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Three decades after reunification, East Germans’ relationship with democracy remains strained



Wolfgang Engler,

Protesters on the streets of Rostock, East Germany in October 1989 demanding free elections, the right to travel, and other political reforms. Photo: IMAGO / Roland Hartig

The East Germans are a hot topic again, both in politics and in the media. The sources feeding the newly kindled-awakened public interest are rather bleak: the National Socialist Underground, Pegida, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. In the East, the latter has gone from one electoral success to the next at both state and federal levels. Militant marches with explicitly racist slogans, as in September 2018 in Chemnitz, have also added to the East’s disrepute. Thirty years after the democratic awakening in the German Democratic Republic, or so the accusation goes, many people are still yet to arrive in the reunited Germany. And neither money nor fine words have managed to firmly anchor democracy, the rule of law, and civic participation in the acceding territory. What is going on here? Could it be that the spectre of the GDR still haunts the minds of all too many? Is this the dictatorship’s way of avenging its ignominious end?

Wolfgang Engler is a sociologist, cultural theorist, and journalist. He is one of the most distinguished analysts of the East and has published numerous texts and books. His most recent, co-written with Jana Hensel, is Wer wir sind: Die Erfahrung, ostdeutsch zu sein (Aufbau Verlag, 2018).

One need not share in these suspicions to find the ongoing, and in part even solidifying, divide between East and West in opinions, habits, and political attitudes somewhat odd. In a piece for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 10 November 2018, Daniel Dettling summed up the irritation that is particularly widespread among West German commentators as follows:

The people in Germany’s East are doing better today than ever before. The gap between East and West is smaller than ever. The economic situation of East Germans continues to improve. Their assets have grown by 75 percent since the turn of the millennium. Since German reunification almost 30 years ago, life expectancy has increased by seven years. In recent times, productivity, wages, and pensions have grown faster than in the West, and unemployment is declining more rapidly. And yet former East Germany continues to be dominated by a sense of powerlessness, and a political populism that feeds off this powerlessness. … So far, economic growth has failed to decrease political frustration.

This is not the occasion to discuss these findings in detail. There is extensive economic data showing a less optimistic picture of the catching-up process, and which suggests that more recently this has slowed down or even come to a standstill. However, it is true that apartments, houses, and cities have been modernized, and infrastructure upgraded or newly built; and many businesses are utilizing state-of-the-art technology in their production processes, and are able to compete on the market. The only question here is who owns all of this; who actually has access to it? Often enough, East Germans find themselves confronted by foreign wealth when they roam through their native realm, and this tarnishes their joy over what has been rescued from decay as well as what has been newly created. For the foreseeable future, inhabitants of the East will not be able to threaten the head start that West Germans have in terms of property. “Catch up, but without overtaking”, runs the curt prognosis. This is one reason why, subject to such reservations, processes of equalization are completely compatible with “political frustration”.

Naika Foroutan, co-director of the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research, mentions another reason in an interview with Die Zeit (1 April 2019):

In structural terms, data shows that the East is actually catching up. Unemployment levels are going down and poverty rates are declining, even though there are still striking differences in terms of asset accumulation. The following phenomenon can thus be observed: the more you catch up compared to the majority of society, the greater the dissatisfaction about what has not yet been attained; and rightly so. That is what emancipation is. And as a result, more and more people in the East are asking themselves, how can it be that we are closing the gap in structural terms, but culturally we are still seen as not belonging?

The first to formulate this paradox of emancipatory processes was Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in his 1856 classic The Old Regime and the Revolution: “Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter.” This insight remains valid to this day, and useful for understanding the dissatisfaction of many East Germans precisely in terms of this emancipatory logic, which accepts no half measures and always aims for the whole: in the East German case, for recognition as first-class citizens. Repeatedly pointing out to them their actually very comfortable existence within the new society and appealing to their gratitude is about as fruitless as the attempt to fob off women’s liberation by pointing to its successes thus far. This compulsory exercise of keynote speakers at all kinds of anniversaries routinely misses its target, and can therefore be abandoned once and for all.

A Question of Attribution

Politically, the East Germans are sailing in the waters of the new right to a markedly higher degree than their share in the population of the Federal Republic would suggest, and a good number of them are splashing about in the far-right swamp. How can we explain this?

A view that has predominated for some time now places the blame with the GDR, portraying the situation as a delayed consequence of the second German dictatorship. Unlike West Germans, after the war the East stumbled almost directly from one “totalitarian regime” to the next. They are said to have adapted, both outwardly and inwardly, to the norms of a largely “closed society”, and developed a collective habitus with unmistakeably authoritarian traits. Suddenly freed into the “open society” after the democratic awakening of 1989 and their subsequent accession into the Federal Republic, they frequently experienced this abrupt transition as a shock, and clung on to their psychological heritage in order to cope. They thus blockaded their own subjective arrival in the West, and their integration into the “free and democratic constitutional order”. Their aversion to the new, the foreign, and foreigners; their phobias; their racism, by turns latent and manifest; these are allegedly due to the baggage that the GDR left with its former citizens, and which they have failed to cast off.

