Thirty years after reunification, divisions between East and West Germany persist

The Berlin Wall falls, November 1989. Image: Getty.

The ghost of the Berlin Wall lives on 30 years after its collapse. It sweeps through the statistics on immigrant populations (higher in the west) and on poverty, pensioners and electoral support for the Left Party Die Linke and for far-right parties (all higher in the east). Persistent east-west division intersects with class divides, as well as historical and present forms of institutional racism. This provides the backdrop for the particular success of far-right parties in Germany’s eastern provinces.

In the years that followed unification, eastern Germany slipped from being one of the most industrialised regions of Europe to one of the least. Average productivity had long been lower than in the west. In 1945 the zone that became the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was occupied by a weak and war-ravaged superpower, the Soviet Union, which plundered its industries and infrastructure.

In contrast, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was pulled into the US sphere, with its much larger markets. It benefited from immigration flows – including from the GDR – and from self-reinforcing logics of agglomeration, whereby increased investments attract further capital and skilled workers, and so on in a virtuous circle.

The GDR also suffered from the general crises of the Soviet bloc. The Soviet system that took shape in 1928 had enabled Russia, an abysmally poor society, to industrialise rapidly during the interwar era. But with globalisation from the 1960s onward, Soviet bloc enterprises were handicapped by their weaker ability to internationalise sales and operations. In the 1980s, crisis hit the region and the Soviet bloc’s trade networks collapsed.

Economic divide

On unification, the conservative government of Helmut Kohl set the exchange rate of the Ostmark to the Deutschmark at 1:1 – a 300-400 per cent increase in the value of the Ostmark. Profitability for eastern firms could be maintained only if costs were reduced accordingly, but this was impossible given that all other input prices and overheads were themselves subject to the revaluation. No enterprise could withstand that shock unaided.

The Kohl government of the early 1990s adopted a blasé attitude to deindustrialisation in the east. It set up an agency, the Treuhandanstalt (nicknamed the “Handover Agency”) that oversaw the fire-sale privatisation of eastern enterprises and land – including the sacrifice of perfectly viable firms. The sell-off was accompanied by legal and illegal corruption and was heavily tilted to the interests of western businesses.

Helmut Kohl oversaw German reunification. Image: Wikipedia / Bundesarchiv / Thomas Uhlemann/creative commons.

Beneath the German flag-waving, the pickings of unification were taken by the largely western rich. Overall, only 5% of Treuhandanstalt businesses were sold to easterners, 85% to westerners. Germany’s economic divide resumed, with senior management and the bulk of high-value activities located in the west.

The “great handover” combined with agglomeration logics to ensure that Germany’s western states attracted the bulk of capital and skilled migrants – this expanded local markets and, in turn, attracted further investment and immigration. Meanwhile, the declining regions of the east experienced emigration and stagnation, depopulated ghost towns and the wholesale demolition of housing.

Stuttering attempts to close the gap

The German government attempted to counter this east-west divide in two main ways but both also reinforced underlying differences. One was the construction of the east as a low-wage territory and neoliberal testing ground. In a bid to attract investment, employers were encouraged to experiment with practices that the stronger trade unions in the west would block. National collective bargaining agreements were ripped up in the east. This undermined workers’ strength and morale throughout Germany, but the extremes were in the east, particularly in Saxony, which suffers Germany’s highest rate of circumvention of collective agreements.

The other was state expenditure. “Solidarity” transfers of wealth from west to east were very substantial. This helped salaries and per capita GDP in the former east rise to around 80 per cent of the west in the early 2000s. But the gap has stuck at roughly that level ever since, and is predicted to continue or even widen.

West-east transfers are rather like giving fish to someone after taking their fishing rod. Because most of the east’s assets were appropriated by western interests, much of Germany’s transfer spending goes from western taxpayers to the east, then boomerangs back in the shape of rent and profits. To this extent, the transfer is from western workers to western proprietors, recycled through eastern infrastructure projects and welfare recipients.

