Germany, the half post-communist country whose legacy we forget10 min read
October 3rd marked a major holiday throughout Germany: der Tag der deutschen Einheit, or German Reunification Day. This year celebrated 28 years since the official reunification of Germany in 1990, a country once literally split in half by opposing poles and ideologies. Indeed, the grand symbol of the collapse of communism took place within Germany in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. While it was once where East and West met, the entire country is now largely considered to be in Western Europe. However, the area of former East Germany still lags dramatically behind in growth, productivity, and wages. Hardly any of Germany’s most successful corporations come from the east. And now, the region is associated with the parliamentary successes of right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and a rise in extreme right mobilization. Germany’s eastern frontier is arguably facing many issues that originated from the collapse of its previous system – so why do we neglect it when looking at the post-communist region?
The 28 years of German reunification were celebrated this year in Berlin in the form of a three-day festival taking place at various locations all throughout the city. This year’s celebration, like in previous years, was multifaceted; exhibitions of every German state allowed visitors to take trips throughout the country, discussions and workshops sparked conversations of the past, and musical performances by major German artists such as Nena and Samy Deluxe kept the party going well into the night. To promote the festivities was a motto used in the press and through social media: Nur mit euch, or “only with you.” However, such a seemingly innocent motto calling to celebrate the unity of Germany comes across as peculiar in 2018. On one hand, it could have been calling on the “you,” the collective German people, to celebrate unity. On the other, it could be highlighted as a clear divide in German society, that easterners are still a “you” for many in the country’s western states and vice versa.
If you dig long enough through media, interviews and scholarly journals, you’ll find that every possible explanation can be found for the east’s split from the west; economic disparities, intolerance of foreigners, unbalanced demographics, popularity of far-right groups, and simply diverging mentalities commonly appear as examples of a continuing east-west schism. Arguably, one of the world’s most peaceful transformations is still not over; the absorption of East Germany into the West, while a much smoother transition than the case of many of Germany’s neighbors, still has resulted in a slough of problems for the country to this day. Personally, I don’t think they should be overlooked.
While you could dissect all the various problems that the east faces, let’s focus on two aspects that seem to constantly circulate in German media. So where do we begin with our look at a post-communist Germany? Ah, yes, I suppose it might be best to address the elephant in the room…
The Nazi Problem
Depending on who you talk to, the topic of Neo-Nazis in Germany either comes as a complete shock or a no-brainer. Reactions are usually one or the other, often along the lines of “What? Nazis in Germany? I thought they learned their lesson!” or “Of course there are still Nazis in Germany, haven’t you been to the east?”
Neo-Nazis find themselves in pockets all around Germany in both the east and west. However, the prevalence of Neo-Nazis in the east coincides with high numbers of hate crimes, and their ability to organize in the east has concerned many across the country. The most recent example was protests in Chemnitz this past August, sparked by the killing of a German-Cuban man with four migrants named as suspects by the police. Numbers in the Chemnitz protests hit their apex at around 6,000 participants very shortly after the murder, likely due to quick and efficient communication systems by hooligan and Neo-Nazi groups. What really caused concerns with those observing the Chemnitz protests, however, was the fact that average citizens stood side-by-side with those in infamous Neo-Nazi groups, such as Der Dritte Weg. Support for the protests by the far-right AfD party, who similarly finds its largest base in that very state of Saxony, only seemed to increase these groups’ visibility.
Chemnitz should be of no surprise. Neo-Nazi and far-right groups have been organizing in Germany for years now, usually finding a common, apolitical medium to rally around. The German states of Thuringia and Saxony have hosted many such events, often revolving around Rechtsrock, or far-right rock concerts. Rechtsrock concerts, such as that held in 2017 in the Thuringian city of Themar, have attracted upwards of 7,000 concert-goers, more than doubling the actual population of the village. Not to mention that all 7,000 visitors paid a 35 Euro “donation” to enter, likely going straight into the coffers of the well-known Neo-Nazi who organized it.
Alright, so Neo-Nazis are not only a problem of the east, but there seems to be more in the east. So, where’s the correlation? One explanation is that the east contains more Neo-Nazis because the communist regime didn’t operate a denazification initiative like the western-controlled sectors. As citizens of the former East Germany were by default communists, it was seen as impossible for any citizen to be fascist as they were inherently anti-fascist. Therefore, when the Berlin Wall fell and the communist regime was integrated into the free-speaking west, eastern Neo-Nazis could be more open about their ideology. Others argue that an internally inclusive outlook towards citizenship carried over from the past, and is a reason for welcoming an anti-migrant far-right. The former East never witnessed a high level of foreigners during its existence, and those who did immigrate were mostly from East Bloc countries. Integrating with its western half brought a liberalized immigration system with it – something that the east had never experienced before.
