The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Germany reunified 26 years ago, but some divisions are still strong

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Germany celebrated 26 years of reunification on Monday, but not everyone was convinced there was much to celebrate.

In Dresden, one of eastern Germany's largest cities, protesters called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other politicians "traitors" and shouted "Merkel must go." Those slogans have become common in the city, where anti-foreigner demonstrations have taken place every Monday for about two years now. In a tweet, the regional government of Saxony, which hosted the ceremony this year, condemned the slogans Monday morning, saying officials were "saddened and ashamed."

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Only a handful of people attended the demonstration. But their shouting put a painful public spotlight at the continuing divisions within Germany. Many eastern Germans feel left behind and excluded from the economic prosperity in the west. But some western Germans have accused their eastern neighbors of complaining without being willing to embrace change.

No issue has caused more tensions than the influx of refugees into Germany last year. Eastern Germany has taken in far fewer refugees than western Germany. Yet, it was in the country's east where xenophobic attacks spiked.

While 75 percent of Germans who live in the east said in 2014 that they considered their country's reunification a success, only half of western Germans agreed. With eastern and western Germans blaming each other for past mistakes over the past two years, that frustration has likely increased.

Younger citizens, especially — who do not usually identify themselves with their area of origin as strongly anymore — have grown worried about the persistent skepticism on both sides. But where do those divisions come from? And how different are eastern and western Germany today?

Before we go in-depth with maps, some of them inspired by a 2014 story on German news site Zeit Online, let's take a look at the bigger picture: Berlin, photographed from a Space Station.

The photo above was taken by astronaut André Kuipers from the International Space Station in 2012. It shows one division of Berlin: While the yellow lights are in east Berlin, the green parts mark the western part.

Daniela Augenstein, a spokeswoman for Berlin's department of urban development, explained that each side historically used different streetlights. The lights themselves reflect another difference: The streetlamps used in West Germany were much more environmentally friendly, reflecting the emergence of the western German environmental civil movement in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time East Germany was still heavily polluting, and heavily reliant on coal. Today, eastern Germany is the heart of the country's renewable energy transformation. But viewed from space, the historic differences still define Berlin's night view.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, formerly communist eastern German companies and factories suddenly had to compete with their much more efficient western counterparts. Capitalism came too fast. Many eastern German companies went bankrupt, and some regions never recovered from the shock. Income levels are lower in the east than in the west.

Germany's unemployment rate has recently fallen to its lowest level in a quarter century. But that rate is not evenly spread. Former West German states still have far better employment levels than their eastern neighbors. That's in part because more young people have moved from rural eastern areas to the west, which has also lowered the number of job-seeking eastern Germans. Although this map is based on 2013 data, little has changed about the overall division.

Furthermore, the political climate is less friendly to foreigners in the east, according to a study by Leipzig University researchers who interviewed 16,000 Germans over 10 years. These findings coincide with a larger presence of right-wing neo-Nazi sympathizers. The right-wing National Democratic Party (NPD), whose members have often been accused of glorifying Adolf Hitler, enjoys particular support in the east, though it's been relatively unsuccessful at the polls.

Why did right-wing politicians prosper in the once-communist east? The explanation is complex, but scientists often attribute it to a mixture of anti-leftist worldviews after the wall fell and the economic downturn in the east. Many people were disillusioned by Western capitalism, but few wanted a return to communism. Right-wing politicians were quick to fill the void.

Whereas the NPD has not succeeded in attracting large numbers of voters, the more recently established right-wing, conservative Alternative für Deutschland is on the path to becoming a major political force in Germany.

The comparisons above might make eastern Germany seem like a bleak place to live, but in some ways, it's ahead of the west. Take trash production. Having dealt with constant food shortages until 1989, eastern Germans learned to economize and buy only those items they deemed necessary. This attitude seems to prevail today. Still, east-west differences in regard to trash production would be much less pronounced if we only looked at domestic waste and did not include other sources of trash such as gardens.

Finally, if you travel Europe and you see two German groups at a campground, you might easily be able to distinguish them. Eastern Germans usually sleep in tents, while western Germans prefer to travel with trailers. We did not find a scientific explanation, but one might posit that it's rooted in western Germans' longer experience traveling the world. Furthermore, many young eastern Germans couldn't even afford a car under communism.

Trying to buy a trailer would have been more expensive and nearly impossible for most eastern Germans. While those in the west were able to explore beyond their borders, eastern Germans remained practically imprisoned by their government for nearly three decades — until 25 years ago.

A first version of this post was published Oct. 31, 2014. It was updated Oct. 3, 2016. 

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