Unity loses its lustre

It's 15 years since the fall of the wall, but many German people sitll feel a sharp east-west divide, writes Derek Scally in …

It's 15 years since the fall of the wall, but many German people sitll feel a sharp east-west divide, writes Derek Scally in Berlin.

The cheap, brittle concrete of the Berlin Wall didn’t stand a chance when hordes of Berliners hacked it to pieces in a furious blur of pickaxes and sledgehammers. But 15 years after the fall of the wall on November 9th, 1989,  Germans are wondering what tools they need to demolish the so-called "Wall in the head", the palette of east-west prejudices where "Wessis" are arrogant victors and "Ossis" are ungrateful whingers.

With high unemployment and social welfare cuts looming, a less than euphoric mood is likely at this year’s  anniversary celebrations on Tuesday. The mood couldn’t have been more different in 1989. Chancellor Helmut Kohl told wide-eyed easterners that unification would transform the eastern German countryside scarred by heavy industry and pollution into "blossoming landscapes".

Former chancellor Willy Brandt remarked tearfully that German unification was the "growing together of what belongs together". Those euphoric phrases have lost their lustre and are now the preserve of comedians looking for cheap laughs. Dr Hans-Joachim Maaz, a publicist and self-appointed psychotherapist to the German psyche, is convinced that the distance between Ossis and Wessis is growing. "After the euphoria came disappointment, but now easterners are thinking: ‘we’re worth something’," he says.

"They are saying to themselves: ‘We are different to the western Germans and we don’t want to become like them.’"

For westerners, it seems the feeling is mutual. Claudia Schäfer (31) was born near Cologne and, after four years in Dublin, now works in former East Berlin. "It’s strange – I know I’ve moved back to Germany but I don’t feel back here I was before," she says. "My work colleagues speak German but they have a different culture, a drier sense of humour and won’t do anything without permission. Ossi and Wessi is always an issue."

While Schäfer and other Wessis have moved east, more than 1.5 million Ossis, facing dole rates twice the national average of 10.5 per cent, have gone west in search of work. Amazingly, the percentage of easterners who say East Germany was more good than bad continues to rise and hit 57 per cent this year. According to a survey in Stern magazine, one in four westerners and one in eight easterners wish the two Germanys had never united.

Feelings such as that are a sensitive issue for the political architects of unification.

"I cannot imagine there is a German who wants a wall back where people were shot and killed," says Dr Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was Germany’s foreign minist r in 1989. He had the lead role in one of the most emotional episodes of that year when, on September 30th, he told thousands of East German refugees in Prague that they had been granted passage to West Germany.

He dismisses the suggestion that German unification is the cause of Germany’s economic problems and east-west divide. Instead, he points to the burden of four decades of economic underdevelopment in the east and the decision of former chancellor Helmut Kohl in the west to shy away from economic reform.

Genscher has little time for media reports that have calculated a €1.25 trillion cost for unification, with no end in sight. Cash transfers to eastern states may amount to 4 per cent of Germany’s gross domestic product (GDP) but are, he says, "perfectly normal in a federal system where regions help each other".

He cites the example of Bavaria, an economic powerhouse and itself a net contributor to the federal pot. However, Bavaria was once a poor, agricultural state which received aid from other German states for 40 years until 1989. "In that light, 15 years of payments to the east is a relatively short time," Dr Genscher told foreign journalists in Berlin this week. This year’s 15th anniversary has been overshadowed by reforms of the German social welfare system and slashed dole payments, an unpopular move in eastern regions where unemployment often tops 20 per cent.

"Easterners have to realise that, with their revolution, they didn’t just abolish their own state, but also the old federal [west] republic," said Der Spiegel magazine recently. "Easterners wanted East Germany-light but got West Germany-tough."

For the last 15 years, Germans have been grappling with the question of "inner German unity". A key factor of this unity has always believed to be economic parity, similar levels of employment and a common standard of living.
But Germany's president, Horst Köhler, made a taboo-breaking contribution recently, telling easterners it was unrealistic to expect to reach western living standards.

"There were and are, everywhere in the republic, large differences in living standards," says Köhler, an economist. "Those who want to even out [differences] are cementing the state subsidy system and placing an unbearable debt burden on the younger generation."

His remarks provoked an outcry in the east, but there is a growing realisation that inner unity is more than a similar standard of living and that differences are natural in a country of 82 million people that stretches from the North Sea to the Alps.

Younger generations of Germans already appear to have seen the light. A recent survey suggested under-30s in eastern Germany are "more active, independent and freedom-oriented" than their cohorts in the west. "Among young people we can see a change in values. Over half are of the opinion that they are responsible for their own happiness, compared to just a third of easterners overall," said the survey report from the Allensbach Institute.

"I see a huge difference among younger and older people in the east," says Schäfer. "The older people say ‘everything was better before’ and the younger ones make fun of them for saying that."

For younger Germans, the Ossi/Wessi dynamic can be an entertaining fact of life, a German variation on the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" argument. Amusing anecdotal evidence suggests Wessi men prefer Oss women, for instance, because they find them less uptight and more comfortable with themselves, particularly in bed. Just like learning a foreign language, it seems the best way to get to know people from the other Germany is through pillow talk.

"Eastern women have become a status symbol," jokes 28-year-old Jana Hensel, author of the best-selling East German memoir Zonenkinder. She says Ossi-Wessi relationships are a slow but sure way of bridging the divide,  particularly in the melting pot of Berlin.

"New arrivals of all ages can completely redefine themselves here in Berlin, regardless of where they’re from. Into the bargain, no one is really rich; status differences disappear. It’s a different matter in Hamburg and Munich."

It’s not just young Germans who share this opinion. Dr Genscher, now 77, came to the same conclusion after holding a guest professorship at a university on the Polish border, where the students are a mixture of Wessis, Ossis and Poles.

"If it wasn’t for their accents, I wouldn’t have known where they are from," he says. "We have a different past in Germany but a common future, and for me that is tremendously encouraging."

READ MORE