Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Everyone on this side of Germany remembers the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, when the extraordinary scenes from Berlin reached this far northern corner of their 40-year-old communist country.
“For me, it was a feeling of catastrophe,” says Lotte Hansen, who was born in 1939, as she strolls around the half-decayed buildings of the “model socialist village” of Mestlin, on the rural outskirts of the Baltic port city of Rostock, in the former East Germany.
“I was teaching in the school when we heard the Berlin Wall had come down. The next day, a couple kids were missing. The next week, even more left to go join relatives in the west. … It was a really terrible time for us. We took it all very personally.”
Ms. Hansen had reason to see the Wall’s demise as a disaster. In 1958, she had been one of the young idealists sent by the Soviet-backed government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to expel land owners and collectivize the farmlands, in her case as a schoolteacher and as the wife of the top local party official.
As they watched the crowds demolishing the Wall and pouring across the death strip, both she and her students understood instantly that this would soon mean the end of their country – although they had very different feelings about it.
Thirty years later, what stands out is not just how vividly people remember that first breaching of Germany’s “internal border,” but the extraordinary extent to which that former border – not just the ring that encircled West Berlin, but the far longer barricade meant to keep 17 million people from fleeing – still shapes the psychological, economic and especially the political lives of the people who remain on the eastern side.
The Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was ever up – it existed for 28 years, from 1961 to 1989.
The GDR itself only ever existed for 41 years, although that was preceded by a decade of brutal war and Nazi savagery.
Since 1990, Germany has spent close to €2-trillion (almost $3-trillion) absorbing the old GDR into a single federal country. Every German adult still pays an annual “solidarity tax,” equivalent to 5.5 per cent of their income tax, to subsidize the construction of an equal society that still, in important ways, remains elusive.
In Rostock, a city that was a thriving shipbuilding hub under the closed economy of the Warsaw Pact, the decade following reunification was tough, and the city became a grim-looking place of abandoned factories and more than 20-per-cent unemployment, known in the media for race riots. Today, that’s hard to see. Rostock is an attractive place, its historic square beautifully restored, its old factories turned into high-tech business, cultural and shopping centres, its population finally growing again. The reunification spending means that the cities of eastern Germany often look more modern, attractive and orderly than those in the west, at least in their centres.
“We’ve had economic development, but only to a certain point,” says Sylvia Grimm, a Rostock native who is a senior official in the state government here in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the most rural of the eastern states. Thirty years ago, she felt a sense of liberation that never left – but for many around her, the optimism fell away. “I was 16 in 1989, and I suddenly had the world at my feet – but it was different for my parents’ generation.”
Ms. Grimm speaks proudly of her state’s progress: Unemployment has fallen to 6.5 per cent, comparable to some of the wealthier states of the west, and in fact there are now labour shortages, and the brain drain of educated people to the west has finally stopped.
But people in the eastern states still earn 20 per cent less than the national average for the same job. None of the largest companies listed on Germany’s stock exchange has moved its headquarters to the east, and when easterners start businesses, it’s usually after they’ve moved to the west.
Within eastern Germany, only a fifth of the people who hold executive positions were born in the east, according to one study. Even police chiefs, city planners and mayors are frequently “wessis” who moved east in the 1990s and 2000s (many from the east seen as capable of filling those jobs, paradoxically, had fled west in the great postreunification exodus).
The flight from the east finally seems to have stopped. Between 1990 and today, at least 3.6 million people – most of them female and educated – moved from the east to the west, in a series of waves, leaving the former GDR with 15 per cent fewer people than it had three decades ago and many cities alarmingly depopulated. Starting this decade, however, that trend reversed: There are now more people moving from west to east, taking advantage of lower housing costs and employment opportunities.
The physical, employment and income differences between the two former countries have gradually lessened – driving from Hamburg to Rostock, or from Hanover to Leipzig, you can no longer tell when you’ve entered the east. In Berlin, the districts that were once on the east side of the wall are noticeably more polished, chic and technologically advanced than many in the west.
But as economies and livelihoods have converged, the political differences between east and west have sharpened, to a profound and alarming degree.
If you look at an electoral map of Germany from the 2017 national election or any of the state elections that have occurred since then, you are looking at a starkly visible dividing line between two very different countries.
On the left side, in the states of the old West Germany, there are now essentially two major parties: Chancellor (and East German) Angela Merkel’s moderately conservative Christian Democratic Union, and the Greens – the ecological party that is now part of the government in 10 of Germany’s 16 states, and is widely expected to overtake the Social Democrats as the second largest national party in next year’s election.
The right side of the map has also recently become a two-party system. The two major eastern parties, which now dominate most state legislatures across the region and represent the most federal MPs sent from the east, are the Left Party – a direct descendent of the communist regime that ruled the GDR – and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), an ultranationalist movement that became a major party in the east after 2015 by adopting harshly anti-immigrant policies and outspoken climate-change denial. Those views have made it a favourite of angry men in less urban areas where immigrants are rarely seen (it had a moment of success in some western states, as a protest vote, but has largely fizzled outside the east).
In Rostock, I met with federal MPs from both of these parties, and I was struck by their similarity. The extreme-left parliamentarian deplored the racism of his right-wing counterpart and had a more polished tone (and did not hide his pre-1989 role in the communist hierarchy), while even the supposedly moderate AfD parliamentarian often sounded like someone writing all-caps comments on a conspiracy-theory YouTube post. But they shared views on Vladimir Putin’s Russia (favourable), on the European Union and its currency (opposed), on immigration (unfavourable) and, notably, on the legacy of reunification – both parties characterize voters in the east as victims.
Why does this former country, almost 30 years after it ceased to exist, still maintain its own, increasingly extreme, political profile?
The “economic victims” argument no longer makes much sense – the people voting AfD here don’t tend to be poor or unemployed, just older and less educated and male.
But that itself is significant: older, less educated men are an inordinately large population group in the former East Germany. “During the 1990s and 2000s, far more women than men left this state,” says Roland Rau, a demographer with the Max Planck Institute. “For example, at least 40 per cent of the women from the 1977 birth cohort ended up leaving Mecklenberg-Western Pomerania,” and those who left tended to be more educated.
One eastern German politician, the Saxony integration minister Petra Kopping, argues in a much-discussed new book that the region is suffering a “crisis of masculinity” that is turning groups of men toward antisocial voting patterns.
But others suggest that those 41 years of life in a walled-up, mono-ethnic society isolated from the outside world and unwilling to face up to its past reshaped the political perspectives of multiple generations in more fundamental ways. Geographer Wolfgang Richter, who as Rostock’s commissioner for foreigners in the early 1990s worked heroically to prevent the city’s infamous anti-immigrant riots from turning deadly, says there was “a foundation of intolerant and racist views in the GDR years,” that were allowed to flourish once the Wall came down.
“There was barely any coexistence with other nationalities in those years,” he tells me. “People of my generation, our grandparents were Nazis, and they sent certain messages to their grandchildren – it was a scapegoat mentality, one that definitely existed in the GDR before 1989. And then the whole thing was made worse by the sudden radical change of reunification – suddenly there was a great degree of frustration and displacement that made all these feelings bubble to the surface.”
When the Berlin Wall opened, it was like a pressure valve – but what escaped was a whole generation’s positive energy, its ambitious young people, its educated women and people eager to find variety and difference. Now, 30 years later, that movement is finally reversing, jobs and creative people are returning eastward. But the psychology of the border remains a dominant force in many minds here, and it will be at least another generation before that wall fully comes down.