Landmark 'Ossi' Discrimination Case: Court to Decide if East Germans are Ethnic Group

A woman born in the former East Germany claims she was discriminated against on the basis of her ethnic identity when a company wrote "Ossi" on her rejected application. A labor court in Stuttgart will rule on this thorny issue of German identity on Thursday.

The emblem of the GDR at the former Berlin Wall crossing Checkpoint Charlie. Zoom
DPA

The emblem of the GDR at the former Berlin Wall crossing Checkpoint Charlie.

Twenty years may have passed since German reunification, but a certain amount of prejudice and suspicion persists between those who lived on either side of the Berlin Wall. But does being an eastern or western German constitute having a different ethnic identity?

That is what a woman born in the former East Germany is claiming. She says she was discriminated against on the basis of that identity when she sought a job in western Germany. A labor court in the western city of Stuttgart is set to rule on Thursday whether being an Ossi -- as Easterners are frequently called in Germany, often disparagingly -- indeed constitutes belonging to a separate ethnic group.

Born in East Berlin, Gabriele S. secured an exit visa for West Germany in 1988 and has since lived in Stuttgart. In the summer of 2009, the 49-year-old applied for a job at a window manufacturer in the city. She failed to get the job and when her application was returned to her, as is customary in Germany, she found that someone had scribbled "Ossi" and a minus sign across her resume.

S. is now suing the company for discrimination, saying they rejected her based on her ethnic background. "What else can it mean?" she asked SPIEGEL. "Even the word 'Ossi' is not acceptable in this context."

"I felt discriminated against as a former citizen of East Germany and I won't tolerate that," she said.

'Tip of the Iceberg'

S. is suing on the basis of the Germany's anti-discrimination legislation, which states that someone cannot be discriminated against in their professional life on the basis of race or ethnic background.

The court in Stuttgart will have to grapple with the thorny issue of whether the differences between those born in the East and West make them distinct ethnic groups.

Her lawyer Wolfgang Nau says that discrimination on the basis of coming from East Germany is a daily occurrence, but no employer had been stupid enough until now to put it in writing. "This is the tip of the iceberg," he told the Agence France Press news agency. He says that there is no question that East Germans constitute an ethnic group, developing their own sense of belonging based on language, customs, culture and cuisine, which differentiates them from other groups.

'Ossi' as Insult

However, Wolf Reuter, the lawyer representing the company that S. is suing, says that ethnic identity only builds up over generations, and the GDR was only isolated for a single generation. He told the German news agency DDP that the word "Ossi" written on the application simply referred to the woman's qualifications and that the company had good experiences with employees from the former East.

Many Germans who hail from the former East regard the term "Ossi" as an insult, though many easterners in turn use "Wessi" as a derogatory term.

While the woman in this case went to the West before the fall of the Wall, much higher unemployment rates in the former East have led to a huge internal migration of people to western Germany in search of work over the past 20 years.

If S. wins her case then the company will have to pay her three months wages amounting to €4,800 ($6,546). "In this kind of situation, there is no other choice but to punish the company in this way. It will only hurt if they have to pay," she told SPIEGEL.

"It is time to put a stop to this Ossi-Wessi stuff," she said.

smd/SPIEGEL

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