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Over Three Decades Since Reunification, Germany Is Still Fractured

Steffen Mau

October 3, 1990, saw the reunification of Germany. But more than 30 years later, inequalities are deeper than ever — and Easterners are angered at the promises that weren’t realized.

A typical scene in Lütten Klein, 1969. (Hubert Link / Bundesarchiv)

Interview by
Loren Balhorn

Between the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 2019 and the anniversary of German reunification last October, the German-language book market was met with a flood of titles purporting to reexamine the historical relationship between East and West Germany and evaluate Easterners’ status post-reunification.

One of the most noteworthy was Lütten Klein: Leben in der ostdeutschen Transformationsgesellschaft by sociologist Steffen Mau. Drawing on a wide range of sources as well as his own experience growing up in Lütten Klein — a model district of the port city of Rostock — Mau’s book charts the rise of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the society it nurtured from its founding in the late 1940s to its collapse. It explores the complexities of the relationship between the population and the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), identifies the social groups and structures that consolidated over the decades, and explores the rhythms of life in East Germany’s rapidly growing cities.

After sketching out the East German social structure pre-1989, Mau shows how the traumas of reunification — collapse of the political system and public sphere, wholesale privatization of the economy, mass unemployment and outmigration — impacted different sections of the population. He paints a picture of a region marked by stark “social fractures” between a handful of booming cities and vast rural zones abandoned to decline and depopulation. This frustration among East Germans, compounded by a distrust of elites inherited from the GDR, has ultimately created the conditions in which right-wing populism can flourish.

Steffen Mau spoke with Jacobin’s Loren Balhorn about what kind of society East Germany really was, what reunification meant for its citizens, and why calls for “intra-German talk therapy” won’t be enough to heal the country’s wounds.


LB

Lütten Klein has received a lot of praise since it first appeared. What made you decide to write the book?

SM

I came up with the idea because I saw something was missing. Two opposite, potentially even hostile, societies unite — that’s one of the most exciting sociological experiments you could imagine. One would’ve assumed that there were already countless sociology books on the market examining this process from all sides, but I couldn’t think of any that I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Many regarded German reunification as nearly resolved, despite the fact that so many differences and imbalances are still visible. I wanted to describe this in a way that stood out from books focused on the political system, the party and state leadership, ideological doctrine, state security, and things like that. As a sociologist, I wanted to take the society as such seriously and tell the story from the inside out, as impartially as possible.

The Fritz family in their new Lütten Klein apartment, 1966. (Joachim Spremberg / Bundesarchiv)
LB

And from your own experiences, as well.

SM

Yes, that was a “bonus,” so to speak, which I actively used. I had to decide whether I wanted to write a book in which my own involvement was rendered invisible, or one in which I made the biographical perspective from which I was writing and analyzing explicit.

I found the latter to be more honest, even if it is considered an unscientific approach. One could argue, however, that it’s much more scientific to admit the premises of your own analysis. At the same time, you can’t allow yourself to be compromised and limit that analysis by doing so.

LB

Do you think your book helped to make East German society more understandable for people who didn’t experience it themselves?

SM

I received an incredible number of reactions to the book. Even celebrities from neoliberal and conservative media wrote me emails saying, “We’ve never gotten to know the GDR like that before.” After all, narratives of the GDR almost always take its failure as their point of departure, and I tried to avoid that, even though its defects play a central role. I first asked: “How did people live? Why did they bind themselves to the system? What did the organization of everyday life look like? What forms of living played a role?” That’s what made the book interesting, perhaps especially for West Germans.

More important, however, I think that with the thirty years since reunification, a kind of grace period has passed. You can talk about the GDR differently now, without getting mired in the trenches of ideology. Mutual interest between East and West has gone up again, and the relationship has relaxed somewhat.

