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That ‘East Thing’ – Thoughts on Anger and Loss in Germany’s East

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Jan Bachmann | 3 September 2019

“It was not possible to explain that ‘East thing’ to West Germans: too ambiguous, too complicated, too many feelings … Memories shrink in the course of a life, they become vague and often self-righteous. But what I still know for sure about East Germany even today is that I had a life there. Another life. And sometimes I painfully return to it.” - Anja Maier

“Complete the revolution” (“Vollende die Wende!”), “Wende 2.0”: Germany’s reactionary party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) peppered its campaign ahead of the elections in two of the five Eastern German states with a straightforward reference to the mass protests that swept away the GDR regime 30 years ago. Decorated with cloudy black-and-white pictures of the Leipzig protests in October 1989, the message is clear: bringing down ‘the system’ remains unfinished business. The message seems to have traveled well. On 1 September, around one in four voters in Saxony and Brandenburg cast his or her ballot for the AfD, making it the second strongest party in these two parliaments. In Saxony, the AfD almost tripled its results since the last state elections. These results are the preliminary climax of a debate on identity, migration, and nationalism that has been flaring up for some time. For five years now, the xenophobic Pegida movement has mobilized hundreds for weekly rallies in Dresden, demonstrating against immigration and the ‘Merkel system.’ Similarly, an internationally acclaimed East German painter has recently been accused of flirting with the new right, while a prolific author leads anti-migration appeal.

Politicians have addressed the growing anger expressed at the ballot boxes as well as on the streets mainly in two ways: by taking seriously our furious fellows (or ‘Wutbürger’) or simply giving up on the East. Both solutions are probably somehow right and completely wrong. Choosing the former carries the risk of giving in to radicals and undermines the grassroots engagement by those who stayed and who are not willing to accept that racists dominate their local pubs and football clubs. Choosing the latter means accepting that a considerable portion of the population in the East is and will be out of reach for pluralist and democratic voices.

Two observations about the state of the East can safely be made. First, nationalist and xenophobic expressions are anything but a new phenomenon in Germany’s East. On the contrary, racist attacks have been part of the everyday experience of migrants residing in the East for decades. Second, almost three decades after the collapse of the GDR, trust in the instruments of governance and the political decision-making process amongst East Germans is low. Not even half of East Germans think that representative democracy is the best political system. People in the West often watch the East with disbelief. Despite the beautifully renovated city centers, the great highways, the transfer of billions of DM and Euro, and the freedom gained in 1990, happiness does not seem to have ensued. Commentators in the West regularly wonder: why the frustration, the constant whining, the withdrawal?

The 1990s - no end of history

There is a popular answer to this question: the problem can be traced back to the long grey decades of “actual existing socialism” and its material (and intellectual) deprivations. Decades of authoritarian rule and the absence of lived democracy, the argument goes, cannot be redeemed within only a few years. Moreover, democracy needs to be learned; and in turn, obedience to authoritarian structures unlearned. Yet, this almost obsessive reference to the GDR as the single explanatory factor masks something more important: an appreciation of the magnitude of the social and economic upheaval that hit East Germany in the immediate years after the transfer of the GDR to the West. Zooming in on the lived experiences of millions of East Germans throughout the 1990s may help us understand a bit more why a deep political frustration persists. Simply put: for the East, the 1990s were not the end of history. Quite the contrary, the 1990s were formative and disturbing as a series of recent brilliant books, written by authors born in the 1970s and early 1980s testifies (see here, here and here). Whilst for my generation, then in-between childhood and adolescence, the decade was full of excitement, experiments and excess, for more than a few in my parents’ generation, the then 35-50-year-olds, it spelled a deep and lengthy crisis.

Collapse and precarity as rite of passage

While peacetime economic transformations usually unfold within decades, the de facto de-industrialization of East Germany occurred within the span of a few years. After the reckless introduction of ‘hard currency’ on 1 July 1990 at a bizarre exchange rate of 2:1, the economy crashed more or less immediately. Salaries could no longer be paid; orders were cancelled as bills had to be settled overnight in D-Mark. The effects were grave. Between 1990 and 1992 around 2.5 million people lost their jobs. Millions of others were forced to seek their fortune in the West. All the major industrial state companies were closed down or broken up by the notorious ‘Trust Agency’ (Treuhandanstalt). What’s worse, thousands spent the last months before their release into unemployment dismantling their own factories, and thereby undoing their own biographies. With the closing down of hundreds of industrial plants, millions did not only lose their jobs but a significant part of their social network as much of the social and cultural life in the GDR was organized via the state companies and organizations.

