A united country's divided people

By Clay Risen
Sunday, November 1, 2009

BERLIN -- Peter and Angela Hofmann aren't a typical German couple. For one thing, they met online, a rarity in this techno-wary country.

For another, the couple, both 55, moved this year from Berlin to rural Brandenburg state near the Polish border to open a pension, or bed and breakfast -- a risky move in a down economy.

But most striking of all is where they come from: Peter, who was born near Dresden, is what Germans call an Ossi, a child of communist East Germany, while Angela is from West Berlin, making her a Wessi.

It's been two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, yet the split between east and west is stronger than ever. The stereotypes on both sides are as crude as they are entrenched: Wessis are materialistic and immoral; Ossis are lazy reactionaries. An Ossi-Wessi marriage isn't quite the same as a Southerner wed to a Yankee circa 1885, but it's close.

"There aren't a lot of people like us," Angela told my wife and me in September, with a rueful smile. We were sitting around the couple's kitchen table, looking out over the forest-lined Oder-Havel Canal.

They call their pension, appropriately enough, Engel und Teufel -- Angel and Devil. Two people, two sides of a common heritage broken by war and ideology. Angela grew up learning English; Peter learned Russian.

After the wall came down, Peter, an engineer, couldn't compete with West German know-how and saw his career hit the skids. Angela, an English teacher, was inundated with students young and old, all eager to learn the lingua franca of the capitalist west.

For the first decade after the fall of communism, Germans from east and west happily assumed that, in time, they would fall back into the routines of a unified people -- forgetting that before the split in 1945, Germany had existed as a single country for only 74 years. Now that optimism is gone, replaced by a fear that communism somehow rewrote the DNA of easterners and drove a permanent wedge between the two sides.

"We're really two different peoples," Angela Hofmann said. Her husband, whom she's trying to teach English, nodded.

Today, the eastern German economy is doing pretty well. After spending the 1990s watching its inefficient industrial base shutter, the east -- especially its urban areas such as Berlin and Dresden -- is seeing a renaissance of high-tech, high-value investment, as international companies swoop in to take advantage of cheap skilled labor. Its economy is still far behind the west's, but it is catching up fast.

Yet there is a paradox in such rapid growth. As Berlin and Dresden pull ahead, people in the rest of the region -- including unskilled workers, the elderly and rural communities -- grow frustrated, left behind by a unification process that was supposed to lift all boats. A recent study by the Social Studies Research Institute of Berlin-Brandenburg found that only 25 percent of easterners feel like full citizens in the united Germany.

Even the Hofmanns, who are luckier than most, share some resentment. "They won't pave the road to our pension," Angela said; all the money goes to the big cities.

But the resentment goes both ways. To many Wessis, eastern Germany is a drag on the rest of the country and the reason it turned in subpar growth rates for much of the 1990s.

German President Horst Koehler has started upbraiding his western compatriots about their anti-eastern attitudes. "Maybe the people in the west didn't always show enough respect for the individual achievements of most East Germans after the wall fell," he said in a recent newspaper interview. When a head of state has to lecture his public on manners, you know things aren't going well.

The Hofmanns don't have much faith in their own generation, but Angela said her children and their friends see the east differently -- even positively. A survey by the Forsa Institute, a market research and polling group, bears her out: More than 35 percent of westerners under 35 said they could learn a thing or two from eastern German values such as community and selflessness; in contrast, 19 percent of people Angela and Peter's age agreed.

At the same time, political scientist and East Germany expert Klaus Schröder reports that less than half of young people in eastern Germany describe the former communist state as a dictatorship. Influenced by their disillusioned parents and with few memories of their own, the next generation of easterners is falling for a dangerous nostalgia that runs much deeper than a quirky love for boxy Trabant cars and Russian fur hats.

The only hope, perhaps, lies in people such as the Hofmanns, willing to cross the Ossi-Wessi divide and show that the other side isn't so bad.

Engel und Teufel won't erase the east-west scar by itself. But it's not a bad place to start.

Clay Risen, the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, was a 2009 Arthur F. Burns journalism fellow in Berlin.

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