There’s still this image of the whiny East Germans acting up again. That will probably never go away entirely. But if you look at federal president Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s speech on October 3, the thirtieth anniversary of reunification, there are lines in there that incorporate the East Germans into the discourse quite seriously — things that the media didn’t take up as intensively as they should have, such as an acknowledgment that mistakes were made during reunification, that criticism of privatization and many other things should be permitted, and that the East was forced to undergo a one-sided transformation.

Residents grab a bite to eat at the local “Grill-Bar” in Lütten Klein’s renowned multipurpose shopping center, 1969. (Jürgen Sindermann / Bundesarchiv)
LB

Isn’t this new public understanding for East Germans merely a reaction to the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)?

SM

The developments in the East were certainly something of an alarm bell. Though we shouldn’t equate the two, Pegida and the AfD’s electoral successes have made East Germans’ underlying rumblings more visible than before.

The problem is that these actors also politicize things that went wrong in the East. We don’t want to play into their hands, and we can’t just ignore this discourse, but it also can’t be conducted in a way that works in favor of the AfD or other right-wing populist groups. When opening up the space for discourse, you have to ensure that you strike a balance and avoid lapsing into a culture of complaining in which the AfD’s supporters feel vindicated.

LB

You describe East German society as a “proletarian petit-bourgeois society,” and sometimes also a “society of standardization.” Clearly, the GDR wasn’t a real workers’ and peasants’ state in your eyes. What kind of society was it then?

SM

I understand it as a heavily leveled society with classes on paper, but relatively minor social differences in lifestyle or in the form of differentiated class interests. There were the workers and peasants and the class of the intelligentsia, but what the GDR and the other socialist states did most of all was to “de-bourgeoisify” society by abolishing propertied classes and making ownership a burden — even owning an apartment building cost more than it generated in income. Many bourgeois groups left the GDR for the West. Everyone else was incorporated into a working-class culture and position, so that classes were no longer in conflict and experienced little friction with each other, instead lying on top of one another like layers of cake.

Then there was a tendency for a new class of intelligentsia to emerge, an expert class with academic training that occupied elevated positions. There was subsequently an attempt to push this class down — in both its aspirations of upward differentiation as well as its ability to reproduce the class structure — by severely limiting its children’s access to higher education and imposing the cadre principle over the merit principle. Loyalty and connections were more important than the right qualifications. As a result, the GDR became a petit-bourgeois society, or a society of “simple people,” so to speak, which East Germany has, to some extent, remained to this day.

LB

How can we understand the role of the SED in this society? As a kind of “ruling class”?

SM

In the beginning, many party officials still drew on their backgrounds as resistance fighters or their persecution under the Nazi regime. The complete exchange of elites in the early GDR initially generated an upward pull in society. An unbelievable number of people from the lower classes attained executive positions. In the West, naturally, elite recruitment looked quite different; there was more continuity. The fact that the experience of this first GDR generation was one of a rise in social status forged political ties and fostered approval of the system.

A different kind of social contract applied in the GDR from the 1970s onward, one that no longer functioned through advancement, but through the provision of daily necessities, housing, and social security. That bound people to the GDR. When it became clear in the 1980s that this contract was not economically sustainable, the bond dissolved. At the same time, demands for democracy and freedom grew louder.

LB

Don’t you think fear of state repression was also a major reason for people to integrate themselves into the system?

SM

My book describes the GDR as a repressive society in detail, including the intrusiveness of the Stasi and the fact that the GDR ultimately had to wall in its own people. That plays a major role. Nevertheless, it’s a fact that people constructed a GDR identity in the 1970s and 1980s, and that a large number of people came to terms with socialism.

It wasn’t like East Germans walked out of their apartments every day feeling they were being watched by the Stasi. That didn’t play a big role in everyday life for most people. It was true for those who came into conflict with the system, but that was a minority in society. Many others settled into this kind of “commode dictatorship,” as Günter Grass once called it. That may be upsetting, but sociologically, it’s the correct description.

