• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

Understanding the cultural divide between East and West Germany

The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is approaching, but East seems still to be East and West still West.

It’s mushroom-picking season in Germany and in charmingly autumnal forests right around the country, you’ll see locals, eyes firmly on the damp ground, looking for tasty fungi. Last weekend, in the woods just outside Berlin, an acquaintance, originally from Greece, joined them, together with his kids.

Not being born into the toadstool-tracking tradition, he approached some nearby Germans who looked like they knew what they were doing to ask if they recognised any edible specimens. There was nobody else around. But the middle-aged white man and his teenage son just glared at him, then walked away.

“They wouldn’t even speak to me,” my slightly swarthy acquaintance recounted later, confused. “Were they keeping their favourite mushroom patch a secret? Or is it because I look like a foreigner? Is it really that bad out there?”

“Out there” is Brandenburg, the state that surrounds Berlin. Along with the rest of former East Germany, it has a bad reputation for neo-Nazis and fans of the far right, as well as poverty, unemployment and dying country towns populated by sad and/or angry pensioners.

And my acquaintance is not alone in asking this question. As November 9, and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, nears, plenty of others have been wondering the same thing.

For months, politicians and op-ed writers have been asking whether Germany really is unified now, given ongoing disparities in such things as education, unemployment, political representation and what’s been described as “a sense of collective victimhood”. Some discuss the existence of “die Mauer im Kopf” (the wall in the head) and the idea of “one country, two societies”. Others simply wonder what the hell is wrong with people in the former East Germany, particularly after elections, when it becomes clear that more and more of them prefer the Alternative for Germany, a party in which arch-conservatives rub shoulders with neo-Nazis.

There are a lot of theories as to why. They include the consequences of the collapse of East German industry after 1989, the mass migration of former easterners to the west, the condescending attitude of West Germans and the fact that young easterners never got a decent education on the joys of democracy and capitalism.

There are also some lesser-known hypotheses. One involves sexual frustration: apparently more East German women went west than men. The men left behind ended up alone and bitter. That’s why they’re now change-fearing xenophobes.

Another blames the ubiquitous East German secret police. East Germany was one of the most spied-upon nations in the world and a 2018 paper by the Institute of Labour Economics in Bonn tried to find a correlation between lack of economic progress and surveillance. It concluded the more informers there were in a place, the less trust there was later in other people and institutions, and the more support for extremist politics.

In a controversial recent article, local historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk argued that the overthrow of the communist-led government was actually driven by only a small number of activists. The rest of the population watched “from behind their curtains”, he suggested. A poll on October 15 found that 91% of East Germans view reunification as a positive. But maybe the idea wasn’t always quite as popular as everyone assumed.

To make him feel better, I tell my swarthy acquaintance all of this. Well, when you look at it that way, maybe you could forgive that guy in the woods for being such a rude, possibly racist jerk, he says. Or not. It’s a tough one. After all, that’s exactly the same dilemma a whole country has been trying to resolve for decades.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.