Assuming that this analysis is accurate, a question immediately confronts us: why was this toxic dowry, if not entirely disposed of over the course of the past three decades of German history, then at least somewhat depleted? The question is directed at the persuasiveness of the new German society for the inhabitants of the former East. To avoid it by simply skipping over this chapter of history as though it were not worth more thorough investigation, and instead stubbornly pointing at the GDR as the root of all evil, is ignorant. Certainly, until 1989 East Germans lived in a society that was highly homogeneous in ethnic and cultural terms. Its rapid transformation into an arena of economic globalization and cultural and religious diversity frequently caused distress and insecurity, leading to reactionary, defensive responses that escalated in the early 1990s. The fact that at the time it was mainly young people who were spearheading the xenophobia does indeed point back to the GDR, especially to its final decade.

To unambiguously convey their rejection of the state and the confinement and paternalism of everyday life, some young people resorted to radical means of expression. Hooligans chanted racist slogans, laid waste to trains, brawled with law enforcement. Others directed their frustration at “leftist” bands or environmental movements, adorned themselves with Nazi symbols, and openly presented themselves as fascists. The outbreaks and attacks during the first years of reunification had their roots in the (late) GDR. But the further we get from that era and move towards the more immediate present, the more questionable this type of attribution becomes. Today, the average age of East Germans is under 50. Most have lived the majority of their lives under the altered circumstances of a reunified Germany, especially those who are currently taking their right-wing or extreme right views to the streets.

Those who straightforwardly blame the GDR for the contemporary hostility to democracy in the East are committing a threefold error. Firstly, they infantilize the inhabitants of the East by declaring their experience since 1989 irrelevant—as though the circumstances of their lives after the GDR had left no mental traces. Furthermore, they fail to analyse habits inherited from the GDR in their contradictory complexity and characterize them one-dimensionally as handicaps, burdens that it is high time to throw off. Lastly, they justify—almost as if on command—the aberrations, the injustices, and the slights that accompanied the upheavals of reunification, leaving countless people lost and disoriented, and temporarily or permanently stamping them as second class citizens. The habitual exclusion of post-reunification history from the examination of the causes of the so-called “rightward lean” of the inhabitants of the former East is guided by vested interests. It is ideology, plain and simple.

The autumn of 1989 would never have been achieved by cowed bootlickers, that much is clear. It was precisely because the East German state in practice denied its citizens basic democratic rights that the desire for political and civic self-determination was so widespread and lively. Today’s apologists suppress this dialectic. Uwe Johnson, the author of the Anniversaries tetralogy who left the GDR in 1959, knew it well. “One could say”, he remarked in a 1964 interview, “that the idea of a democratic government is more vivid, more sharply contoured, in a state that is not governed democratically. The lack of democracy gives democracy a much more decisive form; and the intense and often very extensive intrusions by the state into the personal lives of its citizens cause it to crystallize even more clearly.”

Rereading Johnson’s words in the current context is highly recommended (“Wo ich her bin ...” Uwe Johnson in der DDR, edited by Roland Berbig and Erdmut Wizisla, Berlin 1994), once again in relation to the question of why so many East Germans have turned their backs on the democracy that they themselves brought about through their dedicated struggle.

The Cost of Silence

Until recently, there was still a decisive lack of a realistic and unvarnished picture of the social upheavals in the East and their practical consequences—both on behalf of the government and in the mass media. Those in power especially did not deign to take an interest in the matter for quite some time, and only began to grasp the seriousness of the situation once the electorate between the Elbe and the Oder began dancing out of step, noticeably entertaining the attentions of the extreme right. Only then were these delayed realizations grappled with. Take Martin Dulig, for instance, the Social Democratic Party's Commissioner for the New Federal States, in an article in Das Parlament on 1 October 2018:

The post-reunification era is over, but we are only now beginning to come to terms with it. It was a central mistake not to debate publicly the upheavals, the grievances, and the injustices of that time. It’s time now to talk about the form and the problems of the systemic transformation, one which took place under the banner of market radicalism.

