Zack Blumberg: 30 years on, has German Reunification hit a wall?

Tuesday, November 26, 2019 - 6:15pm

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The Michigan Daily

This month, November 2019, marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the most momentous events of the 20th century. In many regards, the German reunification was an unbridled success: After being divided for more than four decades, the nation was able to come together quickly and peacefully, bridging major divides. On the surface, this reunification appears to be a miraculous success story. Since 1990, all of Germany has cheered for the same national soccer team, used the same currency and operated politically as one united nation. 

However, below the surface, there are many signs that Germany’s seemingly smooth reunification process failed to address significant political, social and economic divides between the former East and West states. In recent years, increasing political polarization and rising cultural tensions have highlighted this problem, and in order to move forward, Germany and the world at large must critically re-evaluate the successes and failures of reunification.

Currently, the most obvious concern for Germany is the large-scale inequality that still exists between the affluent former West and the comparatively less well-off former East. Though the gap has shrunk in absolute terms since 1990, at which point the former East produced only 8 percent of Germany’s GDP, a large chasm still exists. Today, Germany’s six poorest states (measured in GDP per capita) are the six that formerly composed East Germany.

Furthermore, the disparity between disposable incomes in the former East and West states has actually increased since reunification. In 1991, former East Germans averaged 61 percent of what West Germans made in disposable income. Today, that difference has increased. Unsurprisingly, people from both the former West and East believe the two regions still have unequal living conditions — 66 percent from the West and 74 percent from the East

Though the German government has poured money into the former East since reunification, it has not been able to effectively bridge the economic gap between Germany’s two regions. In the years immediately after reunification, the German government used the poorer former East as a testing ground for new neoliberal policies. Unfortunately, this experiment did not promote increased economic growth in the former East to the degree many had hoped for. Today, only 7 percent of Germany’s 500 biggest companies are based in the East. Historically, the most effective method of overcoming Germany’s economic chasm has been direct state expenditure into the former East in the form of solidarity payments, but these were largely used in the years immediately following reunification, and are not a particularly sustainable way to develop the East. It is imperative that Germany finds a way to address this wealth gap, since it ties into nearly all of the other divisions that exist today. 

A major cultural wedge still exists between the former East and West, which has been highlighted and worsened in recent years, most particularly by an influx of refugees and migrants into Germany. This divide, which is descended from a larger debate on what constitutes being “German,” is in part derived from Germany’s history of “jus sanguinis” inherited citizenship policy, which prioritizes German ancestry — not German residency — in determining national status. This ideology was thrust into the spotlight after the fall of communism, particularly after a number of Russians with German ancestry were granted citizenship, while ethnically Turkish German residents, who lived exclusively in the former West, were not. In 2000, Germany finally adopted a more modern citizenship system, but the sentiment that citizenship should be tied to ethnic background still exists, particularly in the former East. 

This internal conflict was again reinvigorated when Germany began accepting large numbers of refugees in the early 2010s. Today, the six states composing the former East have far fewer migrants than the rest of Germany and are categorically less supportive of Germany’s liberal immigration policies. Though the former West’s prevailing sentiment is that Germany should present itself as a bulwark of liberalism, this view is not particularly popular in the former East. Instead, many Germans in the former East believe refugees and migrants are dangerous and should not be welcomed. In many ways, this belief is rooted in Germany’s geographic inequalities: Many residents of the former East think they have received insufficient support from the modern German government and feel it is unfair that Germany devotes energy and resources to resettling migrants as they continue to suffer. Considering Germany’s political systems, institutions and parties descend from the former West, the former West’s outsize population gives it more electoral influence — hence why the former East feels somewhat put-upon.

The economic and cultural divisions between the East and West have ultimately contributed to increased instability and polarization in German politics, particularly from within the former East. After reunification, Germany largely continued on with the political system which the former West had operated with. Since the end of World War II, the West’s political arena has been a case study in moderation, cooperation and general political productivity: The Bundestag was dominated by moderate parties, namely the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union, which helped spur Germany toward relative progressivism. In recent years, though, the former East’s anger over immigration and perceived continual inequality has been largely responsible for the birth and meteoric rise of Germany’s first major far-right party since World War II, the Alternative für Deutschland. Founded in 2013, the AfD is largely reviled in the West, where it enjoys a 12-percent approval rating. However, its support from the former East has enabled it to quickly become a nationally relevant party; it finished fifth Germany’s European Parliamentary elections earlier this year, and polled as high as fourth.

While the German reunification has been an unmitigated success in many regards, this does not mean it was perfect. Many of Germany’s current problems can be traced, to some extent, back to concerns which arose with reunification. In lieu of this, people both in Germany and around the world must be forced to take a more nuanced look at the successes and failures of German reunification.

Zack Blumberg zblumber@umich.edu.