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It has now been more than a half-decade since the destruction of the Berlin wall, the collapse of Communist rule in East Germany, and the unification of the German state. These are, no doubt, seismic shifts, but the question remains: how deep does unification run? Has the construction of one state out of two created, at the same time, one people? What has become of the social networks, habits of thought and action, and sense of history that developed over four decades in the vanished German Democratic Republic? Are the terms 'East' and 'West' now merely geographical expressions, or, do they continue to signify a stark divide, in terms of economic and social conditions, political perspectives, ways of life, and outlooks on the past and future?
These were the questions addressed by a symposium held on October 27, organized by the Goethe Institute of Ann Arbor and cosponsored by the Center for European Studies (CES) and the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. The symposium, Responses to German Unification, featured Wolfgang Engler, a cultural sociologist and philosopher, who teaches at the Hochschule für Schauspielkunst in Berlin and is contributing editor to the weekly, Die Zeit, and Joyce Mushaben, professor of political science and women's studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and author of books and articles on political and social transformation in East and West Germany after 1945. Kathleen Canning moderated the symposium, and Geoff Eley (History) commented on the papers by Engler and Mushaben.
Addressing the "Issues that Still Divide East and West Germans," Wolfgang Engler contended that only a small percentage of both East and West Germans currently view themselves as sharing a common identity. Although the economic divide between East and West Germany has become less blatant since monetary union in 1990, Engler argued that persistent alienation and prejudice have widened the gulf between East and West in the course of reunification. While, in Engler's view, few East Germans long to rebuild the Berlin wall or re-establish socialism, the experiences of social inequality, chronic unemployment and many short- sighted political decisions, have led to a sharp shift in public opinion since 1990: while 80 percent of East Germans accepted the "institutional framework of the Federal Republic" in 1990, only 40 percent do so today. Eighty percent of East Germans welcomed the "social-market economy" in 1990, while only one-third do so today. Over the same period, support for the "project of Communism" has grown from 7 to 24 percent, as recent polls indicate.
Engler traced the transformation of the hopeful revolution of 1989 into a mere "training program for the East Germans," in which they were to overcome their faulty socialization, to change mentalities and habits by unlearning "what they already knew how to do," and to erase East German history, which had become an impediment to becoming "proper Germans without delay." In Engler's view, however, West German politicians and policy-makers have misunderstood the complex relationship between state and society in East Germany. In the interstices of a framework of state interference and intimidation, East German citizens had room to strategize, negotiate and manage risk creatively. Moreover, Engler emphasized, the hardened vision in the West of "communist socialization of the individual" made it impossible for West Germans to understand that East Germans had removed "the system within from their minds and habits long before it collapsed." As people "negotiated everyday life as well as professional life mostly by themselves" during the 1970s and 1980s, they laid claim to significant social power as citizens, which was lost when the wall was dismantled in 1989. West Germans, Engler maintained, have not only failed to understand what East Germans lost in the process of reunification, but also to recognize that many of the skills East Germans acquired as "trained risk managers" and negotiators might have been tapped in welding the two societies together.
In her paper, "Social Capital, Civic Nationalism and Democratic Identity in the New German States," Joyce Mushaben explained that in the process of merging the two states, West German culture has come to represent "an unalterable mainstream," while East German culture has become "nothing more than a marginal force, to be intentionally subjected to eventual extinction...." Mushaben largely agreed with Engler that East Germans created a "kind of underground civil society," based on dense layers of social networks (from church groups to theater-brigades and children's play groups), and which, in fact, had a significant part in making the transformation of 1989 possible.
Mushaben also underscored the importance of gender in analyzing the social effects of reunification in the East. Given the importance of social networks at work-places to social identities in East Germany, the mass unemployment among women in the new German states has "tremendous implications for women's ability to engage in basic political communication and to discover/solidify new forms of social capital through familiar channels." Similarly, the "increasing mobility forced upon East Germans by the disappearance of jobs in their hometowns has thoroughly disrupted... the social relations that cumulatively made up a community's social capital." Few of those who have begun to "master life in a 'foreign culture'" — either by moving to the West or by working for western businesses — have the time or energy "to share their learning experiences with the people left behind," most of whom are women with dependent children or people over 55. The process of "social learning," a vital component of reunification, has thus taken place on an individual rather than a collective basis and is unlikely, in Mushaben's view, "to foster a new collective identity" desired by politicians in the West.
At odds, in fact, with an envisioned collective German identity is the recent rediscovery of East German "otherness," which is often mockingly referred to as "Ostalgie." While usually viewed by West Germans as an attempt to rewrite the history of the German Democratic Republic [GDR] as a golden age, the resurgence of a particular East German social identity is, in Mushaben's view, a vital part of the task of reassembling and reconfiguring pieces of "the old life" into new social networks that will replace those that have been lost in the process of reunification. Indeed, Mushaben suggests that recovering those networks and rebuilding social capital are essential prerequisites for the emergence of a democratic civic culture in the new German states.
In his closing commentary, Geoff Eley underscored the failures of integration of the two states, encompassing the dismantling of the East German economy and welfare state; demographic upheaval; new gender relations; unemployment; "the carpetbagging of westerners"; and, more broadly, "the destructive and disqualifying effects on the moral integrity, the habitus and the simple workability of masses of existing lives." A crucial question will be how the Federal Republic will contend with the long-term problems of regional backwardness that follow from the structural underdevelopment of the new German state. West German policy, Eley argued, will have an important role in determining "how the East's social capital can begin to be composed."
Finally, Eley explored the implications of German reunification for the narratives of German history. The disqualification of the history of the GDR "into an aberration of German historical development, with no pre- history before the Soviet occupation, and no consequences for the future, beyond the wreckage of the past that needs to be cleaned up," has led to the excision of forty years of history "from the surrounding contexts of the German past and the German present." In particular, Eley stressed, the disavowal of East Germany in the narratives of German history has made possible the conflation of the GDR with the Third Reich as "variant forms of dictatorship."
All three speakers concurred that confronting and revising the history of East Germany is a vital prerequisite to forging a collective national identity embedded in democratic civic culture. Rewriting East Germany into the narratives of German history, recasting East German social identities to encompass the creative improvising, negotiating, and risk-managing that was required by the Communist system; rebuilding social networks amidst the landscape of dismantled factories, deserted downtowns, and abandoned daycare centers, will certainly spur on this process in the new German states. And what of the West? All three speakers implied that revision cannot remain the task of the East Germans alone. As Eley suggested, the "established complacencies of West German identity," thus far "massively confirmed" by the process of reunification, may have to be destabilized, the silences and suppressions of the autonomies and separate histories of East German development confronted, if the people in East Germany are to become a "genuine partner in the process of unification."
Kathleen Canning is a faculty member in History and Women's Studies, and director of the Center for European Studies.