Part 8: German Unification, Five Years After

The East-West Blues

Weimar scene, a group of soldiers chatting, statues in background
The Bundeswehr at ease before Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, as a school girl trudges by

So the past surfaces in many ways and constantly informs and charges the present. Questions about guilt, major guilt, involving crimes against real people, complicity with Nazis, or complicity with repressive Communist regimes, are at the base of all post-WWII experience. The end of the former East Germany, the GDR, has produced a similar set of circumstances. Fingers are pointed at many people, along with the question, or suggestion, that they were involved in supporting the secret police state, either as official or in official co-workers, as full or as minor agents of the Stasi, the security police. This is another of the factors that inhibit the real melding of East and West Germans, one that will take a generation to overcome.

Certainly the past thrusts itself strongly into the Germany's present in the form of the skinhead Neo-Nazis. This has been the ugliest aspect of unification. In both East and West,their rampages have killed dozens of people, many times, their targets are helpless foreigners. Hardly a week goes by without an incident. Graveyards and Jewish temples are desecrated. Youth that was unemployed or scarcely employed under the communist regime in East Germany, immediately went on the dole when the West took over. Many youth centers were closed down. These guys get drunk, look for foreigners and bash them. There are of course West German skins as well. Mainly their actions are randomly stupid and done in small groups, but lately, they have been organizing larger and larger gatherings, keeping locations of mass meetings secret to the last moment with cellular phones and telecommunications. Often, especially in the East,the police have been irresolute in their actions. Of late, top police get fired, new people take over and the situation is improving.

But extrapolating a right wing takeover from the actions of the Skinheads and an ascendence of the right-wing in Germany is preposterous. Major changes in the permissive asylum law have pulled the teeth of the political far right, which did not do well in the elections of last month.

ad for West cigarettes, a Greek-god-like man (the west?) offers a cigarette to a huge, suspicious mythological looking woman (the east?)Marlboro cowboy ad
Billboards in Duisburg for "West," a popular cigarette, and for Marlboro, as 'West' as it gets
There are real problems with unification: The high unemployment in the east, combined with the low level of economic growth in the new states is disappointing. East Germans are relatively affluent, but dissatisfied. The fact that they are far better off, than, say, the Poles or the Hungarians, does not interest them. Their affluence is the achievement of the social net and heavy taxes paid by the West Germans, and to a degree the money they accumulated in the past,and their present work. Westerners are convinced that the East is bleeding them dry, the East says the West is not doing enough. Actually, there is mass consumption in the East. Cash reserves from their savings and the social net benefits, like unemployment and pensions,all flow back into the West in the form of profits. Department stores in the East are the only ones showing increasing profits despite the recent recession. And the West is doing its share and then some by providing funds for roads, railroads,housing,telecommunications, pensions, refurbishing schools... everything. Most of East Germany's former industry was of little value. It was sold off by the Government to investors, some of them good, some of them bad. Getting private investment into East Germany has been only partially successful. That is the hardest part of the job,that will take some time to remedy.

So the West complains and so does the East, but then, Germans complain about everything. In 1990, many West Germans believed that nothing would change, either materially or politically. Helmut Kohl, the chancellor, had said originally, read my lips, no new taxes, even in the face of unification. Waking gradually to reality made for a more negative assessment unification in the West. The euphoria was gone soon after the Wall came down. Still, even with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, there was no other way considering the overall situation in 1990 and 1991. The favorable foreign-policy constellation offered by Gorbachev, who was still in a position to act, and ready at that time to come to terms, the surge of East emigration that pushed West Germany's capacity for coping with arrivals to the hilt, and East Germany's collapse made rapid union seem the right process then and even now. Whatever the difficulties were in the past, or will be in the future, there can be no doubt about ultimate success of the unification.

East German society is changing. Anyone who has a job usually gets along in what is still a new society, even though their convictions and reactions may be clearly different from those of the West Germans. The very language is different. Easterners can tell Westerners in 20 seconds by their language, and vice versa. This is not a much a matter of regional or dialect difference, as it is background and culture.

Fiscally, the East shows marked differences from area to area. Alongside regions where entire major industries have collapsed, there are areas and cities like Dresden, where state money has flowed into the building trades and sparked off a boom. East Germany is not poor. Since 1990 East Germans have achieved an average 50%increase in real income, and in over half of all households, net earnings are more than 2,500 DM.

