The Regionalization of Political Culture and Identity in Post-Communist Eastern Germany

By Yoder, Jennifer A. | East European Quarterly, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Regionalization of Political Culture and Identity in Post-Communist Eastern Germany


Yoder, Jennifer A., East European Quarterly


The regionalization of political culture and identity is an important dimension of post-communist political development in eastern Germany. Regionalization is not just a process of formulating a set of particularly eastern, versus western, interests and policy approaches and, perhaps, patterns of political behaviors and identification. Regionalization is also a process of differentiation within the eastern part of Germany, according to local, or regional, interests and habits.

Regionalism entails a rediscovery or, perhaps more accurately, a discovery of local or state identity and pride. In 1990, five Lander were "refounded" in east Germany; Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Thuringen, and Saxon-Anhalt. These states were effectively dissolved by the GDR leadership in 1952, just seven years after the Soviet Military Administration established them as state governing units. Thus, the five states have had only a brief experience as administrative/territorial units. After 1952, the practice of "democratic centralism" denied autonomy to the regions: all decisions, all "identity," would flow from the top-down--from East Berlin to the periphery. After forty years of democratic centralism, the revival of the Lander as loci of political activity and identity is impressive. Though the political "architecture" (the legislative and administrative structures) are imported from the west, the culture and identity that fill it illustrate the (re)discovery of "Saxon pride" and "the Brandenburg way." The revival of regionalism is visible in a number of ways: the regional crests, flags, and associations, such as "Mark Brandenburg," or the restoration of historic landmarks and street names. The regional identity is not only restorative, or backward-looking. It is also innovative and forward-looking, aiming to imprint the transplanted system with "indigenous," local culture. Tangible regional innovations are not easily identifiable. When this author asked Brandenburg parliamentarians in 1993-4 what contributions the east made to the unified Germany, several mentioned (in their written responses) the "grune Pfeil"--a traffic rule allowing a right turn at a green arrow! Yet, when pressed in follow-up, personal interviews, the parliamentarians mentioned much more that easterners have contributed to the new Germany. These contributions are more cultural-experiential than tangible, or more normative than substantive: they bring particular ideas, ideals, outlooks, experiences, and values acquired over years of living in a different system.

The reasons for regionalization are no easier to pin-point than the contributions. Is regionalization driven by a desire to escape the GDR past or, perhaps, a desire to recapture the GDR past? Is it a strategy for "catching up" to the western states by assimilating federalism or, conversely, a way to defend the group's integrity from assimilation to the western/majority culture and identity? Regionalization may be driven by a combination of some or all of these factors. The argument presented here is that regionalism is an expression of autonomy and of an appreciation of local tastes and traditions. It is a "normal" process of differentiation compatible with democracy and allowed, even encouraged, by German federalism. The regional level of politics serves as a bridge between the precommunist past, the communist past, and the new democratic system. It encourages pride in regional history, traditions, and symbols and recognizes that there are lessons to be learned from the communist past. While in Bonn, in the national institutions of the FRG, the GDR past is often held out as a negative example of dictatorship from which nothing could possibly be learned, at the state level, it is understood that forty years of life in the GDR can not be dismissed.

Regionalism in the new German states can even provide a boost for democracy, in that it encourages a de-centralization of problem-solving, identity-formation, and political participation. …

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