Negotiating Identities: The Party of Democratic Socialism between East German Regionalism, German National Identity and European Integration

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The PDS as "Crystallisation Point of Dfferences"

A decade after German unification a stable regional identity distinguished East Germans from West Germans, although the feeling of being one German nation had been overwhelming in the last months of the separate existence of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In 1990, the year of unification, the question of German national identity appeared to have found an obvious answer. The voices of East Germans were clearly audible at the rallies in Berlin, Leipzig and other cities calling "Wir sind ein Volk" (we are one people). The attempt of the GDR government to establish a separate identity for a "socialist German nation" had failed. Instead, the will of most East Germans to be part of one undivided nation resulted in unification by 3 October 1990.

However, although the question of national unity had been answered in principle, the question of identity soon had to be revisited. For East Germans, a dual transformation had taken place when the socio-economic system of "real socialism" had collapsed and the statehood of the GDR had ended at the same time. This required East Germans to renegotiate their identity in a more complicated setting than, for example, their Polish neighbours, whose nation and statehood continued irrespective of the collapse of communist rule.

The political map of German federalism shows two levels of government corresponding to two layers of identification. The whole of the FRG is the framework for the nation East Germans wanted to be part of. The member states of the FRG correspond to the traditional regional identities which the GDR government could not destroy by dismembering the five Eastern Lander into fourteen smaller, artificial "Bezirke". In 1990, these Lander were re-established, providing a renewed focus of regional identity for East Germans.

Yet there is another layer of identity not corresponding to any existing political boundary. This is the shared identity of the people on the territory of the former GDR, in the five Eastern Lander and East Berlin. Although very few identify with past "real socialism" and SED rule, East Germans shared forty years of life in the GDR and a decade of adjusting to a different socio-economic system in the united FRG, resulting in an identity "constructed [...] only after the end of the GDR". (1) A decade after unification, this third layer of identity distinguished Easterners and Westerners. The differences between "Ossis" and "Wessis" find their cultural and political expression in jokes, opinion polls, literature, films, and in the regionalised pluralism of the German party system.

While commentators disagree as to whether Ossi characteristics constitute "backwardness", requiring catch-up modernisation or, paradoxically, a vanguard, the existence of East-West differences cannot be doubted. Westerners are more often religious, influenced by neoliberal views and used to the competitiveness of the capitalist market economy than less religious Easterners preferring values such as equality, social justice and solidarity.

According to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, eminent conservative analyst of political culture, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) was the "point of crystallisation of differences" between East and West. Observing that "convictions, values and objectives of the GDR period" were "conserved in a ghostly manner," she was concerned about the different attitudes to socio-political questions in East and West. These constituted a threat because value orientations that had grown in West Germany since 1945 "could be lost again", including "the priority of freedom over equality, the value of representative democracy, also independence, competition, recognition of achievement." (2)

Thus East German regional identity was intertwined with ideological conflicts between neoliberal and social democratic/socialist value orientations. …