a lot of money has flowed from the west to the east, but we should appreciate the hard work of the East Germans more. There was enormous optimism among the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who founded companies at that time alone.
While in the west it was more unfortunate when it became increasingly clear how much money the reunification project would cost.
The West would have been much less enthusiastic about unity if it had known what unity would cost. That may be assumed.
Klaus Schroeder: The political scientist has been studying the history of the division of Germany for decades. (Source: FU Berlin)
Let’s get back to the merits of the people of East Germany. People often complain about the lack of appreciation for the lifelong achievement of the GDR citizens.
It’s a tough thing. The rising mass unemployment and mass early retirement have affected many East Germans in their self-esteem. The 55 to 60-year-olds at the time, in particular, were downright pulled away from under their feet, and this trauma is still felt today. The GDR was a stronger working society than the West. On the other hand, and this is also a truth: even some unemployed people in the East were better off financially after reunification than before with their jobs in the GDR.
Money is not everything …
I agree! And this is where the recognition of lifetime achievement comes into play. Personally, I find the debate very difficult, both in the East and in the West. In my opinion, a “lifetime achievement” can only be recognized in an individual group, for example the family or the company. And to be fair, we don’t have to acknowledge the “life work” of a Stasi man.
Is there still an inferiority complex in parts of the East German population compared to the West?
In a way. Because there is no distinction at all between political and social systems and life achievements. Neither in the east nor in the west. For many East Germans, the Western system was superior to socialism – which is why the GDR perished. But not only that: the people in the West were also better. This trauma continues today.
A provocative question: Would it have been better in 1990 to postpone reunification into the distant future?
Possibly. But in fact there was no longer any way to do this. As early as 1990, the Federal Republic had to quickly transfer 60 billion D-Marks to East Berlin to stabilize the economy. Even after that, Lothar de Maizière, as the last head of government of the GDR, had to visit Helmut Kohl at Lake Wolfgang. There, de Maizière said in general that one had to act quickly when it came to reunification: the GDR had been as bad economically as politically. In other words, East Germany was a mess.
The financial situation was disastrous, but weren’t you expecting too much from people? In the long process, the Federal Republic had literally “westernized” itself for decades: the East hardly had time after 1990.
We can still feel the effects today. It is also completely understandable that such complex social processes cannot be enforced in a very short time. Rather, East Germany is a post-socialist country, even if we don’t realize it. And like the other states of the former Eastern bloc, the region is in a phase of transformation. In contrast to West Germany, westernization has remained purely external in parts.
But of course not only in East Germany. Hungary, with its head of government Viktor Orbán, is the problem child of the European Union.
I find what Viktor Orbán is doing in the field of rule of law more than questionable. On the other hand, I would like to point out that there are very strong fears in Hungary and Poland, for example. Budapest and Warsaw were once just orders from Moscow, nowadays people fear the power of Brussels. And it is also a fact that the Hungarians voted Viktor Orbán’s party to power. The mood was not manipulated as elsewhere.
Interestingly enough, this historical fear of Russia is much less in the former GDR spread than in the other former Warsaw Pact states.
There are too many people who understand Putin in East Germany, from the AfD to the left party. Historically, these people probably don’t feel the time as a dependent Eastern bloc state as much as oppression as the Poles or Hungarians.
Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have had to reform their economies on their own since 1989. After reunification and reunification, the former GDR received large sums of money from the West. What were the consequences of this transfer?
The new federal states depended on the transfers. The East Germans were therefore unable to develop the self-confidence of the Poles, who, like the Hungarians, Czechs or Slovaks, had made it on their own, as it were. These countries had a massive economic downturn. East Germany, on the other hand, was privileged over Poland. This is a psychological momentum that should not be underestimated. You were dependent on the West and felt that this financier wanted to see constant gratitude. That is why some East Germans are “challenging” to some extent to this day.
Dismantling hammer and compass: many symbols of the GDR quickly disappeared from the public eye. (Source: imageBROKER / ullstein bild)
And “reciprocal” in elections?
The election of left and right populist parties undoubtedly expresses an anti-Western effect.
But if you take stock: was the reunification a success? Or rather the opposite?
Reunification is often badly spoken of, but the unity is more successful than some would like to admit. Just look at the increase in prosperity in East Germany. Of course it could have been better.
Which would it be?
