The fall of the Berlin Wall means a lot to Germans from the former East and West. But 30 years later, they do not seem to be as unified as they first hoped.
Despite the disappearance of the infamous Berlin Wall in 1989, 30 years after the celebrated union of West and East Germany, divisions between both sides have become more apparent than ever before, according to both experts and politicians.
Recent surveys have indicated sharp differences between the two sides on issues ranging from Germanness to migration - demonstrating that the country’s integration process is not going as well as Berlin would like to admit.
While 71 percent of western Germans feel German, only 44 percent of eastern Germans feel the same, according to a research conducted by the Allensbach Institute.
More worryingly for Germany’s leaders, a stunning 47 percent of eastern Germans said that they only feel East German. Both sides’ views on democracy also differ significantly from each other according to the research.
Only 31 percent of eastern Germans think that democracy is the best governing model while 72 percent of western Germans feel that it is the best type of government, the same research showed. This is all the more surprising as former East Germans lived under totalitarian communist rule for decades.
Despite good economic numbers and steady fiscal growth in former East Germany, experts say that eastern Germans still feel they are not treated well enough by either Berlin or western Germans.
“The people in western Germany don’t understand the problems of eastern Germany. When you ask people in the west what changed for them after reunification, they answer: nothing. When you ask people in the east, they say: everything,” said Petra Kopping, a prominent Social Democrat politician, who is currently leading Saxony’s integration efforts as the state’s minister.
Saxony is one of Germany’s eastern states, which will hold crucial regional elections along with Brandenburg this Sunday.
West vs East
Kopping’s assessment concerning the West-East perception of the reunification is sharp, but it appears to be in line with what has happened to both sides of Germany since the 1990s.
With the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, both Germanies ended their separation, rooted in the post-WWII arrangements of Allied forces and the Soviet Union, the victors of the war, who divided post-Nazi Germany into four different zones among themselves for a brief period after the conflict ended.
While West Germany became part of Western bloc, East Germany was part of the Soviet-led communist alliance. The Berlin Wall essentially became a powerful and tragic symbol of not only Germany’s separation but also the stiff division between capitalist and communist blocs during the Cold War.
The 1990 reunification has been long celebrated as the victory of the liberal order over totalitarianism in both Germany and the Western world, where it has also been seen as the result of German desire for reunification.
But under a united Germany led by the more-economically developed West, the former communist East has mostly been forced to change its ways more than the capitalist West. The East had to be changed because not only had it failed to drive economic growth but it also had an undemocratic society according to the West.
As a result, nearly two million eastern Germans, mostly the most skilled and educated, have moved to western Germany since the 1990s, in search of better career opportunities and personal prospects there. But their move also dented the East’s social and economic prospects, increasing anger and estrangement in the East.
With the rapid rise of Russia and China raising some legitimate questions about the prospects of the liberal order’s prominence, more doubts about liberalism have been exposed with the emergence of far-right movements across the world, as waves of migration hit Europe and Western world.
“Then came the migration crisis. Germans across the country reacted angrily to [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel’s decision in September 2015 to allow in more than a million refugees, but the backlash in the former East Germany was especially toxic,” wrote Anna Sauerbrey, a German writer and editor.
“In Clausnitz, a mob tried to prevent a group of newly arrived migrants from exiting a bus. In Dresden, a protester carried a mock gallows through the streets,” she added.
Clearly, the East feeling belittled by the West thought that Berlin cares more about refugees than them.
“People said to me: ‘You and your refugees! You should integrate us first!,” Kopping, the Social Democrat politician, remembered.
The sentiment of alienation echoes powerfully across eastern Germany now more than ever.
Ahead of Sunday’s regional elections, the front-runner is Alternative for Germany (AfP), a far-right party whose successes have drawn parallels to the rise of Nazism.
On the other hand, the second most powerful party is Die Linke (The Left), a socialist party, which has its origins in former East Germany’s ruling communist party.
That feeling of Eastern estrangement is emerging in a country, where two powerful political figures, former President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Merkel, originated in East Germany. Both politicians also have similar backgrounds with Gauck being a former priest like Merkel’s father.
But beyond having two powerful politicians, eastern Germans feel abandoned by the Berlin establishment, which has dominated most of eastern Germany’s leadership positions since the collapse of the communist rule in 1989.
Research conducted by the University of Leipzig showed that only one in five leading political posts is held by eastern Germans. A study dated to 2017 also concluded that while easterners represented 17 percent of Germany’s population, they only held 1.7 percent of top positions in military, business, judiciary and politics.
According to eastern Germans, the leadership structure itself is the evidence of their “humiliation", Kopping said.
"The domination of West Germans in the elites is still felt as cultural colonialism," said Thomas Kruger, a rare politician with roots in East Germany, who leads a government department unrelated to East German affairs.
"And that is a problem, yes,” he concluded.