Unveiling ceremony for a statue in Lütten Klein, 1973. (Photographer unknown / Bundesarchiv)
LB

You recently said that Germany went into reunification “naively.” I would argue it was the other way around: Isn’t the idea that Germany was naive, at least with respect to the West German government under Helmut Kohl, itself somewhat naive?

SM

Yes, a strong strategic impulse was there from the beginning, that’s well known. Nevertheless, I think the Kohl government was naive in the sense that it imagined the whole thing would be simpler and believed its policies would lead to something like a smooth “pulling in” of East Germany into the West. The grave problems we observe today were not foreseen.

They simply transferred the West’s institutional structure to the East, and the reserve elites of the West right along with it, while the old East German elites were dismissed. This kind of process is highly prone to disappointment, because everything that doesn’t work out can easily be blamed on the West German elites.

With the Treuhand, the government agency responsible for privatizing the East German economy, on the other hand, responsibility was separated from the political sphere. Had the Treuhand not been so independent, had it been more political and parliamentary, there would have been a much larger transitional crisis. A lot of anger was directed at the Treuhand and ultimately came to nothing, as politics was able to extricate itself from all that.

Lütten Klein by night, 1971. (Jürgen Sindermann / Bundesarchiv)

From today’s perspective, we know that much more should have been invested in people’s hearts and minds, so that they could have embraced the project of reunification and transformation into a new social model. There was a lack of mobilization.

In addition, one would have to say, with Jürgen Habermas, that the connection of the East German public sphere to the West German public sphere, including the media, made it impossible for East German society to identify and work out something like a collective interest. The public sphere, the economy, and the entire political culture collapsed all at once, without any substitute being found for it whatsoever.

LB

Habermas describes this missing East German public sphere as an almost unexpected, unintended side effect of the fall of communism. Mandy Tröger’s research, by contrast, shows how West German media corporations set out to buy up the press landscape in the East as early as the fall of 1989.

SM

An independent East German media landscape no longer existed after only a few months, which also made communication and reappraisal more difficult. The East Germans were placed in a subordinate speaking position and could hardly change anything in the course of events. We shouldn’t forget: in the 1990s, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against the Treuhand. All the surveys we have from the 1990s indicate massive criticism of unification among East Germans — 70, 80 percent of people at the time said that things weren’t going right. Two-thirds even said that they had been colonized by the West.

But there was no revision clause for this process. Neither privatization nor the one-to-one institutional transfer was questioned or debated in a democratic process; instead, people simply followed the line they had once taken, regardless of the damage and growing public opposition. The motto was: “There is no alternative. You voted for the Alliance for Germany by a majority once in the spring of 1990, and now there is no longer any possibility for you to have an effective say or help shape this process.”

LB

Would another GDR have been possible?

SM

I believe the GDR had hardly any chance of survival by that point. It no longer enjoyed any credibility among its citizens. People no longer took the socialist promise of salvation at face value; they wanted to break out of the confines of the GDR state.

The moment the border opened, it was clear that the GDR was no longer viable and that it required external stabilizers in the form of strong borders and the Soviet Union as a protecting power.

LB

That raises the question as to how the mood could flip so quickly back then. Why wasn’t there a stronger movement for a different reunification?

SM

I wouldn’t say that the actors of reunification “stole” the revolution. There was a strong popular will for a speedy move toward unification as soon as this option emerged. Reunification was also an invitation into an already existing prosperous democracy, which otherwise would have had to be built up with great effort over decades. This was an attractive prospect for many people, and civil rights activists and left-wing movements were marginalized in the process.

Some claim that the civil rights activists were already a special group in the GDR and had little connection to the general population. I wouldn’t counterpose these two groups so strongly. At the same time, it’s clear that the majority of East Germans no longer wanted to discuss possible alternatives.

By December, reunification was already on the table with Helmut Kohl’s ten-point plan. As a result, all the round tables and forms of dialogue that had just begun to establish themselves immediately became obsolete. The GDR almost collapsed into the Federal Republic’s lap.

