Thirty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall triggered a process that would see East and West Germany reunified one year later. German chancellor Angela Merkel is marking Saturday’s anniversary at the Berlin Wall Memorial, commemorating the events that brought the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) back into the fold.
But one month ago on Unity Day, 3 October, a public holiday on which Germany celebrates this reunification, the chancellor herself acknowledged that it is a process far from complete.
Merkel – who, although born in Hamburg, grew up in East Germany and began her political career as a spokesperson for the DDR’s first democratically elected pre-unification government in 1990 – quoted a government poll showing that the majority of eastern Germans (57 per cent) feel like “second class citizens” and do not believe reunification has been a success.
According to this year’s status of reunification report – produced annually by the federal government since 1997 – wages, salaries and disposable income in eastern Germany are now at around 85 per cent of the level in the west of the country. Economic output is at 75 per cent of that of the west, compared to 43 per cent in 1990, and last year GDP rose by more in the east than the west – 1.6 per cent compared to 1.4 per cent.
However, only 38 per cent of Germans in the former East feel that reunification has been successful and among those under 40, who only knew life in the DDR as children, if at all, the figure drops to 20 per cent.
This dissatisfaction was reflected in the results of the recent elections in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, where the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) ran an election campaign based on economic disparity and cultural division, as well as resentment over Merkel’s open-door migration policy.
Arguably, it was a successful tactic. In Thuringia they were beaten by the Left party, but dealt a blow to Merkels’s CDU, taking second place with 23 per cent of the vote. The party doubled its 2014 result in Brandenburg and tripled it in Saxony, coming second in each with 23 per cent and 27 per cent of the vote respectively. AfD polls around 14 per cent nationally.
While Merkel acknowledged the divisions exploited by the AfD in her Unity Day speech, her minister for the “new states”, Christian Hirte, chose to focus on the positives when speaking to Euronews.
Citing figures from the government’s reunification status report that referred to questions asked about “individual living conditions” as opposed to conditions in the country as a whole (or not, as opinion may have it), he said: “The figures say it all very clearly: Germany’s reunification is an impressive success story. Seventy per cent of the people in former East Germany now regard themselves as beneficiaries of reunification.
“It has to be said, though, that this was not easy to achieve, particularly in the early years. The transformation towards a market economy with free markets took its toll on the people in eastern Germany. Many have seen their lives changed completely. By contrast, the only thing that changed in former West Germany, as people like to say, was the postcodes.”
Speaking on 3 October in the northern city of Kiel, Merkel asked: “Where are we today, almost 30 years later? The official German reunification is complete. The unity of Germans was not complete on October 3, 1990 and it is not today.
“So German unity is not a condition, something which is finished and complete. It is an ongoing process, a continuous task, a process which concerns all Germans, no matter what state they live in.”
So how would ordinary Germans, from states across the country, born on either side of the border, answer Merkel’s question? Thirty years after the fall of the Wall, how unified is Germany?
Andreas Schmidt, 49, an account manager at Panasonic, grew up in Lübeck, then West Germany, just a few kilometres from the border with East Germany. For him, the Iron Curtain loomed large.
“When I was younger, I went to the border from time to time with my grandma. From there, we were able to see the house where she was born, located in the security zone between West and East. At the border, there was a small restaurant called At the End of the World. And in my small boy’s imagination I thought that if I ran towards the border, I would eventually fall off the Earth.”
Photographer Julia Fisahn, 36, is from what was East Berlin, where she still lives. As a child she was not aware of the divide in the country, but rather thought of West Germany, and even West Berlin, as an entirely separate place, one that she just couldn’t go to because it wasn’t her country. Although she does remember that some “special” people were allowed to go.
“My dad’s cousin (who was like a grandmother to me and my brothers) was allowed to move to West Germany when she retired in the early 1980s. She would come to visit us once or twice a year and we would pick her up at Bahnhof Friedrichstraße, which is where the trains from West Germany would arrive. The hall at that train station was known as the Palace of Tears.
