The Colonization of East Germany

By Rosenberg, Dorothy | Monthly Review, September 1991 | Go to article overview

The Colonization of East Germany

Rosenberg, Dorothy, Monthly Review


I would like to briefly discuss some of the social, economic, and cultural aspects of the German unification process, specifically the differences between East and West German society now being registered in the process of transition to a united Germany.

Until recently, Western studies had emphatically proclaimed that there was no East German (GDR) national identity and that common cultural roots outweighed any minor structural differences between the two German states. With political unification achieved and joint elections held, life in Germany has not settled back into comfortably familiar patterns. In fact, reporting on the German unification process has shifted from reiterations of the matter-of-factness of the whole thing to a growing consciousness of a barely concealed crisis. A recent survey by the Institute for Applied Social Research (INFAS) found that 83 percent of former GDR citizens and 57 percent of former West German (FRG) citizens felt that the situation in the five new states was "dramatic." In addition, 62 percent of eastern Germans and 59 percent of western Germans were "mostly" or "very" dissatisfied with developments since unification.[1]

The West German government, caught fumbling with its "We are all Germans" rhetoric but without any coherent plan for the economic and social transition to a unified state, claims to be only now in the process of discovering the deep differences in cultural patterns and value systems which had developed between the two Germanies over the past 40 years, but remained largely invisible to the Western eye. East Germans are at the same time discovering that the economic wealth and political freedoms which were the signal attractions of the West German system are neither equally distributed nor easily accessible to them.

West Germans tend to have a rather full set of preconceptions and misconceptions about life in the former GDR, strongly influenced by cold-war propaganda and quite undisturbed by any form of reality-testing. West Germans rarely visited the GDR. Even West Berliners seldom ventured beyond a day trip to East Berlin to take advantage of inexpensive bookstores, theaters, museums, and restaurants. East Germans, on the other hand, suspicious of their own media, religiously watched West German television and were very well informed about West German life - or rather the media presentation of it - an attractive image without depth. Thus, both sides were ill prepared for one another when the Berlin Wall suddenly opened in November 1989. That euphoric meeting was quickly followed by tension, misunderstandings, conflict, anger, and resentment.

Much of our information about the events of the past year and a half has come from West Germans and other Westerners who are largely unfamiliar with GDR society. As an American who has lived in both East and West Berlin, studied the GDR for a decade, and observed the events of 1989-1990 unfold as an exchange scholar in Berlin and Leipzig, I have a rather different and critical perspective on both Germanies.

At first glance, West Germany seems familiar. It is a prosperous, modern, democratic, advanced-capitalist, Western society with a progressive social welfare system. Observed more closely it is also culturally conservative, dominated by rigid social and class hierarchies, and hostile to outsiders, in some cases to the point of xenophobia. West Germany has a large, politically conservative, entrenched civil service bureaucracy which penetrates and regulates almost every area of economic and social life including education and the legal profession. West Germans are required to register with the local police and carry internal identity documents. Job mobility is strictly limited by a set of training and licensing regulations derived from the medieval guild system. Geographic mobility is limited by what seems to be a permanent housing crisis. The West German social welfare system (although far superior to the system in the United States) compares unfavorably with those of Northern European social democracies. …

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