This text was originally published in German as a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST series. It is based on a conversation that BG’s editorial team had with historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk. You can find more texts, works, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website.
Reunification took place in accord with the classic pattern of othering. There was one dominant space: the Federal Republic. Here the norms were set—the norms that have been apostrophized as universality. And these norms and values had to be transformed and transported into the “empty space” of East Germany. But this space was not empty, of course, though it was treated as if it were empty. And that only works if one reconstructs what existed there before in two different yet compatible ways.
One of these constructions homogenizes East German space. One pretends that everything in that space – from north to south, from east to west – is uniform. There are no differences. And here there are two amplitudinal swings. On the one hand, there are those who resisted this system until ‘89, whom one exploits to legitimate the new order, and on the other hand there are those who represented the old system and now continue to cling to it. One introduces these two human categories as living proof of the necessity of deligitimizing the whole of what was going on there, while the mass in between them is simply homogenized. And that is exactly what happened.
In this way, a homogenized space of East Germany and a homogenized population were created on the drawing boards of power: the East Germans. Regarding this construct of the East German, it must be said that this is also what has lasted the longest. The construction of the East German, who is always East German, practically everywhere in the world. You can cross-check this with the idea of the West German. The West German exists only in East Germany, nowhere else in this world. No one would think of calling someone from Munich a West German if she were in Hamburg. Linguistically, West Germans exist only in the East. There they also call themselves that. But that is rather an unreflective adaptation to the local usage. East Germans exist everywhere.
Why does this happen? First of all, for a simple reason, i.e., for a purpose. If you want to transform a complete economic, monetary, and sociopolitical system into an area overnight—according to the will of the people living there, it must be emphasized—then in principle you have to treat this area as if nothing had existed there before. This is not at all unusual. We know this from history; such processes have taken place everywhere, usually with drastic consequences. The peculiar situation in East Germany was that three quarters of East Germans wanted this tough transformation process. They voted for it. What they did not want, however, were the consequences.
Ongoing phantom pains
This is where the dispute begins, even in research and the public sphere. Many apologists of reunification in the form it actually took say that everything that followed was wanted by the East Germans. And I say: No. All the East Germans wanted on March 18 was the rapid transfer of the West German system to the GDR, which still existed at the time; above all, they wanted the Deutsche Mark. But to infer from this that they could also foresee, and even that they wanted, all the consequences that resulted, is absurd. Of course, almost no one wanted these consequences, and these consequences were then justified again and again by the homogenization of space and society. From the standpoint of power politics and the techniques of domination, this discourse of a willing population in a homogenous space made it possible to justify and apply the new principles just wonderfully.
If you look at this closely, you can see that in the debate about reunification over the last 30 years, we have always focused on one question: What went right economically? What has happened politically? How much money was in flow? And I say: There is no question at all, it is obvious that enormous financial resources and dramatic social costs have been paid for this reunification. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Millions had to retrain, many people in the East never again became independent of state-subsidized resources.
Virtually every family in the former GDR has been affected. An incredible upheaval of the entire society took place here within a very short time. You can illustrate this reality quite simply: West German society took almost 25 years to develop from an industrial society into a service society. East Germany has had one night, if you will, for this same process.
The loss of cultural positions
This brings me to what is actually a much more interesting point, one that persists and which is usually passed over in positive accounts of unification: people have not only lost social positions, and political positions in any case, but above all they have lost cultural positions. No one was ever able to give these cultural positions back to them, and this loss still has the effect of an aching phantom limb today.
To understand this, you have to realize the following: the GDR was a society of labour, as was the Western world until the end of the 1960s, beginning of the 1970s. But the term “labour society” was associated with something quite different in the GDR. Work was not only an integral part of everyday life, but—and this is the big difference—in the GDR individuals’ entire social and private lives were organized around work and the institution in which one worked. In other words, everything that makes up a society.
That included health care—both preventive medicine and care for the sick. It included vacations, childcare, sports clubs, cultural clubs, art clubs. Everything was organized around the workplace. So you not only worked together, but you went on vacation together, you were sick together, and you got well together. Children went to summer camps together, they did sports together, many people fell in love in these institutions, they were together in reading circles or theatre clubs, and so on.