In a conversation with Die Zeit on 3 March 2019, Günter Nooke, the long-time Speaker for the Christian Democratic Union’s East German representatives in the Bundestag, acknowledged the defeat of the old policy of “working through” the past:

I remember giving a speech in the Bundestag at the time. … It goes without saying that I spoke about East Germany. Because it is my view that if you don’t know the East, you also can’t demand anything on its behalf. A day later, I drove to Thuringia, to visit to the then-Prime Minister, Bernhard Vogel. … Vogel asked me not to play the “East card”. He was of the opinion that to do so would be to argue for splitting the country. … That was the zeitgeist at the time. Some were so intoxicated by reunification that they said: we must under no conditions jeopardize all this by continuing to draw distinctions between East and West. … West Germans were happy to hear criticism of the Socialist Unity Party, but criticism of the current situation in the East? Better not. Today, we find ourselves in a situation where, in many ways, the East feels neither represented nor understood. My generation did not manage to solve this problem; now the younger generation has to see what they can do about it.

So it is time for a working-through of the working-through process—its one-sidedness and its missed chances. A discussion of mistakes, an identification of the true causes for the troubling rightward shift in the political spectrum in the new states, which requires a conceptual change of gears, and towards which Dulig has provided a salient hint: systemic transformation under the banner of market radicalism. This gets us to the heart of the problem. The main key to explaining this undeniably dire situation is to be found in the 1990s, particularly in the first half of that decade.

More Capitalism!

To this day, the majority of East Germans who can actually remember living through the years immediately after reunification tell stories that revolve around a historically unprecedented economic decimation of the entire acceding territory. Of the 150 large companies in the GDR with more than 5,000 employees 145 vanished almost immediately, as did the social, medical, and cultural institutions connected to them. Life drained out of wide swathes of the country, and social interaction was brought to an almost immediate standstill. The centres of this social interaction closed their doors; trains often went by without stopping; buses began to come less frequently; the sense of provincial isolation deepened and spread. Those who still had ambitions for their lives tried to get as far away as possible, and millions of East Germans did precisely this in the early 1990s. Anybody who kept their job or found a new one considered themselves lucky, and because of this privilege accepted non-collectively bargained employment conditions. Otherwise, there was the threat of precarious employment, temporary and agency work, workfare-style programmes, or unemployment—the metamorphosis from citizen to client of public service providers, to welfare recipient, the embodiment of a deep and still unhealed wound.

Within a few years the former East was turned into a test-bed for a harsher and more individually oppressive style of capitalism. “Any work is better than no work!”, “anything that creates work, no matter how bad, is socially beneficial!”—these were the slogans of the time. The East was in this sense “avant-garde”, since the conditions and forms of behaviour rehearsed here were supposed to usher in a paradigm shift in value creation throughout the entire country—a turn away from participatory capitalism and its replacement by market-compliant democracy.

East Germany’s post-reunification experience was characterized by extensive economic damage and social rejection, which fuelled doubts about democracy among hundreds of thousands of individuals. Although it was singular for the breath-taking pace at which the formal and functional transformation of capitalism occurred, the East German experience nonetheless corresponds to that of millions of people who underwent the same upheavals only over a more extended time period, and who in addition never lived even a single day under a dictatorship. In the Rust Belt of the United States, in the classic industrial regions of England and France, the same radical restructuring of economy and society took place with the same result: the mass alienation of citizens from democratic institutions, systems, and processes, and the complementary rise of nationalistic, vulgar-democratic tendencies and parties. The GDR has nothing whatsoever to do with this aspect of the issue.

Two Ways of Looking at Democracy

Basic democratic rights, ties with the West, a social market economy—these were the three pillars on which the Federal Republic stood and evolved since its foundation in May 1949. West Germans were provided with a prefabricated democratic framework put together by the Parliamentary Council under the mentorship of the Western Allies. Its economic underpinnings, likewise planned in advance, indeed already conceived during the war years, proved durable and capable of expansion and brought West Germans a tangible, lasting improvement in their material conditions. It was no miracle—as the notion of the West German “Miracle on the Rhine” might suggest—but the upward trend was consistent. The longer it lasted the more the sense of having pretty much got everything right tended to solidify, and so citizens gradually grew accustomed to the political and legal framework of the new polity.

The script for the reunification process of 1990 and beyond turned this sequence on its head in every respect. This time, democracy was won from below; reunification was affirmed by the majority and pushed through against all objections and doubts. As soon as basic rights and elementary freedoms for everyone were guaranteed—the primary goal of the democratic awakening—millions of East Germans lost their economic and social footing. Ground gained in terms of political and legal self-determination went hand in hand with losses in socio-economic terms. The ground upon which one was moving caved in, and it was precisely this which undermined any identification with the framework within which the movement took place. Without accounting for this basic contradiction, the entire subsequent development is incomprehensible.

