Opinion: How eastern and western Germany still differ from each other
West Germany and East Germany has been one country since reunification in 1990. But even now, there still seem to be differences, writes a German who has lived in both.
When I lived in Leipzig, I once received a weird compliment. “You are eastern at heart,” one guy from nearby Dresden told me. He was a person who seemed to be quite proud to be from eastern Germany, up to the point that he called some western people “Scheiß-Wessis” (shit western people).
But his “compliment” still confused me. “Eastern at heart” is something I had never really heard before. Neither had I ever expected to be complimented with a geographical place, especially one in the same country I was from.
I started wondering what the “Eastern” in my heart was. I’m not sure if someone from “the west” would have made such a "compliment".
As I am not a big fan of patriotism, I ducked out of the conversation. That was about a year ago, but I am still thinking about it. I am also wondering if the feeling of “easternness” does actually exist in the eastern parts of Germany.
Now would be a good time to mention that I have lived in Lower Saxony for almost my whole life. That means: I am from western Germany. A “Wessi,” if you will.
For my studies and an internship, I lived in Leipzig, which, of course, means eastern Germany. I didn’t really think of it that way, though. I knew that Leipzig was further east than Hannover if you looked at a map, but I cared more about how long it would take me to get back to Hannover (it's three hours by train in case anyone is interested).
I also knew that my parents had spent some time in Leipzig, shortly after the reunification of Germany. In their pictures I saw Leipzig as pretty grey and sort of in need of renovation. But that didn’t bother me - surely the city would have changed in the years after that.
Leipzig in the former East. Photo: DPA
When I arrived, it was a mixed picture. Now, don’t get me wrong – I love Leipzig. It is a remarkably beautiful city in most parts and I really enjoyed living there. The city is really good for students – there are loads of quite cheap bars, cinemas and parks and it has a really unique style. I am a big fan of the old buildings and the overall opportunities it has to offer. Leipzig is a modern city in many ways, I just didn’t expect it to still be that… eastern.
The mentality towards eastern and western Germany was totally different from what I knew from living in the west. The situation I described earlier wasn’t the first time I had noticed this.
Another example is from a fellow colleague at the radio station I did an internship at. He said that he had just recently spent “some months in the west,” where he had never lived before for a longer period. He recalled being afraid to go there, as he thought western German people were much more rude than eastern Germans.
Funnily enough, the same preconception exists in western Germany about people from the east. I have heard from people who have had both experiences: Some found the eastern people to be nicer, some found them to be rude. As someone who grew up in the west, I can’t judge which side is right about their preconceptions.
I can imagine that a lot of these preconceptions come from the sound of dialects. The Saxon dialect for example is a pretty harsh one and might sound rough to those who don’t know it. On the other hand, western dialects like Kölsch (the dialect from Cologne) are also rough-sounding to some.
Housing differences in east and west
I have to admit, I wasn't free about presumptions about people from "the east". These are best explained by talking about my experience with housing in Leipzig.
Leipzig has a mixture of very old buildings (from before the war) and newer ones (from after the war), as many cities do. What struck me about Leipzig was that many of the beautiful, old houses are run down, even shabby.
They are in desperate need of renovation and still nobody seems to care. I later found out that this is because of unclear ownership structures. The newer houses, on the other hand, are something that I personally have always thought of in my mind as a cliché about eastern Germany: prefabricated buildings.
Hannover main station in Lower Saxony, the former West. Photo: DPA
This type of building exists in the western parts of Germany as well, but not to the same extent. That is why I always thought of prefabricated buildings as probably the worst of the worst way of living. In a twist of fate, I ended up in one of these buildings. And I realized that while those houses don’t look particularly pretty from the outside, they aren’t as bad from the inside.
Will the gap between east and west close?
But why is there still a gap between eastern and western Germany? A possible explanation is that the eastern parts of Germany had to adapt after the reunification. After the war, the western parts were more capitalistic as they were part of the Federal Republic of Germany, while the eastern states were in the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany before.
Hence, there had to be an adaptation to a new system for people from the east. And since adaptation is a slow process, it might take even more time.
I also don’t know how long this gap might exist. But it will probably become less and less noticeable in the coming years.
When my parents lived in Leipzig all those years ago, they experienced it as a poor, but changing city. They lived in a house with no warm water or heating system.
My experiences were not entirely different: coal ovens, for example, are still a thing in many eastern cities. Leipzig still feels like it’s going through a change, on both a human level as well as an architectural level. But one thing had definitely changed: I had warm water.