Brandenburger Tor.

Thirty years later: East and West split over German unification

After three decades, Germans in the East and West still have very different perspectives on reunification and a unified Germany. This is the finding of our current study. However, the distinction between “East” and “West” is eroding with the shift in generations.

The history of German unification is told differently in eastern and western Germany. This is readily evident in our new study. For people in the country’s eastern states, the societal changes are closely linked to often-dramatic biographical upheavals. By contrast, people in the West often lack a personal connection to reunification. “German unification in the East is the history of the Peaceful Revolution and the Monday demonstrations, which ultimately brought about the Wende. The history in the West instead focuses on the collapse of the GDR due to its economic and political failings, which led inevitably to reunification,” says Kai Unzicker, our expert on social cohesion. The study took the form of an initial round of in-depth interviews and focus-group discussions, with the results afterward verified in a representative online survey of 1,581 people.

Around 90 percent of the respondents in both eastern and western Germany said that reunification has had a great or very great influence on the country over the last 30 years. Its level of perceived relevance is thus slightly higher than that of either the current coronavirus crisis or the so-called refugee crisis of 2015. It is striking in this regard that 74 percent of people in eastern Germany assess the impact of unification on their own life as having been great or very great, a considerably higher share than the 61 percent of western Germans who say the same. “In the life of western Germans, the issue of whether someone comes from the East or the West plays only a minor role. For eastern Germans, by contrast, origin remains a significantly more determinative aspect of personal identity, even today,” Unzicker said.

For example, among people in eastern Germany, there is still a strong feeling that many things that had functioned well under the GDR were lost in the course of reunification. A total of 84 percent of this population still holds this opinion. “Respondents in the East often feel that there was not a new common society created at that time. Rather, they see the western German system as having been imposed upon them through unification and feel that they were forced to adapt to it,” says Jana Faus of the Berlin-based agency, Pollytix Strategic Research, which carried out the study on behalf of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

A total of 85 percent of eastern Germans older than 55 think they deserve more recognition for the Peaceful Revolution. Conversely, older western Germans say they should receive greater recognition for having financed reunification. The perception of fairness plays a major role in these feelings. Among the eastern German respondents, 83 percent say they were unfairly treated following reunification. In addition, around 60 percent of them say they are regarded as second-class citizens, while only 21 percent of western Germans say this of the eastern Germans.

In addition to looking at the differences between the East and West, the study also examined the perspectives of people with a migration background regarding today’s Germany and the process of unification. More than half of this group (54 percent) said that reunification has had a great or very great influence on their own life. At the same time, the share of those in this population group that say they are treated as second-class citizens is relatively high, at 60 percent. The qualitative interviews also showed that many people with a migration background have had the experience of not being recognized equally as Germans – even when they are convinced that they have fulfilled all the requirements of the majority society.

The authors of the study conclude that the process of unification is not yet complete, even 30 years after the reunification of the two German states. However, while there remain clearly discernable differences in the attitudes of people in the East and West, and among those with and without a migration background, there are also many unifying elements: “Language, history, a strong work ethic and solidarity are – to simplify somewhat – the four elements that constitute the core of Germanness today for all of the participants in our study,” says Faus, a co-author of the study. It is also evident that the distinction between “East” and “West” is losing significance over the course of time, and with the shift in generations.

TV documentary on the study

According to the authors, both the processes of German unification and of immigration have to date been dominated by demands for adaptation. They say that it is thus important to make more of the opportunity to engage everyone in reshaping and developing a broader sense of community across Germany. “In the coming years in Germany, we should work to develop a future-oriented vision that allows everyone to contribute something and which values the experiences and biographies of every part of the population,” Unzicker concluded.

The qualitative portion of the study was accompanied by a television production team. The result is the documentary program, “We 80 million. What unites us as Germans,” which was broadcast on September 9, 2020 at 20:15 on 3sat and is now available on the station’s online media library.