West Germans believe that East Germans lack initiative, and crave handouts. They make jokes about them the way we make jokes about Cal Trans workers. Two East German workers are digging holes. The first one digs them, the second one leans on his shovel,and then fills in the hole. A Westerner asks them what they are doing: Explanation, well,we usually work with a third guy, but he's sick today. He puts in the trees. The East Germans resent being told how to do things. They are tired of Better-Westies, which rhymes in German: BesserWessi, a variation of the German term for know-it-all. But despite difficulties and a recession, the national consensus that the East should be integrated into Germany has never been seriously called into question.

well-built tidy socially supported housing in Duisburg
Sozialbau, socialized housing in the Ruhr
The future of Germany's social net, this all important support of unification, is uncertain. Many people warn that the treasury is broke, that the Sozialstaat only exists on borrowed money. Various remedies are offered such as increasing the number of shared jobs,involving volunteers in schools and kindergartens, increasing special employment measures, which are in effect public works projects that benefit communities and social causes. Lowering interest rates would also be a good idea, but inflation is another ghost in the German closet, since everyone recalls the inflation of the early 1920's, where prices changed twice a day and people dealt with billions of marks of worthless money. The German social equation is built on and will carried only on the back of a strong currency. This is the reason that the Bundesbank is so conservative around its interest rates and often refuses to lower them.

fine old Renaissance portal
A Renaissance entrance in Erfurt, Haus zum Sonneborn, Home to the Source of the Sun

The Sozialstaat, because it works in Germany, is the model that Germany is offering to the rest of the European Economic Community. Large amounts of money,much of it from Germany, are invested in other nations in order to develop their industry,build housing and modernize communities. The German model is having an effect; other states want to imitate it to whatever degree they can.

Germany has deemphasized its military, and continues to do so. Part of their compact with Russia is that the German Army will not exceed a certain limited number, and that no nuclear weapons will be stationed on German soil. The Germans are constantly urged by the U.S. - for instance, Bill Clinton when he was in Germany in mid-July - to assume a larger role in relation to Europe, in effect to once again become a military presence in Europe. Several years ago, at reunification, some nations worried out loud about the resurrection of Germany military might. Shortly afterwards, they were asking why Germany didn't participate in Desert Storm, for which, by the way, they supplied the bulk of the transportation. Germans wondered if they are supposed to put their military boots on, or keep them off. But Germany will not militarize in a large way, the structures are not there and the past speaks against it.

Furthermore Germany's ties with France are deep. Cultivated since the moment WWII ended, they form the cornerstone of much that is positive in the European Union. France has the moral clout that Germany lacks. Germany continues to look to France for leadership in matters like the former Yugoslavia. It is unthinkable that the Germans would intervene in such a situation on their own. They watch what is going on there, frustrated,and have no answers, just as we have none. They know better than anyone that war and unbridled nationalism achieve nothing.

The Germans have created a nation that is strong economically,values its democracy and supports an attractive cultural life: They urge other nations to do likewise, and the rest of Europe is taking on the challenge. Out of the moral ruin of WWII the Germans created a humane and compassionate state, a state that continues to put its money where its ideals are. If it is possible to give dignity a structure, they have sought to do so on the premise that "the dignity of the human being is inviolable", the cornerstone phrase of their Basic Law. It is a state in which the individual is supported, enhanced and buoyed, a state where life is decent and worth living, where human beings are valued. There is so much about this current German state that is positive, laudable, and at moments - noble.

Children playing, an older lady passes by, looking back at them
Children at play in Kahla


For Student Exercises in English and German to Part 8 click here!

Return to top of this page, Part 8. Duisburg: The East-West Unification Blues or return to another Part:

1. Berlin and Environs
2. Freiburg: Living the Good Life
3. Jena and Environs: Work in East Germany
4. The Klemms: an East German family
5. Building, Housing and Work in Jena
6. Kahla, an East German Success Story
7. Buchenwald and Beyond: The continuing legacy of the Holocaust

9. Return to Index

A preceding presentation, entitled "Berlin and the Two Germanies," treating the years 1945 to 1989 is also accessible.

Adolph N. Hofmann