A majority of Germans in the former communist East feel like second-class citizens almost three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall even though they are catching up economically with western regions, a government report showed on Wednesday.
As Germany gears up for a year of celebrations to mark the demise of the Wall, the Cold War’s most potent symbol, in November 1989 and German reunification a year later, the report’s findings help explain a surge in support for the far-right among eastern voters.
On the face of it, the East has come far.
“Numerous indicators show that we have made a lot of progress in the convergence of living conditions between East and West since 1990,” said Christian Hirte, the government’s commissioner for the east.
By 2018, East Germany’s economic strength had risen to 75% of the west German level from 43% in 1990. Employment is at a high in the east and wages there are 84% of those in the west.
However, people’s attitudes tell a different story.
The annual report on ‘the state of German unity’ also cited a recent survey carried out for the government showing that 57% of east Germans felt like second-class citizens.
Only 38% of those asked in the East see reunification as a success, including only 20% of people younger than 40 years.
“This dissatisfaction is expressed in the election results in the east and west in recent years which show significant differences,” said the report, saying one of the causes of the dissatisfaction is painful and deep upheaval in the east.
Hirte, acknowledging that the convergence process was not yet complete, cited depopulation – 2 million people, especially young people and women, have left the region in the last three decades and few big global firms have moved in.
Voters in the east are deserting the traditional parties – Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and her coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) – and embracing the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and radical Left Party.
The AfD came second in elections in the eastern state of Saxony and Brandenburg earlier this month, winning roughly 27% and 23% of the vote respectively. Polls in the state of Thuringia, which goes to the polls next month, show the AfD on 25%, just behind the Left, which includes former Communists.
Nationally, the AfD, which has capitalised on voter resentment over Merkel’s open-door migrant policy, is polling at around 14%.
Outbreaks of violence, such as last year’s far-right riots in the eastern city of Chemnitz – the worst such clashes Germany had seen in decades – have reinforced the picture of a disenchanted and radicalised east.
Hirte acknowledged that xenophobic attitudes had to be overcome, while industry groups have warned that they could damage the prospects for investment in the region.