In 1990, even before—and this must always be clearly emphasized—the actual transformation shock set in, i.e. even before the currency union, this already largely collapsed. This happened because all companies, all cooperatives, all state institutions let go of the non-productive areas of their structures first of all, in order to become more flexible, to save costs. The far lower labour-productivity in the GDR was also—though not only!—due to the fact that the non-productive areas were so enormous. It was not only the bureaucracy of these enterprises, but also their cultural, sports, and leisure areas.
The collapse of these institutions completely changed social life in the East. This, in turn, was met with total incomprehension by those who had taken over overnight, namely the elites from the West, because they had never known such institutions in their own lives and so had no awareness of what they had meant for East Germans. And now?
This example illustrates how two different ways of life collided. You might say, “What’s the problem? East Frisians and Swabians also live very different lives.” Yes. But those differences are playing out in a space where something is being fundamentally rebuilt, far removed from the experience of those who lived there. Now you can ask yourself whether this radical reconstruction was so necessary. Three quarters of the East Germans voted for it. Not me, by the way. I didn’t choose this path at the time because it was clear to me that there would be a clash and because I wanted unification to be slower, more cautious, more at eye level, more self-confident and less submissive. I was self-confident, so why shouldn’t I be allowed to expect self-confidence from society? But the majority chose that, and wanted something else. In that respect, there was no alternative to that for the time being. At least that is how it was presented, and I still believe that there was no alternative. Incidentally, I can put it so casually because, unlike many others, I only gained from it and really lost nothing, nothing at all.
But people wanted the Deutsche Mark, and of course the D-Mark didn’t come for free; it came only if people were willing to accept all the institutions and legal systems that guaranteed that currency’s stability. Anything else would not have worked. The institutions in turn, the legal institutions, the economic institutions, the welfare state institutions, could of course only be built up reasonably smoothly and function reasonably well from one day to the next if people who were familiar with them took charge of them. This is the beginning of the transfer of elites from West to East.
Elite transfer from West to East
The elites who came from the West, doubtless in the tens of thousands, were the standard setters. Now what happens is this: These norm-setters came to institutions where they took the reins, and the mass of people who worked there had a completely different socio-political, cultural-political background. This logically led to harsh conflicts, because the norm-setters naturally regarded themselves as the norm and accordingly made themselves the norm to which the majority had to orient itself. In principle, what happened was this: The West said, “you Easterners must become what we Westerners believe that we are.” That was the essence of this process, and it has continued up to this day. The Westerners who initially came to the East consistently came as supervisors. We know very well from general business research what such power relationships mean and do. The culture of fusion generally meant that one side should become what the other already is, or at least believes it is. Politically, this may be explicable, but culturally, such an approach is a disaster.
This is also reflected in this completely naive demand—which is nonetheless interesting to the student of discourse—and which one has been hearing for three decades: “We have to tell each other our life-stories.” In fact, what’s behind this is not the demand that every person from Wanne-Eickel tells me my story in East Berlin. Rather, it means that the person who has moved here, that is, the East German, tells his story to the majority society in the West. This should also be the case when the person from Paderborn came to Riesa. It was not the newcomer who had to explain himself; rather, the one who had always lived here established had to tell his story to the person from Paderborn so that the latter would accept it—the reverse was not true, it did not even matter. The West, i.e. the majority society, listens to this, takes note of it benevolently and gives a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. So: You are one of us or not.
In other words, the majority society decides who is accepted and who is not. And for this the life-stories must be told. It is not about mutual understanding and getting to know each other, it was a one-way street. It has been so from the beginning. That sounds like a master plan, of course, but there was no such thing. These are social and cultural production processes that simply take place in such powerful discourses and ultimately power relationships. One person has the say and the others have to follow suit. Those who have the money have the say. You could put it as simply as that. I don’t need to bother with 19th century classics to explain that.
That led to a great many conflicts at all levels. Such tensions exist everywhere in societies where different subgroups clash and one subgroup exercises power and domination. But why did the discourse on German unity run the way it did over the last three decades? In other words, why has a broader critical discussion about the course of unification only occurred in recent years? I believe this is essentially related to three points.
Critical voices unwelcome
The first point is perhaps the most important. It’s probably not as conceivable today, but anyone who spoke critically about the unification process in the 1990s was more or less considered a supporter of the SED-PDS and thus an apologist for the defunct system. For example: until 1989, people in the West often said, when someone was critical, “Well, go to Moscow!”—this is how, in principle, many who were critical of the reunification process have been treated since 1990. One immediately came under suspicion of belonging to the old forces of the defunct system and possibly wanting to defend this system apologetically. I would like to add self-critically that I was not free of this attitude for a long time, simply because I was glad to be rid of the GDR and strongly and rejected the SED-PDS strongly and without differentiation in the 1990s.