LB

What do you say to the criticism that, according to the Federal Republic’s Basic Law, the two German states should have held a constitutional convention as a precursor to reunification?

SM

That was discussed at the time, but I think it was an unrealistic option. The window of opportunity was very narrow. It was not clear how long Mikhail Gorbachev would keep the door open or even remain in power. After all, the Soviet Union was a crumbling empire. Nor were all the Western Allies enthusiastic about the possibility of German reunification.

If there had been a constitutional debate at that moment — in which it might have emerged that Germany no longer wanted to be a member of NATO — I think that would have been a missed opportunity. But I do think that a constitutional process could have been initiated after reunification, if only to integrate the East Germans more symbolically.

LB

After all that didn’t happen, what remained of the SED reestablished itself as an East German voice in federal politics as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which eventually merged into Die Linke. How do you assess its role in integrating East Germans?

SM

For all my skepticism about this party, which stems from the past and which I can’t quite shake, it did take a third of East Germans with it and integrated them into the political system. Banning the SED-PDS would have driven people into a kind of party-political homelessness and probably would have provoked an extra-parliamentary protest movement of the kind we know today on the other side of the political spectrum. In this sense, the continued existence of the PDS certainly had a pacifying effect.

LB

You describe the East German society that has emerged since the end of socialism as “fractured.” What are these fractures?

SM

First, there is the demographic issue: East Germany is an emptied, shrunken, and overaged society, and it is also highly masculinized. Second, East Germany does not have a fully developed democratic culture. There are several reasons for this, some of which stem from the GDR, but some of which hardened further in the unification process. The pre-political space of civil society is underdeveloped in East Germany.

And third, there is certainly the still-weak economic development: the fact that only small-scale family capitalism has developed, that no large corporations are based in the East — not to mention the huge wealth gap between East and West, which obviously will not close easily. The richest East Germans today are West Germans. One could then add East Germany’s weakness in terms of elites, which is evident in almost all sectors of society.

LB

Politically, you explicitly reject what you call “intra-German talk therapy.” Lütten Klein ends with this line: “It clearly will take more than the lubricant of recognition to remedy this situation.” Shouldn’t there have been another chapter? If talk therapy won’t solve anything, what will?

SM

The fractures are inherent in the core structures of society, so repairing them will not be easy. East and West Germany doing a better job of listening to each other for once will not make wealth inequality disappear. Discourse is necessary, but it’s not enough.

Recently there have been some changes on the cultural level, a new East German self-confidence and a greater differentiation within East Germany along urban and rural lines or even between boom regions and regions lagging behind. This offers the opportunity to code East Germany differently and form a new self-image. It’s up to younger generations to construct new identities that are different from the nostalgic and backward-looking Eastern identity of the 1990s.

On economic issues, there is a need to attract businesses, strengthen East German universities, and reform wealth taxation, but these are general issues of inequality and regional disparities. That would not be anything specifically East German.

LB

I grew up in a country where people said socialism could never happen here — then Bernie Sanders came along. You grew up in a socialism that was overthrown by its own people. Is the term “socialism” still politically meaningful in the East, or does the Left need another word for it in the twenty-first century?

SM

Socialism is rated better in the East than in the West, even though it existed in the East. When asked whether socialism also included good things, almost twice as many people in the East say yes. I know East Germans who moved to Sweden and say that it’s how they imagined the GDR.

At the end of the day, it’s about social standards, strong infrastructure, public services, and solidarity over excessive inequality. These are things that East Germans can still relate to a great deal. Whether the label “socialism” could still top the best-seller list? That’s another question, which I would tend to answer in the negative, but what it stands for is usually rated quite well. Certainly not with the form of ownership, nor with the one-party system, that prevailed in the GDR, but with the obligation that property should be used to produce public goods — I think many East Germans can go along with that.