The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, a power divide remains in Germany. That’s dangerous.

Eastern voices have been marginalized since reunification. This could undermine the nation’s democracy.

A man mockingly masked as Björn Höcke, the Alternative for Germany party's state leader in Thuringia, takes part in a Halloween event in Essen, Germany. (Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images)

Thirty years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell. East Germans freely crossed the border for the first time in 28 years. That night — Nov. 9, 1989 — began the reunification of the socialist, authoritarian German Democratic Republic of the east and the capitalist, democratic west under liberal democracy.

But reunification was a largely western-led process, one with a huge power imbalance between the western states and the eastern “new federal states.” As a result — historically and today — eastern Germans have often been underrepresented in politics. And even when they are politically represented, easterners often lack substantive representation, meaning their concerns about issues such as infrastructure, unemployment and lower quality of life aren’t always prioritized in political agendas or policymaking.

Some eastern Germans, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and former president Joachim Gauck, have been extremely successful in contemporary German politics. But for the region as a whole, reunification may have institutionalized this power imbalance — with major consequences for Germany’s democracy. Not only might this feed the lower satisfaction with democracy among easterners, but it may also fuel the bitterness that the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has used to gain recent electoral wins. And, of course, the rising political power of the far right is deeply unsettling, given Germany’s history.

On Aug. 23, 1990, the East German legislature adopted the federal constitution by a two-thirds majority. The western German system replaced all eastern legal, political and economic institutions. Overnight, easterners suddenly lived in what had become a foreign country.

After their government’s collapse, the economy in Germany’s east urgently needed stability. In 1990, economists expected that over three-fourths of eastern companies wouldn’t have the infrastructure, resources or business know-how to compete in a global, capitalist market and that 45 percent of the eastern German workforce would become unemployed.

Then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised a quick political solution and an economic miracle. To stabilize the economy — and to stifle a leadership challenge within his party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — Kohl simplified reunification, avoiding time-intensive options requiring broad consensus-building, such as negotiating a new constitution. Many easterners agreed, supporting Kohl’s CDU with over 40 percent of the vote in a March 1990 parliamentary election, a 21.2-percentage-point preference over the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which had put forth a platform advocating slow reunification.

Though they voted for this government, easterners remained underrepresented. Only 19 percent of the new parliament after the first national elections in December 1990 came from the east, even though eastern Germans constituted 25 percent of the population. Beyond the parliament, western Germans also largely retained administrative positions, leaving eastern Germans less represented in the unified government.

In addition, underdeveloped eastern political parties couldn’t compete. Most immediately merged with western parties. Despite joining these parties, however, some eastern politicians felt westerners neglected their interests.

Government agencies could also be exclusionary. The Treuhandanstalt, tasked with reprivatizing businesses owned by the former eastern state, had only western Germans on its board by 1992, though 70 percent of the staff were eastern Germans. Ultimately, the Treuhand eliminated 2.5 million jobs and sold 80 percent of enterprises to westerners, compared with 5 percent to easterners, partially because westerners had more capital to buy them.

The new political system often excluded eastern Germans, for several reasons. Easterners and westerners alike were suspicious of anyone connected to the repressive GDR government. After decades of fixed elections dominated by one party, this mistrust eliminated a generation of politicians and bureaucrats. Easterners also were unfamiliar with the new political system and typically were deemed inexperienced.

In truth, democracy was not foreign to easterners: In 1989, there was already an organized push for democratic measures in the GDR. Some from the opposition movement joined the new government, but few got top positions.

While they may have had good intentions, the western leaders who led the transition set a precedent for eastern exclusion.

Today, eastern Germans make up an estimated 17 percent of the national population. After decades of migration between the former East and West and with other countries, eastern Germans now represent 87 percent within the “new states,” the five states that once formed the GDR: Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Thuringia and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. But besides Merkel, only one member of her 16-person cabinet is an easterner. Of those in top leadership roles in the CDU, AfD and Green parties, none lived behind the Iron Curtain.

Gaps in proportional representation, regardless of how significant, are symbolic and substantive. Even when eastern Germans have achieved some political power, the region’s post-reunification needs still haven’t quite been met.

Thirty years later, life in east and west Germany is not equal. Though the federal government has invested over $2 trillion into eastern social welfare and infrastructure, as of 2010, the median full-time western employee earned nearly 30 percent more per hour than eastern peers. In 2015, eastern states had higher poverty levels than the national average. Today, average eastern incomes still lag behind that of westerners.

And, for historical and political reasons, some easterners feel that their complaints still go unheard.

For example, Merkel has implemented many policies unpopular in the east, such as threatening 20,000 eastern jobs by moving the country away from coal energy. This year, she acknowledged that she could’ve done more for easterners but couldn’t “deal with domestic living standards equity” while handling the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 refugee crisis. “My day has only 24 hours,” she added, dismissing her constituents with typical German bluntness.

Eastern politicians, including Merkel, have been actively encouraged to conform to western policy priorities, emphasizing national priorities over regional ones. And fear of mentioning the regional divide and its painful history has contributed to political silence around eastern issues within the main political parties.

Historically, this political attitude may have made sense at the federal level. Even within a proportional-representation electoral system, Die Linke, the party that has long claimed to represent the east, has not been invited to join federal coalitions in parliament because the SPD and Greens still find some of their policies — like their anti-NATO stance — too radical. However, Die Linke also did not receive enough votes in the recent 2017 federal elections to form a coalition. And mega-parties such as the CDU and SPD may not have been incentivized to prioritize a small minority of their voters.

Over time, though, mainstream parties not addressing eastern voters’ concerns may have left space for a populist party promising different representation, one that’s challenging Germany’s liberal democracy. Established in 2013, the AfD has specifically campaigned against policies unpopular in the east, such as with migration and climate action. Beyond presenting reunification as “colonialist,” the party’s recent successes in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia state elections were based on a platform promising a reunification redo. The AfD isn’t promising to undo reunification or advocating for separatism. Instead, it has found success tapping into eastern voters’ bitterness by promising a supposedly better version of reunification through their far-right platform. In September, its campaign was so successful that the AfD outperformed Die Linke in Saxony and Brandenburg.

Undeniably, the racism integral to the AfD isn’t about economics or reunification. But beyond AfD voters, some eastern Germans feel that reunification was a zero-sum game benefiting the west, and the region’s voters are comparably unhappier with politics today. Over one-third feel like second-class citizens. While over half of westerners are satisfied with German democracy — in some states — eastern Germans aren’t: Less than 40 percent of eastern Germans in Brandenburg and Saxony are satisfied with democracy.

To deliver on the promise of liberal democracy in a truly unified Germany, political representation has to improve. Proportional demographic representation is a good start. But substantively discussing and addressing eastern concerns more openly at the federal level will also be important.

Otherwise, democracy in the new states might turn into a populist, far-right one — continuing a European trend away from liberal democracy. And, most worryingly, this enduring division may continue to fuel a party that echoes rhetoric from Germany’s ugliest, most violent history. That should concern everybody.