Identity in Eastern Germany

Essay, 2006

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Identity in Eastern Germany

1 Introduction

2 Transformation in Eastern Germany
2.1 Special issues in comparison with other post-communist countries
2.2 Important steps of the transformation process

3 Identities
3.1 Some thoughts about German identity
3.2 The East German identity
3.2.1 Elements of the East German identity
3.2.2 What lead to the establishment of the East German identity?

4 Recent developments

5 Sources

6 Attachments

1 Introduction

December 16th 2005, the reunification of Germany lies 15 years in the past, the people on the birthday party are under 25, young and educated students in Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt, East Germany, Germany, EU. While more guests are arriving, a half serious, half game-like contest is going on: Head-score, East Germans vs. West Germans. At last, East Germans win.

The distinction between people of East or West German origin has been haunting me since I came here for studying, a West German girl, “alien” in Magdeburg. Nearly every longer conversation tackles at one point the East/West German question. It matters to people. They are not bitter about it. Of course sometimes sarcastic. The important point is: It is a topic, for nearly everyone, not depending on age or political orientation.

It is the practical experience of the evolving and established collective identity among Eastern Germans. In 2005, Germany shows itself as an institutionally unified and integrated country, but on the mental level, the West and East German areas have been drifting apart. Not necessarily on the personal level, but on the collective one, stereotyping is a common practice.

What is that national schizophrenia all about? In order to clear the important points related to the topic, this essay first gives some background information about the transformation process in Eastern Germany. After that, the question of identities is addressed. A last passage deals with topical examples and the question, whether a single German identity is possible and desirable under those circumstances.

2 Transformation in Eastern Germany

After the end of the Cold War, many former socialist states sought to become modern Western-style democracies. All of them had to face their special difficulties, because they were evolving out of various preconditions. But the case of the former GDR is unique among the so called transformation countries. In which way it is different and which kind of transformation process resulted from that are the questions to be addressed in the following passage.

2.1 Special issues in comparison with other post-communist countries

Most of the European transformation countries (with exception of the Baltic) have been independent states, though integrated in a socialist framework. The GDR instead, had never been fully recognised as a state by the Federal Republic of Germany, because the area was ancient German territory and only cut off after World War II, while the areas of the other winning powers were soon unified. The conservative view therefore was that the GDR territory was actually German and only question of time and will until it will belong to a unified Germany again. For that reason, in the German constitution two possibilities of reunification were offered – the preferred one was simple accession of the East German areas.

Because of the existence of that simple opportunity and a conservative government in power, that way was taken in 1990, even though there had been other possibilities: reform of the GDR and keeping its independence (preferred by GDR socialist party SED), change of system in the GDR (civil rights movement, reform socialists, opposition parties in Germany), reunification while ensuring a East German special status (participants of mass demonstrations in GDR). But the federal government could use its strategic superiority and sold the accession as a credible second-best option to the GDR citizens. Actually, it was a kind of deal: individual participatory rights in the West German system and personal freedom in exchange for political sovereignty.[1]

As a consequence, the East German population had no chance to develop own ideas for reform. The West German system was installed in every detail. The citizens of the former GDR found themselves in a ready-made state.[2]

That had a deep impact on the process of transformation. Because the GDR was transformed by the pattern of accession, achieving identical institutions in East and West was the priority. Because in Eastern Germany the exact administrative knowledge was missing, that meant not only a transfer of institutions, but also of elites. As Germany was a rich country, that has been accompanied by a massive transfer of resources, too. The idea was, that in that way the former GDR would have the great opportunity to catch up with the West easily and develop analogue to the “economic miracle” after World War II, which was judged to be stimulated by the Marshall plan.

2.2 Important steps of the transformation process

On the 31st of August 1990, the reunification treaty came into force and made the accession of the GDR to Germany complete and one party of the treaty obsolete. The treaty was based on Article 23 Grundgesetz, which was deleted by it. Already on the 1st of July 1990 the Treaty on Economic, Social and Monetary union became valid. That means, that German unity was achieved within little more than half a year after the fall of the wall. This pace made the population feel optimistic about the curse of further integration. The price was the continuation of socialist style paternalism: Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the governing coalition had picked out the way of exogenous transformation and total, even if well meant assimilation, including “creative destruction”.[3]

The phase between 1991 and 1995 can be described as a crisis or shock. Due to rapid deindustrialisation mass unemployment occurred and the general mood became that of disappointment and resignation. One must not forget that at the same time, while the personal situation of many East Germans collapsed, billions of transfer money (“Solidaritätszuschlag” = a supplement to income tax, which every German had to pay because of solidarity; also East Germans are income tax payers...) flew into infrastructure projects. It should make the “flourishing landscapes” possible, which Chancellor Helmut Kohl had promised. That intensified the view, that the federal government had taken the East German lands in colonial style and was about to fail at proper integration. From that time date the roots of a anti-western stereotype in East Germany and the general perception of the East-West relationship as a problematic issue.[4]

From 1995 on it was clear, that the system integration, which had been the focus, had been completed, but social integration had failed. It was the preliminary end of adjustments, but the beginning of today’s situation, where identities rule the relationship between East and West.

3 Identities

Besides our individual, personal identities we are all part of one or more collective identities. They make us feel that we belong to a group, give us the feeling of security and the knowledge about acceptable behaviour. Collective identities are always composed of inclusive and exclusive elements. The former mentioned are the inclusive ones, exclusive elements stress the differences to other groups. Both methods of composing collective identities cannot work without broad stereotyping, which must lead – as far as exclusive methods are concerned – to a certain degree of xenophobia. The criteria for belonging are therefore neither objective nor independent of historic developments.[5]


[1] Reißig: Die gespaltene Vereinigungsgesellschaft. p. 17f.

[2] Reißig: Die gespaltene Vereinigungsgesellschaft. p. 20.

[3] Reißig: Die Ostdeutschen – 40 Jahre nach der Wende. p. 53f.

[4] Reißig: Die Ostdeutschen – 40 Jahre nach der Wende. p.54.

[5] Saurwein: Die Konstruktion kollektiver Identitäten und die Realität der Konstruktion. p.10.

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Identity in Eastern Germany
Charles University in Prague
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Identity, Eastern, Germany, Identität, Ostdeutschland
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Tatjana Böttger (Author), 2006, Identity in Eastern Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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