This view has persisted until today among many older and conservative witnesses of reunification. This can also be seen in the way some critics confront my book “The Takeover” and me personally. Some have meanwhile declared me an apologist for the GDR, which is quite absurd. After all, this is not the first book I have written as a historian—up to now I have had rather the opposite reputation. By the way, all of this has something to do with the fact that those who, in their analysis of the unification process, not only look at how many billions or trillions flowed from West to East, but also ask about the social and cultural costs, make themselves suspect. Especially people who were themselves active shapers of German unification have a problem with this.
The role of the financial crisis
The second point that made new critical perspectives on the post-1990 period necessary was the global financial crisis of 2007/2008, which massively questioned, challenged, and shook the prevailing paradigm in the West that capitalist structures, as they are, have no alternative. This led to a revival of neo-Marxist approaches and to the question of what had actually gone (wrong) with the transformation of Eastern Europe and especially the GDR. This led to the realization that after 1990 neoliberalism had run particularly rampant in the East, with particularly serious consequences. In spite of the fact that East Germany and Germany in general were still comparatively a rather harmless case.
The Kohl government was not as strong a supporter of neoliberalism as, say, Margaret Thatcher in England. But of course there were neoliberalizing tendencies here as well. In principle, certain neoliberal things that soon affected large parts of the Federal Republic were “tried out” in the East at an early stage. They even went so far as to undermine collective bargaining associations and trade unions, which were weak in the East anyway because of historical conditions. Here, people actually tried to keep the unions weak from the very beginning. The unions, in turn, idiotically fought battles that they had already lost in the West in the 1970s and 1980s. So a lot of things came together from all sides, and this crisis in 2007/08 shook up this neoliberal world massively and also made it possible to take a new look at the East.
The summer of 2015
The third factor was the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015. Of course, it was not a “refugee crisis,” but an identity crisis in Germany and Europe, which was not triggered by people fleeing, but by the reactions in Europe and in Germany. So the term “refugee crisis” is misplaced. But the reactions of society and especially in East Germany have of course led to a lot of reflection. One saw: the open outbreak of widespread radical right-wing, neo-fascist, völkisch sentiment and culture in the East, which is only rudimentarily mirrored by the election results of the völkisch, racist, nationalist AfD.
The potential in the East and in Eastern Europe is far greater than these election results can make clear: something people are happy to sweep under the rug. In the same way the authoritarian patterns that exist in the East are enormous. This has again raised the questions: “What actually went on in the East? Why is democracy, representative democracy, not properly anchored in the East? Why are the institutions in the East so weak? Why are there so many reservations about the media and the press?”
East Germany is not a special case
These various tendencies have converged in recent years and have led to a visibly critical debate about reunification. It has become clear to more and more people that what we are witnessing in the East is not taking place somewhere in a remote, free-floating space, but very concretely in Germany, very concretely in Europe.
What we are seeing in eastern Germany, but also in Poland and Hungary, are by no means processes happening there in isolation; they are developments that we are seeing all over the world. We also see them in Denmark, the Netherlands, England, Brazil, the United States, Spain, Italy, and France. So, no matter where you look in the Western world, you see these kinds of developments. More and more, it seems to be dawning on people that because of the “catch-up modernization” in East Germany and Eastern Europe, as Habermas called it, an anticipatory radicalization may have begun. A close look at the East could have an anticipatory effect, perhaps to prevent the East from conquering the West. The East could still be subjected to a process of Westernization, but this would only be positive if the West were to begin pondering its own past an imperial hegemon, as a colonialist and racist, as a standard-setter for others—if the West were to weigh all these things on the scale of the complex present, considering as well its own ideals of freedom, the rule of law, and democracy. In order to strengthen these latter ideals, the West must radically overcome those other, no less real, aspects of its historical identity. The West could try this out in the East, just as it tried out other things after 1990.
Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk is a historian and publicist. He was an honorary expert member of the Enquete Commission “Coming to Terms with the History and Consequences of the SED Dictatorship” of the German Bundestag and a research assistant at the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship. Since 2001, he has been a research assistant and project manager in the Education and Research Department at the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the Former GDR and also an associated researcher at the Robert Havemann Society Berlin.