In my home town, Altenburg, in the GDR’s industrial core between Leipzig and Karl-Marx-Stadt (today Chemnitz), one in four was soon registered jobless. For the following fifteen years, the unemployment rate in Altenburg would stubbornly remain at 20%. In addition to the jobs gone, millions turned their backs to the place where they grew up. Since 1990, East Germany lost almost a quarter of its residents to the West. Altenburg, a city where until 1990 thousands worked in mining, heavy industry and manufacturing, lost 40% of its population.

In rural areas, many people experienced the new state primarily as failing to deliver services as with the people went the grocery store, the school, the bus to the next town and, finally, the doctor. Unsurprisingly then, 'becoming East German’, is closely attached to an experience of collapse, loss and uncertainty as the journalist Jana Hensel and the sociologist Wolfgang Engler discuss.

A new avantgarde (… in the neoliberal condition)

In the meantime, both those migrating to the West and those remaining were expected to adapt smoothly to the requests of the market, where habits, for decades engineered by an ideology of collectivity now had to be turned into entrepreneurship. Flexibility was the key and found its expression in lower pay, temporary contracts, retraining, and a spatial separation between workplace (West) and home (East). In this regard, the East German employee constituted the neoliberal subject par excellence. After all, the end of the Cold War coincided with the transition from an industrial to an economy based on services and knowledge as much as with the triumph of neoliberalism in the West.

Hundreds of thousands did not cope with the constant reminder to ‘try harder’. Neither was the ensuing circle of unemployment, short-term training, temporary jobs, followed by another chapter of joblessness an experience on which trust to the new system was easily built. At the same time, trying harder was also increasingly understood as trying harder to be less Eastern German. Going West for work, many East Germans decided to put as little emphasis as possible on their upbringing in the East. After all, the future was to be won; and this venture was too important to be grown on a past now considered futile. Denying the relevance of one's own biography has become one of the more typical East German qualities – mastered to perfection by chancellor Angela Merkel.

Emancipation and reaction

Many observers now wonder how the East Germans may be able to re-appropriate some of the principles and experiences that had been considered false or irrelevant. It certainly takes time to make the economic and social upheaval of the 1990s part of a new, albeit not less ambivalent, narrative. In this, the grand debates of the past four years – on immigration, on the rise of populism and nationalism as well as on the narrowing economic gap between the East and the West – seem to have accelerated such a process. It is only now that the German public begins to discuss the state of things between the East and the West on a more equal footing – often painful but more honest. In the ongoing discussion of what is an adequate remedy for inequality, redistribution or recognition, the latter has only just gained traction.

Faced with the growing presence of the AfD, politicians in the West have found an appetite for listening to and acknowledging the experiences of the 1990s. At the same time, it looks like more and more East Germans have learned to treasure their biographies, which are anything but linear. However, the frail East German self-confidence expresses itself in parts as flagrant parochialism. It seems that support for nationalist forces and a new East German confidence, reaction and emancipation, go hand in hand. Researchers on migration have added a refreshing perspective in this regard. Naika Fourutan, for example, has argued that East Germans and particularly Muslim migrants share a number of experiences. Economically, both groups, are in a relative sense most deprived. In addition, both groups hold strong views about the lack of representation, participation, and recognition in wider German society and tend to romanticize the past. When drawn too far, every analogy risks obliterating important differences. In some ways, however, the shared experiences carry the potential for solidarity and collective forms of claim-making. In practice, the relationship tends to be more often one of rivalry and rejection (in an interesting parallel, Arlie Russell Hochschild has made a similar observation about the views on migrants held by conservative voters in rural America).

The Wutbürger at Pegida aim to generate a single narrative about ‘who we are’ in East Germany. However, alongside them in books, articles, conversations, blogs, East Germans of different generations are also trying to come to terms with the formative period of the last three decades. Their stories show that it is not possible to speak about the East with a single voice. Even my own biography contains a number of distinct versions of the East: life of a young pioneer in the village, politicization through confrontation with neo Nazis in a pretty (shrinking) town and studying in a city where empty spaces once invited chaos and creativity (and where it now requires two salaries to afford the rent). It is no wonder, then, that the East thing is so hard to explain: it is no easy feat to pick up the threads of 30 years of experience and sentiment, and stitch them together into one coherent narrative.


Jan Bachmann is a Senior Lecturer in peace and development research and international relations. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Bristol, UK and an M.A. in political science from the University of Leipzig, Germany.



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