The Wall in the Mind: Easterners Still Feel like Second-Class Citizens

A new study confirms that Germans living in the former East Germany feel disadvantaged and resentful of the West. The study also finds higher levels of racism and Islamophobia in the East, while sexism remains stronger in the West.

Nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, what Germans refer to as the "wall in the mind" remains in place.

The results of a long-term study released on Thursday by a team of 17 sociologists at the University of Bielefeld shows that resentments linger in part of the country that used to be communist East Germany. Some fear these resentments may drive rising levels of racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.

A new study shows that Germans living in the eastern part of the country resent the West.
AP

A new study shows that Germans living in the eastern part of the country resent the West.

Fully 64 percent of eastern Germans feel treated as second-class citizens, while almost 75 percent feel disadvantaged in comparison with Germans in the west. Some 77 percent of easterners feel they are treated less fairly than those in the west, and 59 percent believe that the two halves of Germany have not yet grown together into a common society.

Researchers worry these resentments bear a direct link to hostility towards minorities, which tends to be higher in the east and is rising in certain categories -- even as prejudice falls in the western part of the country.

Across Germany as a whole, according to the Bielefeld study, the prejudice indices that rose this year from last year were racism, hostility toward entrenched privilege, and hostility toward the unemployed. But measures of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and hostility toward the homeless all shot up in the East, while sinking in the West.

The only index of prejudice that was clearly higher in the west was sexism -- although a different study released last week showed higher levels of anti-Semitism in western states, especially in Bavaria.

"Prisoners of Their Own Self-Image"

Wolfgang Thierse, vice-president of the German parliament and a native of the eastern German state of Thuringia, warned in an interview with the Berlin-based daily Tageszeitung that the results of the study were complex and shouldn't be ascribed to simple demographics. He said Islamophobia was higher in eastern Germany, for instance, even though fewer Muslims live there than in the west. And homelessness is viewed with special bitterness in the east even though long-term unemployment would seem to be a more menacing problem.

"And here we always thought we east Germans were great ones for solidarity and justice!" Thierse joked. In his view, "socio-economic or socio-pyschological explanations" cannot fully account for the study's findings. "We also have to talk about the cultural, intellectual, and moral history of eastern Germany -- including the lingering impact of the GDR."

He suggested that eastern Germans "feel like second-class citizens because they are caught in a prison of their own self-image." Even when presented with data showing that reunification had been good for eastern Germany, Thierse said, many continue to nurse resentments. "This self-image cliché that 'we are second-class citizens,'" he said, is such a strong a mental crutch "that facts which might attenuate this feeling are no longer taken into account."

National Pride, Good or Bad?

One potentially encouraging sign of the report was that levels of national pride and identification with Germany were up across all regions of the country, suggesting that residents of the former GDR are increasingly comfortable associating themselves with the new unified state.

But Ulrich Wagner, a social psychologist who worked on the study, warned that growing affection for Germany could come at the cost of stoking xenophobia. Wagner told Tageszeitung "the rising identification with one's own country and the rising national pride also have negative consequences worth considering ... We should be cautious about all forms of national identification, if Germany and the Germans want to behave in a cosmopolitan way."

Thierse added that the ongoing financial crisis posed the greatest political and moral challenge, "not to permit tough economic conditions to brutalize human relations."

cpg -- with wire reports

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