Thirty Years After the Berlin Wall Fell, the Battle for German Unity Still Rages

Chris Reiter
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Thirty Years After the Berlin Wall Fell, the Battle for German Unity Still Rages

(Bloomberg) -- Diana Lehmann was six when the Wall came down. 

A month or so later, she remembers, her parents drove the family to Bavaria in their East German-built Trabant to try out this strange new freedom they’d been handed. 

With $50 each of “welcome money” from the West German government to spend, they took her into a toy store. But it was all too much. 

Back home in the East, she’d have had a choice of brown stuffed animal or a gray one. Here the range of choices, the bright colors and flashing light were bewildering. They left with most of the money still in their pockets. 

The shock was only just beginning.

To most outsiders, German reunification was a historic success—the communist guards who opened the gates to the West exactly 30 years ago on Saturday were helping to end the Cold War and spread democracy through eastern Europe. 

 

But to those pitched into the reality of overnight capitalism, it was brutal. 

Thousands of companies were shuttered, thousands more sold off in a state fire-sale and more than 3 million people lost their jobs. Lehmann, who’s now a lawmaker in the state assembly of Thuringia, says that growing up, she barely knew a single family that wasn’t affected.

“In the West, there’s too little understanding for what the transformation meant for the lives of people in the East,” she says, walking past the socialist tower block in Jena where she grew up in the precarious years after reunification.

As the battle between globalization and populism rages across the western world, those scars are putting eastern Germany on the frontline again. 

Unemployment has gradually converged with the West—in October, it was 6.1% versus 4.6%. But wages are still about 20% lower than they are in the West and the post-reunification exodus has left behind a rapidly ageing society that’s suspicious of being caught on the wrong side of history all over again. 

An earlier generation of easterners watched the Red Army ship their factory machinery back to the Soviet Union after World War II, while the West was rebuilt with funds from the Marshall Plan. 

The current one has seen billions of euros handed to banks in Frankfurt, the government in Greece and refugees arriving from Syria while the 1.5 trillion euros ($1.7 trillion) spent on rebuilding their economy has faded. The government has rolled back the so-called solidarity tax this year, drawing a line under its rebuilding efforts. 

 

With Donald Trump insisting it’s “America First” while the Brexiteers in London and the nationalists in Budapest tug at either end of the European Union, many in the east feel their government is too quick to help out foreigners or the rich while they are being left behind.

In last months’s state election in Thuringia, the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 23%, doubling its share of the vote to leave the legislature gridlocked. Lehmann’s Social Democrats trailed in fourth place with just 8%.

“These trends exist throughout the world,” said Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, a historian from East Berlin and the author of a book on reunification. “But they’re happening faster and more dramatically in East Germany.”

For the past 15 years, easterners have had Angela Merkel, the communist-trained physicist who became chancellor of all Germany, as a symbol that their views are represented at the highest level. But that chapter is drawing to a close. 

Merkel is retreating from the tussles of day-to-day politics and her ministers are increasingly flouting her authority at the tail end of her career.

Merkel herself has become increasingly bleak in the twilight of her chancellorship. Speaking privately to those around her, she expresses little confidence in the next generation of German leaders and sees the world sinking further into chaos once she’s gone. 

Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD’s victorious leader in Thuringia, embodies Merkel’s fears. He has said that Germany is “crippled” by its practice of commemorating Nazi crimes and called the Berlin Holocaust memorial near Brandenburg Gate a “monument of shame.” His party was the most popular among voters under 45—that is to say those coming of age in a united Germany.

 

There’s another side to eastern Germany though.

In the communist housing projects where Lehmann grew up, people stuck together and they helped each other out, she says. And that spirit continued even after the regime collapsed. 

After her parents lost their jobs at the high-grade lens maker Carl Zeiss, Lehmann was often left on her own. Her father tried his luck as a sound engineer touring Europe but wound up pushing trolleys at the local supermarket. 

“We were just as hard-working as people in the West, and we also had smart people,” says her mother, Angelika Spirk, who eventually landed a stable job managing operating-room supplies in a hospital. 

“I’m happy with how things turned out,” she says, “but I don’t want anyone to cut off my past.”

Lehmann would bring herself back from school, make her food, do her homework, with neighbors watching out for her. That, she says, shaped her politics. 

As a student, she volunteered at a food bank, but wanted to do more to address the social problems she encountered. She joined the SPD in 2006, became the head of the party’s youth organization in the state in 2009 and entered Thuringia’s parliament in 2014.

“I want it so people stay here and raise a family,” she said, in her office in the state capital, Erfurt, where there’s a crib for her two-year-old daughter and a Playmobil fairy hanging from a light fixture.

“People here live under extreme uncertainty,” she adds. 

The state election campaign took its own toll on family life, with Lehmann often getting home long after her daughter had been tucked up in bed. And at the end, voters chose the anger and the slogans of the AfD over her vision for bringing Germans together, rooted in the turbulent years that followed communism.

On the night of the results, she and her team were last to leave the bar in the state capital’s medieval center, the mood somber as they absorbed the fact that they’d lost a third of their seats. But a few days later, back out on the streets, she was ready to get back to work. 

“The only good thing is that it’s over,” she said. “It’s a shock, but we have to continue to fight.”

 

--With assistance from Tony Czuczka and Samuel Dodge.

To contact the author of this story: Chris Reiter in Berlin at creiter2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net

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