“Most exciting to me was the Intershop at the train station, where you could buy West German products, but only with non-DDR money. When my ‘grandma’ came to visit she would get us Hubba-Bubba chewing gum and Nutella. It was a dream.”
Julia’s family were members of the Catholic church, and as a result, not members of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, the East German Communist Party), which caused difficulties for the family, as did other connections.
She remembers: “Because my dad’s oldest brother lived in Cologne, the Stasi kept a file on our family. We obviously didn’t learn about this until much later, but I do know my parents were aware of being watched. When my mum would phone a friend, I remember her saying sometimes, oh, we’re not alone anymore, after hearing a clicking sound on the connection.
“There were certain houses in the neighborhood that we knew were Stasi houses, so our parents reminded us to stay clear of them. My brothers had issues at school sometimes. They weren’t allowed to become class speakers, even though the other kids wanted them to, because they were not part of the Pioniere [the DDR youth organisation].”
Franz Weisbrod, 50, from near Cologne, was very much aware of the divide. From 1988 he was an officer in the West German army.
“That time was the period of the Cold War and we had a general plan of defence right at the East German border. They forecast a survival period of three minutes in case of a war,” he says.
Even growing up he had an understanding of the situation in the country, having taken part in youth group visits to East Germany to meet with DDR teenagers. He recalls: “You could really see big differences. There were restrictions, no liberty, many things were forbidden, the border area was very heavily patrolled. And it was a very oppressive feeling.”
It was not one, however, that he was able to discuss with anyone from the partner youth group. “In East Germany there were minimum two and a half, maybe three million people working for the Stasi as informer spies, so everybody was very much aware of what they were telling even their best friends or relatives, because there was a high likelihood that this would be passed on to the local authorities. So people were being careful with what they were telling us.”
Former nurse Inga Michaelis, 40, is originally from the former West German port of Bremerhaven, which was under American control prior to reunification. She recalls that under US administration, the city flourished, as American soldiers arrived, bringing with them their spending power. She says that East Germany was not something that was spoken about to children in her family, despite the fact that the division of the country in the wake of the Second World War had had stark consequences close to home.
“My father and his two siblings stayed behind in East Germany while my grandfather was imprisoned in West Germany by the American army after the war. My grandfather wasn’t able to track down his family after he was released and so he settled in Bavaria.
“My father and his siblings fled from the Allied forces to Latvia. Then the Russians came from the other side and my grandmother took my father and his brother back to the area around Halle in East Germany, while his oldest brother, who was seven at the time, remained in Latvia, where a local farmer pretended he was his son. He wasn’t allowed to speak any German and they renamed him too. After the war, nobody was able to trace him. He was only found ten years ago through the German Red Cross.
“Growing up in East Germany, my father tried several times to flee the DDR, but he failed and served some jail time. He made it out when he managed to find a job on one of the ships in the DDR port of Rostock and then went to Bremerhaven in the West. He spent years trying to find his father and once he did, they remained in close contact and we visited him often. My father didn’t have any contact with his mother or brother who had remained in the East until the reunification. I had no knowledge of any of this until the day the borders opened and my father announced, we are going to the East.”
Andreas, from the border town of Lübeck, was 20 when Germany was reunified, in October 1990. Within days, his home city was flooded with East Germans arriving in their little Trabant cars. He remembers both traffic jams and joy.
“No one believed this would ever happen. On Christmas Eve, the border crossing where I had stood with my grandma in the past was opened for pedestrians and I went across with my father. He was pale and nervous crossing the border. For me, it was like travelling into the past as the security zone had been untouched for 50 years, basically since the war. For me it looked like a movie set.”
Experiencing reunification as a seven-year-old in East Berlin, Julia remembers very specific advantages.
“My cousin lived in West Berlin and I got to visit her and could play with her cute bunnies. They had such cool and different supermarkets in West Germany with such different brands. And so much to choose from, it was mind-blowing.