There are a platitude of reasons for an increased Neo-Nazi and far-right presence in the former East, and the legacy of the past gives some explanation and context. Nearby post-communist Central European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, have similarly faced an incredibly active and mobilized far-right scene, as seen this weekend in Poland’s independence day march in Warsaw. Germany is still led predominantly by a center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, however, who still largely shuns appealing to this far-right base. Additionally, the eastern states in Germany have always lagged behind in population and now face a looming demographic crisis. While AfD finds a large chunk of its support and voters in the east, this drastic difference in demographics still leads to a Germany politically dominated by the west. Were East Germany a country in 2018, results from last year’s election indicate that the country would show strong support for far-right candidates, leaving us to speculate whether it would also politically fall in line with its post-communist neighbors.
Thus, it seems likely that some elements of the past play a role in the prominence of the east’s far-right activism. Of course, the past can’t be blamed for everything; plenty of countries in the West who have no communist legacy also struggle with such groups today. However, the strong concentration of Neo-Nazi groups and support for far-right parties in the east can be analyzed and understood under this post-communist framework. At times, these issues in the east seem more similar to those of Germany’s neighbors than to the issues of the rest of the country.
The Infamous Economic Divide
If it’s not Nazis that cause people to point fingers, it’s that pesky economy that creates riffs between east and west. And for good reason: Germany struggles to compensate for an east-west economic divide that has troubled it since reunification. The east tails behind in nearly every aspect of the German economy. Unemployment is still higher in the eastern states, with development and productivity lagging behind their western counterparts. Average annual salaries are about 5,000 Euros less in the east than in the west, and workers in the east pull longer hours for lower wages. In fact, the eastern states’ economies are growing at such a slow rate that two states, Brandenburg and Saxony, are expected to be the only two that match the rest of the country’s economic growth rate by 2030. If there is one east-west issue rooted in a post-communist legacy, it is undoubtedly the economy. But why hasn’t the east gotten in line with the rest of Germany over 28 years later?
The integration of Eastern and Western Germany has been called everything from a success to a miracle. When the two states reunified in 1990, state-owned businesses were privatized and integrated into the market, unproductive industrial sites not up to western standards were shut down or reorganized, and new regulations were enforced. Whereas Poland, another post-communist economic “success,” benefited from IMF and World Bank loans, much of the work and investments in Germany came from the German state itself; the West German economy was reinvigorated and living standards in the East were slightly better than its Central European neighbors. This allowed Germany to distinguish itself from other post-communist states. Additionally, high capital and labor mobility, promoted heavily by the Helmut Kohl administration of the newly reunified state, helped converge the two economies rapidly. This self-sufficient, self-integrating Germany was praised by economists around the globe even though it came at a remarkable cost to the west, who even initiated a controversial solidarity tax that still is collected today. Such actions led to one of the smoothest and most peaceful state reunifications in history. Yet, it still came at a cost to the east.
Once reunification was settled, western businesses and investors swooped into the eastern federal states. Many companies in the east ceased to exist nearly overnight, and only a small handful of them live on in the reunified country. In some cases, investors bought out factories and completely dismantled them to free up competition and eliminate inefficient production. However, an attempt to overhaul production in the east was never fully realized; while productivity in the east following reunification stood at 70 percent of the west’s productivity, it had only managed to squeak up to 73 percent by 2012. Most of Germany’s productivity and economic output remains centered in the west, leaving the eastern states to struggle with catching up to this day.
The disparities between east and west largely are attributed to such policy decisions taken in the years following reunification. While investments in the east were incredibly high, they often translated into developing infrastructure through subsidy policies while ignoring the need to promote entrepreneurship. Thus, the companies that survived were often swallowed up by existing western companies rather than being overtaken by entrepreneurial-minded easterners. Rapid deindustrialization followed suit, and the centers of the companies that took over many of the sites in the east moved westwards, along with the productivity.
Pasts remain present
The shadows of that 41-year divide continue to loom over many Germans. For those in the west, the east might feel like a burden; high levels of spending and investments from the west, despite being the leading cause of a successful reunification, have not brought the east perfectly in line with the rest of Germany. Nowadays, with the east commonly being associated with far-right groups and Neo-Nazi movements, westerners are more reluctant than ever to help develop an east that has never fully came full circle. Meanwhile, easterners are right to remain frustrated at an integration process that never seemed to conclude. With higher unemployment rates, lower wages, longer work hours, and higher risks of falling into poverty, the east seems nowhere near reaching an equilibrium with the west. Indeed, a wall from the past still seems to divide Germany economically and socially, and we can (and should) look at the country as part of the post-communist sphere. By ignoring the past and believing that all is well, the east-west divide continues, and potential root causes of problems the country faces today are left unchecked. In our post-communist region, pasts remain present, and Germany is no exception.