The 1: 1 exchange rate from East German Mark to D-Mark was a major economic mistake that brought GDR companies to their knees. Then the West German unions urged the workers in the East to demand ever higher wages. In the West, however, it was completely underestimated what it means when markets collapse. But the East Germans no longer bought products from the East either. Everyone just wanted things from the west. That finally put an end to the GDR companies.
To this day, the Treuhand is most criticized for its work. Especially for the many companies that have been closed.
Of course trust also made mistakes. But what would have been the alternative? The rehabilitation of many companies required huge subsidies. And yet many companies would later have failed. But above all, no one was prepared for this task: in the 1980s, many people at West German universities were thinking about introducing the planned socialist economy in the Federal Republic. But the other way around? Nobody.
To this day, the Treuhand is still the proverbial red rag for Links and AfD.
The subject has developed amazingly. The Left Party and AfD have both submitted an application to establish an investigation committee on the Treuhand. For various reasons, of course. But both completely ignored the catastrophic economic situation in the GDR in 1989/1990. And that the Treuhand was only a reaction to the liquidation of the GDR by the SED. In this dubious way, the AfD and the Left Party are picking up their voters. At least some of it. The AfD is still largely living off the refugee problem.
Helmut Kohl (r) and Lothar de Maizière: The last Prime Minister of the GDR later worked as a lawyer, while Kohl ruled all of Germany as Chancellor. (Source: ADN photo archive / ullstein photo)
In contrast, the Left Party, in particular, has repeatedly complained about social imbalances in the country: the East would still be materially disadvantaged.
The wrong measurements are always taken when comparing the relationships between East and West. Within the West German states of Hesse and Bavaria, for example, there are sometimes much greater differences in prosperity than between East and West. This is because purchasing power is neglected. In the low-wage sector, the east is even better off than the west, as there are more immigrants in the latter.
A West German reproach against the East Germans is that they “complain” too much. In a way, is this a legacy of the GDR?
There was a strong complaints culture in the GDR. What a tight economy, and the GDR remained that way until its last day, no wonder. They could complain about almost anything. But when things got political, the Stasi was at the door. At that time there was an import system in which citizens could voice their concerns. The last threat was always: I won’t vote anymore! That was just allowed.
How do you classify developments of the extreme right such as Pegida or the power of the AfD in East Germany in this context?
Pegida is not really “grumbling”, but for these people it’s about “assertion”. You have a sense of paternalism from the West and want to defend yourself. This self-affirmation first took place from the left, now to the right.
Does the East feel “overrun” by the West again?
In a way. Take the well-known East German writer Uwe Tellkamp, who approached West German intellectuals because of their rigorous condemnation of rather uncomfortable positions in society and who received a lot of criticism for this: in a democracy, however, you also have to tolerate opinions that you personally do not like. It is completely under the Basic Law if someone says that Germany should not accept as many migrants. And if someone demands compliance with the current asylum law with regard to refugee policy, then that person is not a right-wing radical: he acts completely in accordance with the law. Conversely, the Left Party calls for crime when it declares arson in a refugee camp legal.
Angela Merkel 2009: A year later, the word she used “no alternative” was named word of the year. (Source: Boness / IPON / ullstein bild)
So do you see the freedom of speech that was achieved in East Germany not long ago under threat?
Actually. Sometimes there is a feeling that West German intellectuals want to tell people what to think. Which expressions they can use and which not. People see this as an attack on their autonomy, which must be maintained as long as the value system is not abandoned. East Germans are more sensitive to the issue of free speech. And the Chancellor was not always helpful in dispelling this impression.
Please provide a further explanation.
The word “no alternative” was Merkel’s biggest mistake. At the time, it was about Greece’s debt crisis and the bailout of the euro, and the SED had preached to many East Germans for decades that there was no alternative to the measures taken. And now Angela Merkel spoke in the same tone.
At the beginning of the year, Merkel was also critical of the controversial election of FDP politician Thomas Kemmerich as Thuringian Prime Minister.
That was Merkel’s second big mistake in East Germany. Merkel called Kemmerich’s election “inexcusable” and demanded that it be reversed. As important as you are to see the AfD, it was democratic elections! And Merkel’s words were an interference in democracy. At least that’s how many East Germans felt.
One last question: how long will it take for the unit to actually be completed?
Forgive the weird comparison: it’s kind of like smoking. Doctors say that to reduce your risk of illness to normal levels, you should stop smoking for as long as you originally smoked. On the 50th anniversary of unity, the country will truly be reunited.
Mr. Schroeder, thank you for the interview.