Divide remains as Berlin celebrates

Twenty years later, socio-economic disparities overshadow German reunification.

Little is left of the once infamous wall that divided Berlin and Germany [GALLO/GETTY]

Two decades after the Berlin Wall was toppled, few people remember the exact spot where it once stood; not much is left of one of the most infamous barriers in the world.

But if 13 per cent of Germans had their way, the wall that split the country for 28 years during the Cold War would be resurrected.

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“I have nothing better to be proud of than the German reunification,” Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor at the time the wall fell, said 20 years later.

However, a recent poll by Resuma GmbH, a German research firm, revealed that 34 per cent of West Germans do not share his enthusiasm and say they did not benefit from reunification. Thirteen per cent of East Germans felt the same way.

Sixteen per cent of those from the West – compared to 10 per cent from the East – said they would prefer to live in a divided Germany.

‘Blooming landscapes’

After 20 years, Helmut Kohl is still proud of German reunification [GALLO/GETTY] 

One year after the wall came down, East Germany (the former GDR) became part of the Federal Republic of Germany.

German unity meant the transplantation of West Germany’s legal, administrative and economic infrastructure to the former East.

The free market economy replaced the East’s centrally planned economy, state owned enterprises were privatised, and, in 1990, the Deutsche Mark became the currency for all Germans.

Kohl promised ‘blooming landscapes’ to the former East and citizens on both sides were euphoric.

But the shapers of this newly re-united Germany failed to address the mental barriers that divided East from West, believing that money alone would close the gap.

Hope and optimism soon gave way to disillusionment as the collapse of the socialist planned economy saw millions lose their jobs.

Stark divisions

Despite massive funds being transferred to the former East, the stark divisions in income and employment ended the initial wave of enthusiasm for reunification and many became nostalgic for the old way of life.

Politicians and citizens alike had underestimated just how long it would take to build up the East German economy – and quite how much it would cost.

According to the Institute for Economic Research (IWF) more than $1.5tn have been transferred from West to East since 1989.

Some West Germans – observing the East’s new roads, ‘polished’ cities and booming construction industry – begrudged this transfer of funds and drew comparisons with the West’s tightening job market and stagnating infrastructure and construction.

To this day, some from the West remain critical of the decision to pump billions into the former GDR and point to the fact that, despite this, the East’s economy has not caught up with the West’s.

Taxing solidarity

Dresden in Eastern German is becoming a popular tourist destination [GALLO/GETTY]

Key to this transfer of funds is the solidarity tax or ‘solitax’ as it has become known; a 5.5 per cent surcharge on every German’s income tax that was earmarked to rebuild the former East.

Kohl first introduced it with the promise that it would last for only a few years, but Germans are still paying.

Today, the tax rakes in between $15bn and $19bn a year and is widely criticised by politicians, economists and the general population.

According to the German Business Week magazine, $15bn are transferred yearly from West to East for infrastructure projects. A further $37bn are estimated to cross the former divide for social security benefits such as pensions, health insurance and unemployment benefits as part of a solidarity pact which runs until 2019.

When the Social Democratic and Green Party coalition government removed a general overview on all East-West transfers claiming the statistics were too vague, many saw the move as motivated by a fear of further fuelling frustrations in the West.

But Josef Schlarmann, a Christian Democratic Union party politician, believes the figure totals around $119bn per year. And with the global downturn taking its toll, some West Germans feel that they would have been better off without reunification.

Annexation, not unification

On the other side, many East Germans feel that they have been on the losing side of history and that what they have experienced is not unification but annexation.

In 1990, East Germans lost their currency, their political and ideological system, their national anthem and flag, their school system and, in many cases, their jobs. By contrast, little changed for Westerners, who noticed more Trabants – the iconic East German car – on their roads, a few changed traffic signs and a shortage of bananas in their supermarkets.

These discrepancies continue and, according to a poll by the Allensbacher Institute, 42 per cent of Easterners feel they are treated as second class citizens.

Mandy Hartwig, a sales assistant in her 40s from Dresden, says: “They took everything away, without even looking [to see] whether there was anything valuable in the old system that could contribute to the West.

