Project Germany: The past, the present, and peace

German reunification not without problems, tensions

by Rita Forbes and Valerie German

Although 18 years have passed since Germany’s reunification, difficulties remain today. With reunification, East Germany was essentially absorbed into West Germany. The West German constitution, currency and social market economy were all adopted in the east.

“It’s a very difficult task to change a whole society,” said Dr. Eckart Klein, a law professor at Potsdam University and founder/director of the university’s Human Rights Center. “Mistakes have been made. Some people from the west came and felt like victors, and behaved badly here in the east... and so there were some hostilities between east and west at the beginning. And this takes time [to be resolved].”

Klein studied law in West Germany and Switzerland. In 1993, he moved to the city of Potsdam in the east. Besides teaching in universities across Europe and in the United States, he was also a member of the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee for seven years and is currently in his third term as an ad hoc judge in the European Court of Human Rights.

When Klein first arrived in Potsdam, three years after reunification, he could see obvious differences between East and West German students.

“[East German students] were much more disciplined than students coming from the west,” he said. “Because they were drilled, you know. In school and in the military, they had to obey, and that continued in university in the former communist part of Germany. Of course western students had their own way of life – all liberty and freedom!”

Over time, those distinctions have slowly disappeared.

“Today you don’t see any difference from young students coming from here or coming from the western part,” Klein said.

Resentment sometimes lingers beneath the surface, however.

The introduction of a new economy brought with it new problems. Unemployment had been virtually nonexistent in East Germany before reunification. In May of this year, the region had an unemployment rate of 13.4%, over double the rate of 6.4% in the west, according to the Federal Employment Agency.

“After the reunification, there were a lot of utterings of ‘national solidarity’ and so on, but it was nothing but big bubbles,” said Dr. Bernd Hübinger, vice president of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. “And so what did they do? The French, Germans, Swiss, etc. sold very much to the eastern Germans, but no new factories were built there to create Arbeitsplätze, jobs. Billions of marks, even trillions, went to the eastern parts, to build up the infrastructure, the streets and so on. And what you see now, is the streets are better than here in the west. There are a lot of new houses. But no real new jobs.”

Many people with close ties to the communist government lost their jobs when East and West Germany were reunified. Klein said their children often still resent this today.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “I’ve heard it when I spoke with students coming from this region. In contrast to the parents – if the parents lost their job, they usually knew why. And well, they were not pleased, but in a way they accepted it, because they could see it intellectually, why they lost their job. ... The children said, ‘It’s injustice that has been done to my parents or grandparents, that they have lost everything that they had before.’ They could not understand that their parents and grandparents were probably deeply involved in the former system. And so the younger generation felt injustice more than the older people.”

Even after reunification, young people did not always receive objective information about their nation and its past. With the shift from communism to democracy, new forms of education were needed. But teachers accustomed to teaching Marxism-Leninism often remained in office.

“The societal elites were replaced for the most part,” said Dr. Rainer Eckert. “But that was not the case in the schools. School teachers almost always retained their jobs. Many of the history teachers after 1990 were also history teachers earlier, and of course they had a different viewpoint. Some of them were not interested in portraying East Germany in a critical light or teaching their students about the Peaceful Revolution.”

Eckert grew up in East Germany. His opposition to the government resulted in political persecution; in 1972, he was barred from continuing his studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Today he is an author, university professor, and director of the Forum of Contemporary History, a museum in Leipzig featuring comprehensive exhibits about “dictatorship and resistance” in East Germany.

“I never considered East Germany my home,” he said. “I rejected the political system. But today, Germany is my home. ... I see the country positively, both as my home and as a political system – a democracy.”

But not everyone shares this positive view of the democratic system.

A survey commissioned by the newspaper Leipziger Volkszeitung in April found that only 44% of people in the east believe in the workings of democracy. This was borne out in Germany’s last federal elections, held in 2005. The extreme left-wing party “Die Linke,” which has ties to East Germany’s SED party, garnered 25.3% of the vote in eastern Germany, compared with just 4.9% in western Germany.

Eckert thinks this dissatisfaction is related to real or perceived inequity. Prior to reunification, people had become accustomed to receiving more or less the same salary as everyone else. A manager might make three times as much money as an average worker. Today, the ratio is closer to one to three hundred.

“These big distinctions, they disturb the people very much,” Eckert said. “They feel they don’t have a voice. They can vote, but they feel that they have damned little to do with the power.”

“[East Germans] are disillusioned, partly,” Klein said. “You know, they have been used to free elections and the freedom of expression since 1949 in the western part of Germany. Of course here it is already 18 years since reunification, but many people said from the beginning that it takes one generation [to achieve unity]. So that means more or less 30 years.”

The hope is that with time, as new generations of Germans grow up in a reunified nation, the inequalities between east and west will finally and forever be dissolved.