Settlement of Property Claims in Former East Germany

Article excerpt

The reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990 was a political milestone for Europe (Harris 1991; Murphy 1991). It marked not only the end of an era dominated by two German states with radically different political and economic philosophies but also the end of the wider divisions of the cold war. In many ways the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent official reunification initiated a rewriting of the geography of central Europe. Contacts severed for more than forty years were suddenly reestablished, creating wholly new patterns of circulation and of political and economic influence (Blacksell 1994; Grimm and others 1994).

For Germany itself, reunification meant the formal end of East Germany - the German Democratic Republic - and of virtually all of its existing social, economic, administrative, and legal systems. East Germany was replaced by a much-enlarged federal republic - what had been popularly known as West Germany - that transplanted its own administrative infrastructure almost unaltered to the new, unified German state [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The change, accomplished less than a year after the first obvious signs of collapse in the East German regime, would have been traumatic for the peoples of both countries under any circumstance. For the 17 million East Germans it marked the end of much of their way of life and the beginning of adjustment to a new world of democratic politics. It also brought susceptibility to the dictates of capitalism and the vicissitudes of the free market.

The ensuing difficulties were not only numerous and complex but also extremely varied, extending to every aspect of daily life in the five new Lander (federal states) and the unified city of Berlin, with intriguing implications for the human geography of the whole of Germany. More than five years after reunification, severe economic and social inequalities between the two parts of the country remain (Table I). The gross domestic product, both per capita and per employee, in the new Lander is about half that in the old, and the unemployment rate is more than a third higher. Even though the new Lander account only for a minority (19.4 percent) of the total German population, the discrepancies introduce a serious element of regional economic imbalance for the new German state (Statistisches Bundesamt 1996).

Many aspects of the change have already stimulated detailed research (Irmen and Sinz 1991; Kohli 1993; Mai 1993; Munz and Ulrich 1994; Putz 1994; Wendt 1994; Wild and Jones 1994; von der Heide 1995). In this article we explore an aspect of the reunification process that has largely been ignored in the geographical literature: the settlement of disputes involving the ownership of land and property.

The years between 1933 and 1990 have been described as a gigantic and prolonged state-sanctioned and -inspired land grab in the former East Germany, first under the national socialist government of the Third Reich and then, after 1949, by the communist government of East Germany (Jung and Vec 1991). During this extended period, huge amounts of land and property were confiscated by the state and either nationalized or allocated to new owners. The federal republic views both the national socialist and the communist governments having been illegal, and, since reunification, it has been German policy to try to right the wrongs committed by the erstwhile regimes. Property restitution began in what was to become West Germany as early as 1945 and to all intents and purposes was complete by the time reunification occurred. Nevertheless, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 it was taken for granted [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE I OMITTED] that the process would be extended to East Germany and that, in addition, the expropriations by the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) would also be reversed (Mielke 1994).

State-inspired expropriation of assets is hardly confined to Germany, of course. …