Mass layoffs undermined the foundation of the workers’ society of the GDR (90% of its citizens had been gainfully employed, over 20% more than in West Germany) and robbed many East Germans of part of their identity. Within a short time, over two-thirds of East German workers were forced to change jobs or accept early retirement. Women were particularly hard hit: their employment rate dropped from 80% to approximately 50% (15). To this day, transfer payments in the billions from West to East continue to fund social services and guarantee hefty investments in infrastructure, but the economic disparities between East and West persist. Helmut Kohl’s promise of “blooming landscapes” [blühende Landschaften] in which a functioning, competitive economy would replace the GDR’s worn-out planned economy failed to become reality. Mass protests weren’t the only result. In the early 1990s, for example, a sense of insecurity and general upheaval caused birthrates in the new federal states to plummet, resulting in the sort of decline normally seen only during wartime (16). Young people, above all, left the rural areas of East Germany for the West. The disillusionment was evident in the political, social, and cultural distance between West and East Germans; though stereotypical, the neologisms “Ossi” and “Wessi” expressed this sense of alienation.
It is difficult to properly assess the success (or failure) of German unification and the transformation of East Germany. The processes that occurred were multifaceted and the accompanying developments often contradictory; ultimately, assessment varies according to extent of one’s own personal involvement and the exact nature of the matter at hand (17). The majority of Germans regularly express their approval of the decision to unify Germany (18). Since the mid-1990s, East-West differences have been consciously barred from the spotlight of public discussion, which is driven almost exclusively by Western media. The banishment of persistent problems from the headlines has diminished their potential political explosiveness but done nothing to solve them. The reconstruction of the East has long ceased to be a matter of high priority for the chancellor [Chefsache] (19). But there is evidence that problems continue to exist: the unemployment rate is twice as a high in the new federal states, migration from East to West continues, and the East still depends on Western transfer payments. Nonetheless, the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall mostly made it seem as though the difficult aspects of the transformation process had already been overcome.
(15) Raj Kollmorgen, “Das Ende Ostdeutschlands? Zeiten und Perspektiven eines Forschungsgegenstandes,” Berliner Debatte Initial 14, 2 (2003), p. 12.
(16) Rainer Hufnagel, “Leere Wiegen Ost. Zum dramatischen Rückgang der Geburtenziffern in den Neuen Bundesländern nach der Wiedervereinigung,” in Hufnagel and Titus Simon, eds., Problemfall Deutsche Einheit. Interdisziplinäre Betrachtungen zu gesamtdeutschen Fragestellungen (Wiesbaden, 2004), pp. 147-54; Nicholas Eberstadt, “Demographic Shocks in Eastern Germany, 1989-1993,” Europe-Asia Studies 46, 3 (1994), pp. 519-33.
(17) See, for instance, a comparison of the opposing positions in Raj Kollmorgen, Ostdeutschland. Beobachtungen einer Übergangs- und Teilgesellschaft (Wiesbaden, 2005) and Hannes Bahrmann and Christoph Links, eds., Am Ziel vorbei. Die deutsche Einheit – Eine Zwischenbilanz (Berlin, 2005). For a stimulating essay on the topic see Richard Schröder, “Lob der Einheit. Richard Schröder zum 3. Oktober 2006,” Der Spiegel, No. 40, 2006, pp. 50-51.
(18) Forschungsgruppe Wahlen e.V., ed., Politbarometer Extra – Deutsche Einheit (Mannheim, September 2004) and Politbarometer Extra – 20 Jahre Mauerfall (Mannheim, November 2009).
(19) Thomas Kralinski, “Warum der Westen den Osten braucht,” Berliner Republik , no. 3 (2003), p. 10; Zum 15. Jahrestag des Mauerfalls: Vom gemeinsamen Anliegen zur Randnotiz – DDR, Wiedervereinigung und der Prozeß der Deutschen Einheit im Spiegel der Medien. Media analysis, 1994-2004, by the Stiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur and the Forschungsinstitut Medien Tenor.