“My youth was fine, I had everything I needed. Now it is hard to find a job and my salary is still low compared to the West.

“Of course I compare it with Western salaries, it is just not fair that we get 20 per cent less than them, we are doing the same job. I wouldn’t want the wall back, but I just expected the so-called unification to be more fair.”

Greg Eghigian, a US historian who was studying in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, says Westerners blamed the East for social ills such as crime, alcoholism and unemployment – even though those problems also existed in the West.

But this negative attitude toward the East was not an entirely new phenomenon stirred up by financial envy or years of separation. Prior to the division of Germany by the victorious Allies in 1945, some rural parts of Eastern Germany were already viewed as underdeveloped and backward.

Stereotypes about East and West persist, with some Easterners branding Westerners “arrogant know-it-alls” and Westerners, in turn, complaining about “lazy, whining Easterners”.

Moving West

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans were optimistic about reunification [EPA]

While about 35 per cent of West Germans have never been to the East, according to Joachim Ragnitz of the Ifo Institute in Dresden, since 1990, around two million Easterners have moved West in search of work and better salaries.

Despite negative public perceptions of the East’s failure to catch up with the West, a recent study by DB Research has revealed that Kohl’s “blooming landscapes” became a reality in some parts of the East, which with the benefit of recent investments in infrastructure, have surpassed some parts of the West.

However, a significant difference in living standards remain, with unemployment rates much higher in the East, where sustainable competitive industries have not yet emerged.

While the full impact of the global downturn cannot yet be judged, the author of the DB Research study says the former East’s economy looks healthier than it did five years ago.

But while small and mid-size companies have made their home in Eastern Germany, larger companies like Daimler, Siemens, Bosch and Porsche remain based in the West.

At least 1.5 million more jobs are needed in the East and hundreds of thousands of Easterners commute to work in Western states. Those who do work in the former East earn on average one-third less than their Western counterparts.

Drifting apart

A study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) has shown that while there has been some progress, significant structural problems remain and since 2008 the economies of Eastern and Western Germany have actually begun to drift further apart.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has said that she believes the process of reunification is not complete and the Allensbacher Institute poll – in which 42 per cent of West Germans said they recognised more differences than commonalities with those from the East, and 63 per cent of East Germans stressed the differences – appears to support this.

Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s mayor, says: “There are differences … but it is important, that one realises we are one nation, one country, one city, and that is why everything dividing [us] needs to be removed.”

Philipp Mayer, a history student from Munich, feels some differences may be a good thing.

“Of course differences exist, cultural, political and social ones, and we shouldn’t try to hide it.

“Maybe we should stop talking about it, because there are also differences in the mentality between people from the North and the South. And anyway, diversity is a good thing, it is inspiring.

“People who grew up in the GDR or in the West have a different background, of course. They lived in a different world, but that is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Mental barriers

Germany must rely on its youth to break down mental barriers [GALLO/GETTY]

There are some signs that those born after the fall of the Wall are breaking down the mental barriers that continue to divide older generations.

A recent study by the Society for Consumption Research (GfK) revealed that 80 per cent of 14-to-19-year-olds defined themselves not as Eastern or Western but just as German.

Among those aged 20-to-29 this slipped to 64 per cent, while just 59 per cent of 40-to-49-year-olds felt ‘German’.

In a recent poll by Stern magazine and the RTL television channel, 55 per cent of those polled said removing the ‘solitax’ would aid unification, while 24 per cent suggested that having more federal ministers from the former East would foster greater social cohesion.

Following the recent German elections, there has been criticism that none of the 15 ministers appointed to the chancellor’s cabinet were from East Germany.

Arnulf Baring, a German historian, has complained of “a cartel of West parties”, but Merkel has told her critics: “After all … the chancellor is East German.”

A poll by the research institute USUMA for the University of Leipzig estimated that it will take another 20 years for Germans to feel fully unified.

But despite the remaining mental and economic divisions, the majority of Germans – 68.4 per cent – said they liked living in a united Germany and 55.3 per cent said they felt 20 years of reunification was nonetheless enough reason to celebrate.

Source : Al Jazeera

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