Be Proud of Your Prejudices
The richness of united Germany lay in the differences between West and East. Something new has long since emerged from them.
When Socialism collapsed and the GDR became capitalist, it was equality – of all things – that was proclaimed the measure of reunification. The postulate was: equal living standards in East and West! Since then, politicians – in an annual act of self-flagellation – have presented figures and statistics that prove that a disgraceful gap between West and East persists. And lest one be caught on the wrong – the materialistic – foot, these numbers are immediately followed by the lament that, two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the two parts of the country still haven’t come together in terms of psychology and mentality. The wall in the mind, one always hears in a reproachful tone, simply hasn’t been overcome.
And in fact it’s true: even now, in the year 2009, one can travel to a foreign land without ever having to cross the border of the German state. But it’s time to stop seeing this as a problem or a shortcoming and to view it instead as an incomparable gain. The unequal and the foreign, which collided after unification, are what give this historically unprecedented fusion of societies its real richness. Where else could the relativity of one’s own cultural imprinting be illustrated through comparison with others who share the same native language?
Of course, there is a good psychological reason why the official political discourse was so intent on equality and ashamed of inequality. The difference between East and West was an asymmetrical one from the get-go. The one side had to stay after school, had to return to “start,” and had to submit to the value system of the other side, which, in turn, could comfortably feel like the winner of history, without experiencing the pressure of having to question its own way of life.
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These asymmetries still exist today, but isn’t it possible that they have actually shifted in favor of the East? Or at least in favor of a completely new constellation, which can no longer be so seamlessly reduced to FRG and GDR?
The Wessi braggart and the Ossi whiner were by no means fictions devoid of reality. But the ascription of these roles was exceedingly short-lived, for the triumph of the Wessi braggart didn’t last long. All together too self-satisfied and lazy, he was soon considered the sick man of Europe: incapable of change, status-maintaining, and inflexible; he finally had to be goaded into action by forceful threats of reform, not least from an East German chancellor. Meanwhile, the supposed Ossi whiner was unable to escape the pressure of transformation, and thus became – at least as the ideal type – a quick-change artist who combined two very different sets of experiences and values in his biography – a true model of flexibility. The East German as avant garde – that’s what the sociologist Wolfgang Engler called it, not that far off the mark.
Of course, Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern still have higher unemployment rates, and many East German regions are ageing and desolate. (Although these regions also have a tradition of structural weakness.) Still, Germany’s mental geography looks very different by now. What really matters for cultural self-respect, for example, is city pride, and in this regard East German cities have long since passed their West German counterparts. From Weimar to Greifswald, from Erfurt to Schwerin, from Dresden to Potsdam: Germany’s most beautiful cities are in the East.