“The night of the fall of the Wall I especially remember because my dad came home after taking photographs of what was happening and he brought me a new stuffed animal – a penguin – from West Berlin, and it was the softest plush animal I’d ever touched. For some reason, the East German ones just weren’t as soft – a huge deal for a little kid.”
The events of November 1989 did, however, come with a tinge of bitterness for Julia’s family. She remembers: “After my dad ordered his Stasi file to be released, he found out that our very nice neighbours had spied on us. He was sure they were forced to do it, but still, it was a shock.”
Retired teacher Eva Kloiber, 70, was born in Chemnitz, in former East Germany, and now lives in Memmingen in the west. Aged 40 at the time of reunification, she had already lived in West Germany for 20 years, after escaping the DDR in 1969, because, in her words: “I was young and I liked to be free.”
Recalling life in the DDR, she says: “The SED party [of which Eva’s father was a member, although she says he did not influence her in this] told you what you have to believe, what you have to do. Young people only got a university place if they were an SED party member. Many people were watching over you, what you did or said. A criticism, a joke, could put you in jail.
“I experienced the reunification on the television. It wasn`t so emotional for me, because it didn`t change anything in my life. But I was really happy for my friends, still living in Chemnitz. I admired the courage of all those people to go out and demonstrate. But those peaceful demonstrations were only possible because the USSR under Gorbachev gave the DDR [freedom]. Demonstrations in former years were prevented by the support of Russian army forces.”
For Franz, as a soldier in the West German army, the changes were immediate. “Lots of bases in the West were closed and machinery was given away to Turkey and other countries, so there was not much left.”
For him, the economic consequences of reunification were also soon apparent, after the government in 1991 introduced the so-called “solidarity tax” – a 5.5% levy on personal income intended to level the playing field across the newly unified country.
The move was part of ambitious measures announced by then Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who promised former East Germans the same standard of living as their western counterparts, in what, given the continuing economic deficit 30 years later, was an ultimately unrealistic timeframe.
Professor Dr Reimut Zohlnhöfer, of Heidelberg University’s Institute for Political Science, believes hindsight has not been kind to the policies put in place.
“To be fair to the policy makers at the time, the insecurity was enormous, you didn’t have a clue what was going to happen and all they could think of was the West German experience,” he says.
“There were expectations that were much too high, that were unrealistic to begin with. Politicians didn’t do a lot to reduce these expectations, to manage these expectations, in any meaningful way. This is very difficult, if you have elections coming.
“But on the other hand, [I think these frustrations were unavoidable]. East Germans were living in the same country with other people who were not having these problems because they didn’t have to experience the economic transformation.”
The majority of Germans will stop paying the solidarity tax from 2021, although a spokesperson for the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy told Euronews that establishing equivalent standards of living in eastern and western Germany remains a key objective. The government in July this year announced a new funding system designed to benefit economically and structurally weaker parts of the country across east and west, commencing in January 2020.
Franz recalls resentment at the introduction of the tax. “For my generation, we were brought up when the Wall was built already, so for us it was a different country, like Austria or Switzerland. We didn’t feel this was part of our country. For the older generation it was different, the older generation witnessed when the Wall was being built and the country was divided.”
The economic downsides to reunification were immediately felt in Inga’s home town of Bremerhaven. Aged ten in October 1990, she recalls: “After the unification, the Americans started to leave. And this hit our town hard. Many people blamed the opening of the borders for this, unable to see the greater good behind it.”
The effects were also felt in her own family, causing a rift during a long-awaited visit to her uncle in the East. “I could feel the underlying jealousy of my uncle’s wife, because of all the things we had in the West. Like my dad’s car, a BMW – when they had had to wait for many years to get a Trabant. The fact that we could travel when and where we wanted, the things we could buy. She was very bitter about it.
“I only saw my uncle and his wife once more, at my granddad’s funeral. As my dad [had a good income], he declined his part of the inheritance to give it to his brother. But my uncle wasn’t happy with the amount of money he got and accused my father of keeping money for himself. They fell out over this and never reconnected.”
