East & West Germany Struggle To Become A Unified Nation

by Volker Kluepfel
     WHEN EAST and West Germany were unified in October 1990, Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised the people that the situation would improve for everyone.
     Now, eight years later, it seems his promise has not been kept: although billions of Marks (a German Mark is currently worth about 50 cents) have been invested in East Germany every year, its economic growth has not developed as fast as many experts claimed it would, and people are getting impatient.
     Worse, the solidarity among East and West Germans is declining. The images of people dancing together on the Berlin Wall seem to be forgotten. More than a few East Germans long for their old communist system, when practically everyone had a safe job. They feel like they are the losers in the unification process.
     On the other hand, many West Germans are tired of carrying the financial burden of the unification.
     As a consequence, the Berlin Wall has been rebuilt--not in reality, but in the minds of the people.
     To help the East get on its feet, a special tax was created called the “additional solidarity charge.” The plan was to abolish this tax after only a few years, but it still exists, amounting to 7.5% of total salary. Both East and West Germans have to pay this tax, but without unification it wouldn’t exist. East Germany’s economy was shattered after more than 40 years of communist mismanagement.
     To understand why there were once two separate economic and political systems in Germany, a brief look at history is required.
     After World War II, Germany was split in two parts. One was controlled by the western Allies: France, Great Britain and the United States. The other one was governed by the former Soviet Union. The beginning of the “cold war” led to the foundation of two different countries, the west-oriented Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, known as West Germany) and the east-oriented German Democratic Republic (GDR, known as East Germany).
     While West Germany became part of the United Nations and the European Community and quickly developed economic wealth, East Germany was forced to adopt the planned economy of the USSR, and their production was dictated by political preferences, not by the demands of the people.
     Infrastructure and industry did not reach the same level in the East as it did in the West. Large parts of East German housing were either neglected over the years or built with contaminated materials, or both.
     After unification, East Germany had to be brought into alignment with West German standards. Though this expensive process is not yet completed, many significant things have already been accomplished. All East German state-run companies have been transformed into private firms, the railroad system has been renewed, and new highways have been built.
     The West German social security system--including health care, day care, and retirement, among other benefits--has been extended to East Germany. Previously, benefits had been quite different. East Germans were dissatisfied seeing the amount of their pensions decline, but the levels have gradually been raised. The West Germans were likewise dissatisfied, because they had to help pay for those pensions. They had to take over this responsibility as part of the unification costs, because the defunct East German state used to pay for pensions. In West Germany working people (except for civil servants) and their employers share pension expenses; these amount to 20.3% of salaries.
     Another example of the difficulties of unification is education. Although universities in East Germany are probably as good as those in the West, most students try to find a place at a university in the West.
     Some students would rather wait a year for a place in a West German university than have to attend one in East Germany. German students typically finish their university studies comparatively late (around the age of 25), so nobody really cares about one year more or less.
     A grave problem strongly related to unification is the rise of extreme right nationalist parties, especially in East Germany. These parties especially appeal to young people because they promise to provide jobs in a time of unemployment--18% in East Germany, 9% in West Germany.
     In election campaigns, these extreme right parties accuse foreigners of taking away jobs that they feel should be reserved for Germans. People believe such rhetoric because they want to believe it. They are tired of being told that solving their problems will take a long time. They want changes right away.
     German social scientists explain the rise of such nationalist parties in two ways. First, they point out that nationalism always existed in the East, but was suppressed. After unification it could break free. Second, East Germans do not feel properly represented by the ruling parties. There is only one East German party that survived the unification process: the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS)--the same party that governed the GDR, only with another name. Leadership of all relevant parties has been taken over by the West. There have been attempts to found East German parties but they have not been very successful. This might also be a reason for the large number of non-voters in the East; the people feel alienated.
     Another big difference between East and West is religion. Under the communist system, religious movements were mostly suppressed in East Germany. Some religious activity was tolerated, but the practice of religious could not be characterized as free. There was no religious instruction in schools either. Religious groups, interestingly, were one of the main forces behind the movement to liberate East Germany from the communist system.
     In West Germany, by contrast, virtually everyone is either Roman Catholic or Protestant. Kids receive religious instruction at school, and the state even collects taxes--up to 3% of salaries--in behalf of the churches, a fact that must seem strange to Americans.
     Because practically all West German standards now prevail, many East German women find they are now living in a country where emancipation is not as advanced as it was previously.
     These points show how difficult it may be to re-unite two countries with the same roots but 45 years of different history.
     The key to a better understanding between both parts of the country lies in economics. As long as some people in the West earn more money than their counterparts in the East for doing the same work, and as long as West Germans feel as if they are paying more than their fair share for the unification, resentment will continue to build, and the feeling of one national identity will not emerge properly.
     Evidence of discontent can be found in the little day-to-day things, as in jokes where East Germans are characterized as stupid and lazy while West Germans are seen as rich and arrogant.
     There is probably only one area where the unification has not caused any problems: sports. If there is a good swimmer or a good basketball player on a team, nobody mentions whether he comes from East or West Germany.
     If the German soccer team wins the World Cup in France this summer, for a short time Germany will truly be one unified nation.

Volker Kluepfel, a political science and journalism graduate of Otto Friedrich University in Bamberg, Germany, is a summer intern with this newspaper.

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This story was published on July 1, 1998.