The Little Germans: Alienation Still Divides East from West

A Commentary by Alexander Osang

As part of an art installation in 2005, the word "Doubt" was placed in large letters above the Palace of the Republic,  which housed the parliament in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).  Zoom
ullstein bild

As part of an art installation in 2005, the word "Doubt" was placed in large letters above the Palace of the Republic, which housed the parliament in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Almost 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, a profound sense of otherness endures between residents on both sides of the former divide. Rather than trying to change or ignore this, both sides should simply accept it.

A few months ago, I was in Kimball, a small town in the US state of Nebraska, when I received a nighttime call from Germany. I was fast asleep in a nameless motel along Interstate 80. I couldn't have been much farther away from Germany, and yet Germany always manages to catch up with you no matter where you are. It was Michel Gaissmayer, a cultural manager of sorts who invites me at regular intervals to go to "Hinterm Horizont" ("Beyond the Horizon"), a musical by the German rock star Udo Lindenberg that he was involved in.

"I'm in Nebraska," I said.

"Oh," he replied. "I just wanted to offer you my condolences."

I sat up in my motel bed. "For what?"

"Your friend Reinhard Lakomy died yesterday."

Reinhard Lakomy was a singer from East Berlin. He had long white hair and a moustache, and in the days of the former communist East Germany, he was famous for a record called "Traumzauberbaum" ("Magical Dream Tree"). I had never owned the record and couldn't recall ever having spoken with Lakomy. On the other hand, he was now dead.

"Well, 'friend' is a bit of a stretch," I said.

"In any case," Gaissmayer said, "I'm very sorry."

Michel Gaissmayer is an old West German who had close ties to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) when the Berlin Wall was still standing. This experience seems to have taught him that all of us East Germans know each other. When one of them dies, everyone else cries. I sat in bed and tried to behave appropriately. But I felt nothing.

I had to think of that experience recently when Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic chancellor candidate for the upcoming elections, fathomed the soul of the East German voter.

Steinbrück had criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel for not being a European visionary and not being able to give great speeches. He attributes this to her East German origins. I can understand why he might say that. Like Merkel, I spent the first half of my life in the GDR, and I have no recollection of ever having developed a European vision there. And I hardly knew anyone else with a European vision, either. Moreover, I don't remember that there were many fans of great speeches in the East. We had other priorities at the time, and there are certain things that aren't easy to learn later in life.

Still, given that we're in the midst of an election campaign, Steinbrück's remarks triggered an outcry across the political spectrum. Some demanded that he immediately withdraw his candidacy for the chancellorship or at least apologize. Steinbrück, however, went to the eastern German city of Halle an der Saale and made everything much worse by saying: "East Germany is a region of capable and hands-on people who have very energetically taken control of their affairs."

It's an interesting sentence. If you replace East Germany with Central Africa, you can see how foreign the eastern part of Germany is to Steinbrück. For him, it's like looking into a dark, bottomless pit. Capable and hands-on are words you would normally use to describe retirees or people in a disaster zone who keep a stiff upper lip. There are photos showing Steinbrück on the coast of the Baltic Sea in eastern Germany in which he is apparently trying to interact with the locals. He is waving his arms, smiling and wearing a funny hat, as if he were making contact with the inhabitants of a South Sea island. The locals, for their part, are eyeing him with annoyance.

A Different Type of Glass Ceiling

Matthias Machnig, a fellow SPD member and West German who is a cabinet minister in the government of the eastern state of Thuringia, says that Steinbrück knows his way around in the East. He apparently has relatives there. "A first cousin," Steinbrück said in an interview. A first cousin! What's more, he worked at the Ständige Vertretung, West Germany's diplomatic representation in East Berlin, in 1981. He reportedly once went on an outing into the countryside with his first cousin, as well. It was cold, and a lot of vodka was consumed. The way it was described made it sound like the two cousins had moved to Siberia.

It's been almost 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. At times, it feels as if East and West Germans are becoming more and more estranged. I recently sat at a table with a few representatives of the "third generation East." They were at least 15 years younger than me, and they had the serious expressions of people who know that they still have a long way to go.

They could work their way up to the top ranks of their state governments, universities and companies, and perhaps even the Bundesliga, Germany's premier football division. However, in the long term, it can't possibly be acceptable for the competent, hands-on East Germans to almost never be in positions of power. Former East Germans head only one television network and one of the 50 companies listed on Germany's blue-chip DAX index, and there are no former East Germans at the helm of any national newspapers, magazines or Bundesliga teams.

The only East German coach to find post-reunification success in the Bundesliga has been named Hans Meyer, and he's considered a bit of a special case. He has never won a championship, but he has said a few funny things that were well received in the West. He's retired now. Like Hans Meyer, the typical East German could have gone down in history as a quirky, good-natured type who poses a threat to no one -- a class clown of reunification.

The East Germans have produced plenty of "unfinished" talents, such as footballer Michael Ballack, who never won an international championship, or Matthias Platzeck, the governor of the eastern state of Brandenburg, who suffered sudden hearing loss just as his political career was taking off. The East Germans have produced successful actors and writers and popular musicians, as well as the host of Fernsehgarten, a popular TV show on the public broadcaster ZDF. The most popular East German TV star is a comedian who goes by the stage name Cindy aus Marzahn (Cindy from Marzahn) and wears a pink tracksuit.

Still, the most frightening group of German terrorists -- those in the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground (NSU) -- was made up of three East Germans. When a woman murdered her children, she was dubbed an "East German mother" in the news. A GDR background was enough to explain away any malfeasance. Conversely, when a man ate another person, he was called "the cannibal from Rotenburg." It's a city in western Germany, of course, but why should that be pointed out?

