EXPLAINED: The crisis in east Germany

In January 1989, Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany, confidently predicted that the Berlin Wall would endure for 50 to 100 years. However, just 10 months later, in November 1989, the wall crumbled. Despite the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), its influence persists in Germany’s cultural, economic, and political landscape.

As of 2024, the eastern part of Germany remains a focal point for anti-establishment movements. Three of the former GDR states will conduct regional elections in September, shaping expectations for the upcoming general election. The far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is leading in polls across these states and nationally. In grappling with the surge of extremism, the question arises: what challenges persist in the east?

East Germans, or “Ossis,” have long faced suspicion from a media landscape primarily controlled by west Germans, or “Wessis.” Even, regional papers often have western editorial staff, influencing perceptions. Last year, Mathias Döpfner, head of media group Axel Springer, faced backlash for stereotyping Ossis as either communists or fascists. Government officials, including during Angela Merkel’s tenure, have expressed skepticism about the readiness of some Ossis for democracy, contributing to a sense of marginalization.

The identity of being “east German” is significant, with 40% explicitly identifying as such. This identity, combined with feelings of marginalization, provides fertile ground for the AfD’s exploitation. To regain trust, other political parties need empathy rather than condemnation, acknowledging the unique experiences of east Germans.

Economic disparities persist, with east Germans having 11% less disposable income and inheriting only half as much wealth as their western counterparts. Despite these imbalances, a reluctance to address economic issues stems from the fear of being labeled “Jammerossi,” or “yammering Ossi.” However, signs suggest a shift in the public dialogue about the east.

A new “east-west debate” has emerged, fueled by bestselling books that explore the experiences of those born in the GDR. These publications challenge the discrimination and power imbalances that perpetuate the east-west divide. Notably, there is a growing national discussion about east Germany’s past, present, and future, emphasizing the need to address the concerns and identities of east Germans seriously.

As Germany commemorates 35 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is crucial to ensure that the invisible wall dividing the country does not persist for another 50 or 100 years. Taking Germans’ experiences seriously is essential for fostering a more united and inclusive Germany.

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