Op-Ed

Matthew David Penn: East Germany still lags West 25 years after unification

It took several years to tear down the walls that separated Berlin and Germany into two parts.
It took several years to tear down the walls that separated Berlin and Germany into two parts.

It has been 25 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. While the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, the country did not formally reunify until a year later when the territory of the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany) was integrated, some would say annexed, into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, before 1990 known as West Germany).

As a unified nation, Germany is now a major regional power in Europe, with a very strong economy. How have Eastern Germans fared in the reunified nation?

Sadly, the living standards in Eastern Germany are still behind those in Western Germany. According to both Eurostat, the European Union's statistical agency, and the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, unemployment and poverty are higher in Eastern Germany than in Western Germany.

The unemployment rate in Eastern Germany ranges from 6.0 percent in Thuringia to 10.6 percent in Berlin — well above the national average of 5.3 percent.

In Eastern Germany, the at-risk-of-poverty rate is 19.7 percent, compared to 14 percent in Western Germany.

In 2011, the average monthly income was 4,090 euros for a household in Western Germany, but it was only 3,080 euros in Eastern Germany (Federal Statistical Office, 2012d; Federal Statistical Office, 2012c).

How have Eastern Germans' views of the GDR and reunification been affected by these poor economic conditions?

According to a poll taken in 2009, 57 percent of Eastern Germans either completely or largely approved of their lives in the GDR. Many in Western Germany and the United States would write off such sentiments to historical ignorance, but Eastern Germans' resentment is more understandable when put into this socioeconomic context.

Eastern German resentment of political reunification was not unavoidable, but it was the product of short-sighted policies during the reunification process. The economy in Eastern Germany collapsed after reunification. The German government facilitated the sale of every state-owned company in the GDR for fire sale prices. Once it was over, all of the factories and state-owned businesses were shut down and 25 percent of Eastern Germans were out of work.

To make matters worse, the German government had to spend over a trillion and a half euros rebuilding infrastructure in Eastern Germany.

In a form of politics we are all too familiar with in the United States, the German people subsidized the corporate takeover of East Germany. Despite the faults of the GDR, its citizens were socialized in the political system and culture. The civic organizations, media, food and even street signs all changed when the two countries reunified.

Eastern Germans experienced culture shock within their homeland, and the German government did nothing to ease the transition.

How could these problems have been prevented? The political transition should have been phased over a longer period of time, between five to 10 years, to give East and West Germans time to prepare for reunification. A new government with a new constitution should have been created when West and East Germany reunified.

Finally, the FRG should have paid more attention to poverty and unemployment in Eastern Germany. The liquidation of East German-owned companies should have been conditioned on the continued employment of their workers.

I certainly agree with the decision to dismantle the Berlin Wall and all border fortifications, but the German government should have given more consideration to the problems of Eastern Germans.

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