And this meant that those in the West never actually had to take the East seriously.

From Mädchen to Mutti

Of course, Angela Merkel exploited this during the early stage of her career. As a woman and an East German, she was able to outmaneuver the macho types in her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and later her macho male rival in the SPD. Indeed, one of the great moments of German television came when Gerhard Schröder, the incumbent SPD chancellor, lost to Merkel in the 2005 election and seemed unable to comprehend his defeat by this woman.

Merkel had an East German hairstyle and an East German accent, and, as with many East Germans, people didn't know exactly what her agenda was. She hadn't fought the battles of West German politics, but she had been a member of the Free German Youth (FDJ), the youth organization of communist East Germany. Sure, she had no networks -- but she also didn't have any old connections that she had to pay deference to. Unlike the typical higher-ups in her conservative CDU, she wasn't Catholic, she was divorced, and she liked to bake plum cake. She was a phenomenon.

I know someone who was invited to a dinner at Merkel's house shortly after she'd been elected chancellor. He brought along a bottle of wine, and because she was the chancellor, he spent a long time searching for the best German wine he could find. When he appeared at the door with the bottle of wine, Merkel's husband said, in an East German accent: "I guess you couldn't get any French wine."

It's a wonderful story from the days when Merkel still seemed manageable, a sort of project of German reunification. But, over time, the marvel surrounding Merkel has subsided. She runs Germany like someone directing traffic. She has no vision. And she doesn't give great speeches. The things that once made her interesting are now disadvantageous to her, especially the tepid, stubborn East German mentality with which she now clings to power. While Helmut Kohl, the former CDU chancellor and Merkel mentor, once referred to her as "mein Mädchen" (my girl), she has now acquired the nickname "Mutti" (Mom).

The low point was reached when Germany was being shaken to its very democratic foundations by revelations about the NSA spying scandal -- and Merkel chose to go on vacation. Indeed, she has always been suspiciously relaxed when it comes to her relationship with the United States. Journalist and commentator Jakob Augstein summarized the mood in a recent column for SPIEGEL ONLINE, writing: "Angela Merkel was 35 when the GDR sank into the vortex of reunification. You can still learn something at that age, and for an up-and-coming East German politician, there was a lot to learn. Today, one might say that Merkel learned the wrong things."

Augstein also gave Merkel a moniker with which she ought to go down in history: "The Little Chancellor." Doing so made it sound like he had adopted a child: He gave the child what he could, but her innate character eventually broke through. After all, she's an East German, and what can you do? It isn't something you can drum out of a person.

Germany also has a president who hails from the former East Germany. But if Joachim Gauck doesn't give a truly great speech soon, things won't be looking good for him, either.

Persistent Alienation

This year, I spent a few weeks traveling with the Dynamo Dresden football team. My goal was to figure out what had gone wrong. Dresden was once the pride of eastern Germany. When FC Bayern Munich won the Champions League in May, Dynamo Dresden was playing in the northern city of Osnabrück, struggling to avoid being relegated to the next tier below the Bundesliga's second division.

During a home match, I met the club's new manager in the VIP stands. His name is Christian Müller, and he's from the western German city of Cologne. He studied management in Freiburg (another western German city) and Paris, ran the rights department at the German League Association and was prepared to lead Dresden into the future. Müller had a plan: He wanted to create a bond between the club and middle-class residents of Dresden, people like the GDR residents depicted in the Uwe Tellkamp hit novel "The Tower."

Müller invited me to attend the club's 60th birthday at the German Hygiene Museum, in Dresden. The room was full. A few musicians were playing wind instruments on the stage to an audience that included people like TV host Gunther Emmerlich, former Dynamo team captain Dixie Dörner and a man who had been chairman of the district council in the GDR era. I didn't notice any representatives of the middle class.

The celebration lasted four hours, but it only got as far as reunification. The five top players of all time were selected. The last one was Reinhard Häfner, a great footballer from the 1970s who became Dynamo's coach and lifted the team into the top Bundesliga division in 1991. But he was let go before as coach before the team actually start playing in it. The club's managers felt that he wasn't good enough to work in the West, so they brought in someone from Hamburg.

There was no tradition to build upon. And there was no middle class to create bonds with, either. Instead, there was only a great sense of alienation. It isn't easy to accept that, but it would be a start.

At some point, while lying in my motel bed in Nebraska, I remembered a line from a song by Lakomy, the deceased singer: "Today I'm alone / and that's also necessary every once in a while."

I couldn't think of anything else.

Dawn arrived, and I left Nebraska. There was nothing for me to do there. I was just there because I have a plan to spend at least one night in every US state. Of course, it's probably just the result of an East German inferiority complex that I developed in the years when I could only travel through America in films, songs and books.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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3 total posts
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    Page 1    
1. East Germans
wwest1 08/21/2013
Mr. Sultan, I appreciate some of what you are saying in this piece. I grew up in West Virginia; which, is definitely looked down upon by Virginia. A state situation created by the end of a war - the American Civil War. After all this time, there are still prejudices and bitterness.
2. West German BMW
henek654 08/22/2013
The distinction between East and West is maintained even in the US: our local BMW dealership in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, did not bother to change its name ("West German BMW") in the 25 years since the Wall fell.
3. really?
Paul Schneider 08/22/2013
I'm born in the eastern part of Germany and worked in the western part as well as in the US. Its hard to follow the article. I wonder if this is the new standard here...
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