Written by: Nathan Stoltzfus, Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies, Florida State University
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 first 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 thirtieth anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on how challenging it is for humans to really make sacrifices for those outside our group, and what more the German government might have done to really make the East bloom on a scale with the West.
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.
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Nathan Stoltzfus does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.