Second-class status

Inequality and poverty are relevant to the higher levels of racism found in the east. So too are the recurring crises and insecurity that have wracked eastern Germany since unification, and the global slowdown that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

However, reference to regional socioeconomic cleavages and crises only takes us so far. After all, the right-wing, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party receives strong support in low-unemployment Zwickau (in Saxony). It polls better in the wealthy western states (Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemberg) than in the poorer Ruhr. Its support is, according to several studies, stronger among higher income earners and the self-employed than blue-collar workers, with fear of economic decline and alienation a strong psychological factor.

A key piece of this puzzle is found in the tangles of nation and immigration. In 1990, eastern Germans voted for FRG citizenship. In economic terms, as we’ve seen, something closer to annexation was the outcome. In political terms the hope was for full and rapid equality. “We are one people” was the chant on the streets as 1989 passed to 1990.

But politically, too, East Germans have experienced a form of annexation. Sweeping transformations were rammed through with little reference to public opinion or even parliament. Unification itself was accomplished by fiat, under the “annexation” paragraph of the federal constitution.

Westerners were appointed to most positions of power in the east, including senior civil service posts, professorships, and the top jobs in industry and the armed forces. East Germans were plunged into a quasi-immigrant position. They had left their Heimat behind and found themselves in a strange country. Their social furniture was suddenly upended. Their cultural capital (certificates, knowledge, etc) was devalued. Experiences of disorientation and dislocation were ubiquitous. East Germans, in journalist Toralf Staud’s words, “emigrated while remaining rooted to the spot”.

The analogy is loose, given that easterners did not face racism. Nonetheless, the perception of second-class status was hard to avoid. Perhaps, they thought, we are not “one people”?

Scapegoating immigrants

Grievances at discrimination can translate into a desire to rebuke elites and central government. And to some extent the Left Party Die Linke is the beneficiary. But where labour institutions and solidarities are weak, as in much of the east, non-German immigrants can be scapegoated.

Labour and immigration policies pre-1989 explain the east-west distinction here. In the FRG, racism and sexism were dominant ideologies in the postwar decades. There was appalling discrimination meted out to economic immigrants and asylum seekers. But rapid economic growth combined with the sluggish rise in women entering the workforce from the 1960s through the 1980s meant immigrants were recruited on a substantial scale. Decade after decade, they fought for their livelihoods, made friends with colleagues and neighbours and won their integration from below. Bigotry was pushed back.

Percentage of Germans without a migrant background (2016). Image: Underlying lk / Wikipedia/creative commons.

The GDR experienced the reverse. The official ideology was egalitarian and, on the face of things, anti-racist and anti-sexist. Women entered the workforce during boom times. But few immigrants arrived and those that did come were subject to brutal state discrimination and segregation. Few were permitted to settle, and the post-1989 economic collapse ensured the picture did not change. Trade unions were banned, and solidarity in workplaces centred on the (invariably white, German) work team.

Given that contact with immigrants generally undermines xenophobia, far-right parties are enjoying success in areas of low immigration, especially the east. Against expectations, the AfD receives strong support from some immigrants, but of a specific category: the German-heritage “late re-settlers” from Russia and Eastern Europe.

Many of these trends exist in Germany’s western states too, including the rise of the AfD. There is also a longstanding distrust of mainstream politicians and institutions. This is nourished by a perception that elites have feathered their nests and dumped the consequences of unification and economic crisis on the rest. The west has also experienced a rise in poverty – indeed, the east-west poverty gap is actually lower now than ten years ago.

Similarly, an “overwhelming majority” of people in Germany, according to a recent Eurobarometer report, hold that income inequality is excessive. So, together with anti-racist activism in East and West alike, the potential for a politics that cuts across “ethnic” divisions is clear.

The Conversation

Gareth Dale, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Brunel University London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.