Success or failure
“No one knew what was the best way of reunification. There were no plans what to do when the border came down,” says Andreas.
For him, although he feels the process went as smoothly as it possibly could, reunification did not immediately lead to unity. He remembers: “West Germans started to feel that a lot of their old status was gone. Lübeck, for instance, always got extra money because it was directly on the border. This stopped after reunification and people saw that more money went into the east.”
And this divide is something that continues today, he feels, although with the resentment coming now from the other side. “In the heads of East Germans, I have the feeling they still think they are the losers of reunification. I think there are still borders in people’s heads. At the time of reunification the West German system was introduced completely to East Germany. Nothing was kept of what was maybe also good in East Germany. For them it must still feel like an invasion by West into East.”
Julia agrees that Germans are still a divided people, and that this is a rift that exists mostly in the collective imagination rather than in reality. She sees time as the only way to mend it.
“It might not be until the older generations that have lived through the divide will have passed and the post-reunification generations will be able to take over [that this will change]. I myself, even though I was only seven when we reunified, still [make the divide].
“For example, I would not really want to live in former West Berlin districts. The areas I’ve lived in have all been in former East Berlin. I can’t really explain it, but I guess I still see it as ‘my’ part of Berlin as opposed to the ‘other’. I go to western parts of the city all the time and I like it there, but I couldn’t live there. Strange, but true.”
For Franz, the cause of what he affirms is an existing divide is clear: “Politically, the east is very different. When you look at the elections we had recently, in the east you seem to have very high dissatisfaction with the current system. I do a lot of business in eastern Germany and I see that there are a lot of differences. If you have a highly skilled engineer who’s on maybe €5,000 euros per month in the west, this guy is on maybe €2,500 in the east. So economic factors are the principal reason for the divide.”
“Sometimes I think people couldn’t handle the freedom, all of a sudden… the freedom to do and say whatever you want, go wherever you want… goods being available whenever wanted or needed,” says former West German Inga.
“And with all this freedom, they still compared themselves to the ones who lived in the West, thinking these people still have more and better things. At the same time, the people from the West were annoyed by the demands the people.from the East had, thinking they should just be happy to not to be locked up in their country anymore.”
Looking to the future
For Inga, the solution to this divide is a change in attitude, more than anything concrete. She adds: “The new generations are having the old standards, the false hopes and high expectations and grudges, taught from early childhood. People put people into boxes, labelling them.”
The youth of Germany are the key to change for Julia too, who says: “Put the people born after reunification in charge. My nephew was born in 1998 and is a university student now. His friends are from all over Germany, probably all over Europe, and he doesn’t care one bit. To him, the Wall is this interesting piece of history that existed in his country and he looks at it like we look at the happenings of the Second World War. It’s interesting, but we’re glad it’s over.”
Andreas feels that there is not much more to do, other than acknowledge this fact. “I think finally the [differences between eastern and western] things like minimum wage and pensions should be stopped, as well as the solidarity tax, as a sign that we are finished.”
Prof Zohlnhöfer agrees that the time may have come to move on, citing differences between the north and south of the country as evidence that the divide between east and west is perhaps more emotional than material.
He says: “Of course there are strong differences still between the western part and the eastern part. You can see that in election results and political culture. Having said that, it’s also important to know that there are differences between other parts of Germany, in terms of economic development and also with regard to religiosity and with which parties people tend to vote for. The Christian Democrats are usually more successful in the south than in the north, for example.
“In addition to that, if you look at other federal countries, there’s always a certain amount of diversity between parts of the country, for example in the US, but even in countries like Switzerland which is much smaller. So yes, there are differences between western and eastern Germany, and they are probably related to where people were socialised, but it’s very difficult to imagine a situation in which there would not be any differences between the two parts of the country.
“We might need to just accept that there differences within the country. There are just as strong divides between Bremen and Bavaria.”
For Eva, the time to move on is still to come.
“To make the country more unified we need much more time. We have only 30 years behind us.”