Without this realization it is impossible to understand either the arduous fight for self-assertion in the first half of the 1990s or the burgeoning anti-democratic affects of the second half of the current decade—which could have taken on far more unpleasant forms even back then, had the tears of disappointment and rage not been dried on pillows provided by the parliamentary and democracy-oriented left. Since the 2015 refugee crisis, this marriage of convenience suffered undeniable damage; whether it is permanent remains to be seen. Since then significant sections of the frustrated and disgruntled have been addressing their protests to the rightward pole of the political landscape. Now they are moving towards a general balancing of accounts with the “system” and its supporting strata. The reprivatization that took place under the Treuhandanstalt (a government agency established to sell off the GDR state economy), new welfare laws, bank bailouts, open borders for refugees—all decided and implemented from above and without their consent; “enough’s enough, it’s our turn now”. And all of a sudden, politicians, journalists, and academics start flocking to the East, a place they had spurned for so long, to find out what is going wrong. “Then we’ve done the right thing”, say those who had previously been written off. “That was exactly the objective of our radical protest: to bring public recognition to our situation, and the misery that prevails here.”

The East as a Lesson

The shock-waves from the earthquake of the early post-reunification years are still reverberating today, and force us to take stock: economic decimation, emigration, infrastructural atrophy, and the ageing and disproportionately male “remaining population”. This is not the case for the entire East, but certainly throughout substantial zones. Whether to stay or go—the crucial question under the GDR—now poses itself anew for every subsequent generation. And it is answered, in the critical regions, in the good old-fashioned way. Those with more mobility, ambition, and youth, those with better marks at school, are leaving. In doing so they weaken the social middle, that guarantor par excellence of the defence of democratic achievements. The East German middle class is as it were “by nature” more vulnerable, more threatened with downward mobility, since it is considerably poorer in resources than its West German counterpart. The mass exodus only further erodes potential for political mobilization. Often it finds itself fighting battles that have already been lost when the radical right is on the march. It is not at all rare for sub-fractions of the middle class to join these marches.

Spokespeople, adherents, and sympathizers of this right-wing movement are made all the more confident by knowledge of the power they derive from the weakness emerging in the East German middle class and civil society. The more that those with the capacity to defy the far right emigrate, the greater its political strength on the ground becomes in electorates and communities. This in turn gives the final push to leave to those who find the situation difficult to bear—completing a vicious circle. Any remaining doubt about this relationship was cleared up in a comprehensive and detailed dossier on East-West emigration published by Die Zeit in its 2 May 2019 edition. The more pronounced the outflow, the more intensely blue—the colour ascribed to the AfD party—the political landscape becomes. Harking back to the GDR does not make this correlation any more plausible.

The lesson to be drawn from this dilemma is straightforward, and can be understood by anyone who bothers to think about it. Such comprehensive, radical social restructuring as that which took place in the Eastern states of Germany after 1990 ought first and foremost to bolster the resources and the strength of the local population. The rapidly spreading socio-economic demobilization of the population of East Germany was a calamity that should not have happened, and whose consequences, now visible everywhere, are affecting the entire country. Vita activa is the mother of democracy, and this spirit, this attitude of participation primarily on the basis of one’s own resources in an autonomous fashion, came to a premature halt in far too many instances once the main objective—the conquest of democratic freedoms—was achieved.


The development sketched out here does have one positive aspect—as long as we know what to do with it. The rise of the new right has led to a repoliticization of society. Electoral participation is rising, party profiles are becoming more sharply defined, and the now extensively differentiated channels of public opinion reflect the growing polarization of moods while also intensifying them. The pressure to take sides is growing. Political spectators are turning into political actors. And that is a good thing.

Taking action means making decisions that could have been made differently. It would be a lie to claim that circumstances dictate anybody’s will. Even the most oppressive living conditions bring forth a variety of individual responses. There are dozens of reasons—to bring the East into play once more—why the professional frustration-mongers find such popularity here. Not one of these reasons justifies joining the camp of the new right. There is no emergency, not even a social one, which could be invoked to justify this decision. Hannah Arendt, in her 1964 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, said all that needs to be said on this point.

If the defendant excuses himself on the ground that he acted not as a man but as a mere functionary whose functions could just as easily have been carried out by anyone else, it is as if a criminal pointed to the statistics on crime — which set forth that so-and-so many crimes per day are committed in such-and-such a place — and declared that he only did what was statistically expected, that it was mere accident that he did it and not somebody else, since after all somebody had to do it.

The political right, and the radical right in particular, have always known how to conceal the true causes of the widespread unease about social conditions, and it won’t come to grips with them in the present moment either. To opt for the right is to choose against one’s own existential necessities. It is possible to be cognizant of this—and many are. They act against their better knowledge in order to express their justified anger. That is their weak spot, and that is where they are vulnerable.